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The Dead Teach the Living

by on October 26, 2012

Anatomy Lab plaque

Walking into the New York Chiropractic College Gross Anatomy Lab last week, there was a great amount of anticipation among the students. After 6 weeks of working with bones and models, learning the intimate details of each structure, we had come to this lab clad in scrubs and armed with scalpels, ready for our first dissection lab.

As we waited for the prosection (a demonstrative dissection by our professor) to begin, feelings among my classmates were mixed. Though many of us attended some form of anatomy lab during our undergraduate years, few students had ever experienced a human cadaver, much less operated on one themselves. Many students expressed excitement for this opportunity. Some were apprehensive. Others made bets on who would be the first to succumb to nausea.

The buzz in the classroom subsided and students pulled out notebooks and anatomical diagrams as our professor wheeled in his prosection table. Carefully uncovering a pristinely prepared sample, he guided us through the superficial back muscles, their innervation, blood supply and attachment points. He also gave us some background on the origins of our first patients.

New York Chiropractic College maintains a whole body donation (Anatomical Gift) program and also acquires donations through the Associated Medical Schools of New York and SUNY Upstate Medical Center. The programs receive the bodies of prearranged donors, with the permission of their families, then the bodies are cleaned and preserved in preparation for their use in the classroom. The schools keep copies of the death certificates on file, though we students are not allowed to know the names or full details of our patients. Great care is taken to preserve the privacy of the generous donors who have trusted us with their bodies.

Nonetheless, we have begun to feel quite familiar with our cadavers. All of the donors in our lab lived well into old age, and many died following some chronic illness. My group works with a patient who- we were allowed to know- died at the age of 90 from heart failure following coronary artery disease.

However, here ends the relative similarity between individuals. My group has the fortune to work with a very lean man, with little fat tissue to obscure more important features. Comparing to other groups, it is absolutely striking how many internal differences may be present even beyond stature and body composition. “This one read his textbook!” our professor exclaimed at one point, indicating the presence and symmetry of the neck muscles spinalis capitis to the left and right of the spine in the prosection. Later, a group next to us found that their cadaver possessed this same muscle only on the right side of her body.

This diversity between individuals is part of what makes this class so critical to us as future doctors of chiropractic medicine. Muscle presence, blood vessel location, number of vertebrae, location of rib joints; all of these can differ between individuals, and in this lab we have the opportunity to become familiar with the frequency and impact of these variations. Even more importantly, it gives us a medium for understanding the relationships of bodily systems in three dimensions, and a more definitive idea of what is under our fingers as we evaluate our future patients. For that, and these donors’ dedication to the training of a new generation of doctors, the one emotion that pervades the room despite all other sentiments is reverence.

Oh, and nobody has thrown up yet.


This post’s title comes from the plaque that graces the door to the lab, reading “Mortui Vivos Docent, The Dead Teach the Living.”

Learn more:

Anatomical Gift Program. New York Chiropractic College. Available at: Accessed October 26, 2012.


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