Our professor called it a baby heart.

For a woman who was over 5’9”, her heart was unusually small. It could fit snugly in the palm of my hand. Other bodies had hearts the size of large dinosaur eggs. Massive heaps of tissue, needing two hands to sufficiently lift it. There was a small, thin piece of metal sticking out of her inferior vena cava, a vein that protrudes out of the top part of the heart. It was the remnants of her pacemaker. Maybe she had arrhythmia meaning the rhythm of her heart was abnormal. We all took turns passing around her heart. Blood leaked out of her vessels, staining our blue gloves. We held the heart like a jewel in our hands as if it was a fragile thing.  In that moment, we were all silent just staring down at the heart in our palms. I imagined it beating inside of her, a rhythmic pulse keeping her alive. I wondered if this muscular organ felt love.

The heart has become synonymous with love, romance, and passion. It is recognized all over the world as such. On Valentine’s Day, you bring your lover heart-shaped candy, or cards. Interestingly, the anatomical function of the heart has little to do with romance or love. The function of the heart is to pump nutrients, oxygen, and hormones to cells throughout the body.

Since ancient times, there has always been a fascination with the human body and how it works thus experimentation began. In Egypt, they noticed that many nerves surrounded the heart as it was believed to be located in the center of the body. Scientist have seen determined that the center of the body is near the stomach, far away from the original thought. This led to the theory that the heart was the seat of emotion and thought process. Not long after they made the association between love and the heart. The Egyptians continued to run experiments to solidify their theory. While running these experiments, they noted the tendency of the heart to race in response to adrenaline caused by seeing the object of one’s affection. This further asserted their conjecture about love and the heart. Little did the Egyptians know that adrenaline rushes are caused by a complicated pathway in the brain.

The heart is covered in pericardium, a fibrous layer, for protection. It looks like a dull, bland yellow sponge. We gently sliced through the fibers so to not puncture the tissue. If we messed up, we would not get another heart. After the cuts were made, we opened the flaps of the pericardium widely. It was as if the curtain had been lifted and we could clearly see the muscle underneath. The heart was still attached to her.  The seat of love and romance clung to the vessels in her body. We made incisions to detach the heart by cutting the aorta and pulmonary trunk. One of my lab partners delicately placed two hands underneath the mass and lifted it out.

Hearts look like upside down pears with a thick bottom and a thin top. Stiffened by the hard muscular tissue, it was heavier than I expected it to be. Next, we had to cut the chambers of the heart open. With barely the tips of our scalpels, we cut a box-like incision to create a flap to look inside. The atria had pectinate muscles. It looked like a interconnected web of branches like the roots underneath a tree. We all took turns rubbing our thumbs across the raised musculature. Our hearts are so strong.

When asked to draw a heart, most people would simply draw two humps and an indent in the middle (❤)  rather than an anatomical correct heart. Perhaps, it is because this cartoon-ish depiction is easier to draw than the anatomical version. The shape is used to express a metaphorical representation of the heart as the center of emotion including affection and love with an emphasis on romantic love. There are many theories about how the shape of the heart arose. One theory is that the symbol was derived from writings of Greek philosophers Galen and Aristotle who described the heart as having three chambers with a small dent in the middle. We now know through medical research that the heart has four chambers: two ventricles and two atria.

The heart shape was born when scientists and artists from the Middle Ages attempted to recreate a representation from ancient medical texts. The first depiction of the shape to convey romantic love dates back to the 1250s, where the kneeling lover offers his heart to the object of his affection, both literally and metaphorically. The shape grew increasingly popular throughout the Renaissance when it was used in religious art to depict the Sacred Heart of Christ. Now in modern society the structure has become commonplace, especially in the month of February. Despite the fact that love does not originate in the heart nor does the symbol look anything like a real human heart, the symbol continues to thrive as a representation of love.

People warned me that I should not think about my cadaver as a person who had a life before dying. They said it would cause me an internal moral dilemma. Dismembering a person in the name of science it not an easy thing to do, both physically and emotionally. A constant reminder of your own mortality starting at you in the face.

They always said, “when you are holding their heart or their brain, you can’t think that it belonged to someone, just think of it as organs.”

Sometimes, I can’t help myself. I look at her lying on the cold, metal table. She is more than the flesh and organs that I hope to learn from. As weeks passed in lab, she began to look less human and more like meat. Skin stripped, organs removed. It is easy to forget that this was once a person who breathed life. But then I see her face, untouched by our scalpels and I remember.

I imagine that she had a family. Maybe she was married and had kids, or maybe she was the fun aunt that took her nieces and nephews out to do things that their mother wouldn’t approve of. I hope she had someone in her life that made her heart race. When she died, I envisioned her surrounded by people who loved her. People who cared about her.

I hope her heart was filled with love.

The heart of the matter

Gabriella Giambanco 

Growing up Gabriella Giambanco was an avid reader of anything she can get her hands on. Naturally, she began writing her own stories. She found success in publishing some of her nonfiction, opinion-based works on various different sites such as Bustle, Bust Magazine, CLASH magazine, and Thought Catalog. She currently a student at Northern Arizona University pursuing a degree in Biomedical Science with minors in chemistry and Spanish. When she is not reading anatomy and physiology textbooks or spending time in the cadaver lab, she can be found writing. This is her first literary publication.
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