Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Gil Hedley, Somanaut

WOW!

I just spent a day in Carpinteria with Gil Hedley, who gave a full-day presentation of his work. He dissects human bodies to learn about them, but his approach is one of great respect and reverence.  He calls himself a somanaut. Soma (body) and Naut (sailor). He in an explorer of the inner space of the human body. 
He strives to keep the integrity of each system as he removes them layer by layer.  His first step is to “unzip” the skin.  He removes the entire skin coating intact. And one of the things that he says is that there is really no such thing as the skin.  It is a manufactured construct invented by anatomists to categorize our body parts.  But in actuality, the tissue that we know as skin doesn’t end, it gradually transforms, cell by cell, into the tissue below it.  Going in with a scalpel is really the only way to differentiate the “skin” from the underlying layers, but it is imposed.  There is really no actual delineation that can be noted. 
He reports that it didn’t seem right to separate the heart from the entire system of blood vessels.  When you see a heart as we know it, you’ll notice that it is severed.  There are tubes coming out of it that are obviously cut. If he honors the structure of the body, he must remove the heart and the blood vessels together.  He says, for example, “there is no such thing as the femoral artery.”  It is just another construct created by scientists to label different sections of what is one, complete system. 
In a similar fashion, he finds he is unable, in good conscience, to sever any part of the nervous system from the brain.  The entire system of brain, spinal cord and nerves are all one. He has also been careful to remove the entire digestive system intact and the respiratory system as well.
Some of the more astounding things I learned from the day....
Adipose tissue (commonly known as fat) has an electrical charge.  Enough of a charge that it can be considered to have emotion.  Fat has emotion!  YAY!
Sometimes if you see someone with a big belly, it might not be fat; it is possible that their adipose layer is uniformly thin throughout the entire body and what you’re seeing in their distended belly is their viscera; their guts. And sometimes it may just be gas and water. 
There is a certain amount of pressure inside the body which is higher than the outside atmosphere.  So that if you were to slice open a living person, the pressure from the inside would cause all of the guts to pour out into the lower-pressure atmosphere. And within the torso there are three chambers of differing pressure; the thoracic region has the lowest pressure, the abdominal has the second highest and the pelvis has the highest pressure.  Which creates a bit of a conundrum regarding the monthly journey of the egg through the fallopian tube.  This journey actually defies physics by traveling from an area of lower pressure to an area of higher pressure.  Another miraculous mystery of the human body. 
Have you ever seen an ovary?  I hadn’t until yesterday.  And what’s strange is they look just like a little brain.  Also, the brain-type pattern can be found in the small intestines. By the way, testicles don’t look nearly as cool as ovaries.  In fact, when you slice open a testicle, the inside looks just like baked sweet potatoes. 
There is a crazy-wonderful sheet of tissue called the peritoneum. This sheet moves around inside the abdominal cavity and acts like a security blanket.  It will literally wrap itself around an ailing organ.  Gil says that he never finds it in the same place on two different people. But someone with an inflamed liver will have this blanket wrapped around it. And an ulcerous stomach or whatever weakness is in the body is somehow addressed naturally by the presence of this sheet. 
Have you heard of the enteric nervous system?  We’ve heard of the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous system as parts of the autonomic nervous system, but there is a third system, called the enteric.  It is in the intestines and digestive system and there is measurable brain activity in this region that is distinctly different than any other nervous system. It makes me think of the phrase “I know it in my gut” as we are actually referring to our enteric nervous system or our ‘stomach-brain’.
I could go on and on with this stuff. The presentation was a full day and I was amazed from 9 am to 5 pm. If you ever get a chance to see one of his presentations, I highly recommend it. 
A couple of words of caution....
One: It’s not for the squeamish.  Be prepared to see a lot of guts and tissues as they’re removed from the body.  Some of the images are quite graphic.  Fortunately, he intersperses the slides with images of puppies and children and trees and stuff.  It seemed that the nature images were placed in the perfect sequence so that the images of dead bodies never got to be too much.  He was giving us breaks and letting us settle emotionally.

And second: Gil spends all day inhaling embalming fluid, so I don’t know how much longer he’s going to be healthy enough to continue this practice.  If you’re even slightly interested, I’d advise you to see him as soon as you can.  As he spoke to us, he intermittently coughed.  Most likely from damage to his lungs from the outgassing of the toxic fluid. 
Here is a link to Gil's website where you can find out more about his presentations.  
He does the one-day (the one I did) and he also does a full six-day seminar where you will actually be witnessing him working on a cadaver in person.  In the one-day seminar it is mostly photographs and few videos, but still quite rich and educational. 
As I mentioned earlier, he treats his subjects with the utmost respect.  He never uses their real names, but will give them a name within the first couple hours of starting to work. He feels that the names ‘come to him’ as he works. He literally will coddle the organs as he carefully removes them.  He’s grateful not only to the person who gave his/her body to science but also to his/her family who allowed it to happen. 
Check out this video to get an idea of what kind of guy he is.  This was my first introduction to him and the topic of the video, The Fuzz, is something I feel like everyone who has a body should know about. 
Ever wonder why coming to Nia class makes you feel so good?  This video might answer it. 

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