Poetry students in the anatomy lab
Poetry students and professors in the anatomy lab

Poets are curious about the inside of things. The human body is no exception, but usually its innermost workings are hidden away from sight.

This poetic curiosity was sparked recently in the CU Denver students enrolled in the Senior Poetry Workshop in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Professor Nicky Beer, PhD, was discussing the work of poet Marianne Boruch, whose 2014 book “Cadaver, Speak” draws from a semester spent with medical students in an anatomy lab.

Student Miriam Ordonez holds a lung from an anatomical donor
Student Miriam Ordonez holds a lung from an anatomical donor

The idea of a poet exploring and writing about the inner workings of the human body intrigued students in Beer’s capstone class. “Could we,” Miriam Ordonez asked, “visit an anatomy lab?”

Fortunately for the poets, the CU Anschutz Medical Campus has a large and well-regarded anatomy lab, which receives cadavers from the Colorado State Anatomical Board for educational and research purposes. Beer reached out to Danielle Royer, PhD, an assistant professor at the School of Medicine (SOM) and arranged a visit for the class.

Modeling curiosity for future poets

For Beer, the visit was a chance to satisfy her own long-standing curiosity, triggered in part by Boruch’s poetry, as well as a teaching moment. “I’ve always wanted to visit an anatomy lab,” she said. “But my students’ interest motivated me to make it happen. It is a chance to model ‘writerly’ behavior — how to maintain curiosity beyond the classroom.”

Professor Nicky Beer, PhD
Nicky Beer, PhD

Leading up the visit, the mood among the students was a blend of excitement and trepidation. “I’m looking forward to it, but I’m intimidated,” student Steven Vigil Roach said. “We will be learning about anatomy while faced with the realization that this was a living person.”

Because they are poets, the visit to the lab was an opportunity not just to learn about anatomy, but how to write about it. “I’m especially interested in language,” student Asia Groves said. “A deep interest of mine is the words we use when talking about health and illness and death.”

Student Joseph Carrillo anticipated gaining a new perspective. “This is different than ‘Body Worlds’ or a funeral where the goal is to make the dead body seem living,” he said. “Visiting the anatomy lab has a deeper gravity than our normal interaction with death.”

Inside the CU Anschutz anatomy lab … and the human body

That deeper gravity that Carrillo and the entire class felt was part gratitude, part awe, and part profound knowledge. The anatomical gifts that the State Anatomical Board receives are a critical part of the Modern Human Anatomy program at CU Anschutz. They are used in the education of students at the SOM and the School of Dental Medicine. Since modern medicine is based on an in-depth understanding of human anatomy, donations are a valued part of the training of future physicians and other health professionals.

“The donations are a gift to health care education at CU,” Royer said. “The donors are our silent teachers; they enrich the training that our students receive, which directly impacts the care of future patients.”

Dr. Royer
Danielle Royer, PhD, explains the importance of anatomical gifts to CU Anschutz

The donors turned out to be silent teachers for the student poets and Beer as well. The poets watched a video about a donor; they were given a tour of the lab; they were allowed to view, touch, and ask questions about two cadavers that students from the School of Dental Medicine were dissecting; and they toured the Donor Memorial Garden, a permanent space designed for reflection and commemoration for both families and students.

‘Science and art coexist and complement one another’

Beer and her students left the anatomy lab profoundly moved. They felt honored to be in the presence of the cadavers, whose generosity made it possible for them to see the inside of a bruise, to touch the chamber of a heart, handle the rib cage that protects the heart, and hold a human brain in their hands.

“My perspective changed,” Carrillo said. “That will change my poetry. Once there, my wonder at the anatomy overtook any feeling of anxiety.”

Groves, too, took away a new understanding of the human body — inside and out. “This is an opportunity for me to find inspiration in a body that is not my own,” she said. “Our visit was an example of how science and art coexist and complement one another well.”

Make a gift

To learn more about how to make an anatomical gift, visit the State Anatomical Board website.

Beer was so pleased by the visit that she hopes to bring future classes back to the anatomy lab. “For a capstone class, which Senior Poetry Workshop is, this was a true capstone experience,” she said.

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