Tree or vasculature? You decide.

Last week was my sixth consecutive year of Gil Hedley‘s cadaver dissection at New Jersey medical school, an experience I fondly refer to as cadaver camp for the personal growth and time away it offers.

Throughout the week I was struck by how intensified every sensation was.  It’s not the experience in the gross anatomy lab I’m referring to, but the translation of that experience outside the lab.  Everything I touch, see, smell, hear and taste is amplified. Life is in 3-D IMAX.

Perhaps it’s not so surprising considering the highly focused and often repetitive manual work involved in this exploration of anatomy. It reminds me of the summer in college when I worked in a hotel laundry, feeding sheets through the industrial ironing machine for seven hours a day. I’d go home and falling asleep, the image of that action was truly ironed into my brain, a looping memory I’d “see” even with my eyes closed.

In the same way – but without the monotonous associations – I’m still “seeing” the textures from the lab. Glistening fabrics and fibrous tissues, branches connecting structures, lines penetrating neighboring materials. My wood floor planks are striated muscle, waiting to be differentiated. The trees outside are the bronchioles of the lungs. The fabric of my shirt is a webbing of connective tissue weaving in various directions.

Peeling, squeezing, palpating, tracing. My hands spent 42 hours last week gathering information. What’s the quality, temperature, texture of this material I’m touching? That thrill continues as I feel the roundness of my pen and recall the clavicle bone I held. The inside of a grape reminds me of squishy superficial fascia. The tough packing tape I seal a box with is the fibrous deep fascia investing the muscles of the back.

It continues with other senses. I find on these first days outside the lab that, oddly, I miss those familiar chemical smells. I’m nostalgic for the sounds of our work as well as hearing the fascinating conversations and excited squeals of discovery by my colleagues. I even can re-experience the taste in my mouth at lunch when we’d find ourselves ravenous after hours of concentrated manual work.

Beneath these heightened sensations are heightened awareness and appreciation. What variety and abundance we have everywhere if we just recognize it. We become grateful for all that’s accessible to us when we realize what we often take for granted or merely overlook in the rush of daily life. Isn’t that gratitude part of why vacations are so exquisite? They make us slow down, fine-tune our senses and relish the experience of the present – tasting exotic food, observing famous buildings, listening to the sound of ocean waves. Experiencing life and savoring every drop of it.

Perhaps I’m living life now as if on vacation. Fully present, aware and alive. Life in 3-D. And I don’t even need a passport.

Or maybe I’m just tripping on formaldehyde.