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The Weirdest Day

By Kate Philbin – copywriter

As a blogger and journalist I have found myself doing some weird stuff over the years … sitting naked inside a chamber being bombarded with ozone, for example; leading a horse around an obstacle course using only my thoughts; reviewing a Shakespeare production performed inside a gigantic steel box with only buckets of blood as props. 

But my latest foray for the College of Body Science has got to rank as the weirdest of all – simultaneously awesome and awful (although more of the former as the day went on). 

I spent the day in the Dissection Room at King’s College London observing a group of complementary therapists being taught anatomy & physiology by Caroline Barrow, founder of the College of Body Science. With a degree in Biomedical Science from King’s College, she is passionate about helping therapists to understand more about the workings of the body they are treating. While it is possible to learn the theory of anatomy & physiology from a book, she believes there is no comparison with seeing it ‘in the flesh,’ and her links with King’s means she has privileged access its Dissection Room. 

Here, people who donate their bodies to medical science after death provide students with extraordinary insights into the workings of the human body. Skilled technicians dissect the bodies to reveal the bones, muscles, tissues and major organs. Each specimen is carefully prepared to illustrate a different area of the body.

I arrived late, having got lost en route, and the slight queasiness of apprehension was exacerbated by the stress of walking around in the pouring rain, following my unhelpful satnav which led me down all sorts of blind alleys. As I entered the room I was greeted by a friendly technician who showed me where to put my bag and gave me a white lab coat. No electronic devices of any type are allowed in the Dissection Room. This is sensitive stuff – these were people’s loved ones – and they cannot risk photographs finding their way into the public domain.

A group of students in white coats was standing around a stainless steel table – the sort you might see on a TV detective drama. I barely had time to register my amazement at finding myself inside a large room filled with such tables, each of which had fold up stainless steel sides that closed at the top to form a sort of stainless steel coffin shape. Written on each was the details of the person inside – age, sex and cause of death.

Caroline – one of those rare teachers whose absolute love of her subject and whose knowledge comes across in every word and gesture – would point to different parts of the body and ask who could identify it. There were gasps of recognition as people correlated the fleshy counterparts with the illustrations they had seen in their anatomy books. People were clearly awed to see these part of the body in situ, inside real people.

Later in the day, we moved on to looking at heads and brains. By this point, I had become more accustomed to the smell of formaldehyde and had wrestled my queasiness into submission. Nevertheless, there was something deeply emotional about looking into the faces of real people and peeling back the skin to reveal the muscle structure of the face. 

I stood watching the students examining a human brain exclaiming at the dura, which is the covering of the brain which they feel for during a craniosacral therapy session. “How many times in your life will you get to hold a human brain?” I asked myself and reached across to take it from one of the other students. It felt weird – moving – to know I was holding a person’s being in my hands, their thoughts, emotions and memories. I stared at the strange lumpy grey mass and felt awed beyond measure, imaging the same thing inside my own head which was struggling to quite comprehend what I was seeing.

I am not a bodywork therapist so I was there for different reasons to the others. My role was to observe rather than to consolidate knowledge. However, I was no less awed and inspired by the experience. This is a challenging day, I won’t deny it, but for me the sense of wonder outweighed any sense of revulsion. One of the students I spoke to at the end said: “Everyone should do this, everyone should see this, even children… it’s who we are.” And, although I don’t concur with the idea that children should do it, I get what she means. It is an awesome experience to see inside the human body, to observe what we are made of. 

For me, it raised more questions than it answered about how something so unbelievably complex has evolved. And it left me in deep respect of those people who give their bodies in this way so we can understand more and more about the human body. I will not forget the faces of those we studied and the faces of the students who were inspired by what they saw.