Fair warning: This is an entire blog post about what it is like to dissect a human cadaver. Its not terribly disgusting, but proceed with caution.
When we had our first cadaver lab, I sat down to try to write a post about the experiences, but I had trouble trying to describe it. Now that I have several weeks of anatomy lab under my belt….well, its still hard to find the words without completely horrifying the non-medical readers. Even after taking my time writing this post, it might be advised for the more squeamish readers to just skip this one.
Anatomy lab was one aspect of medical school that made me simultaneously excited and apprehensive. As in, I was excited because I’m a science nerd, but apprehensive because I didn’t want to be the person that tosses her cookies when she sees a dead body.
I had already “met” my cadaver during orientation week, but I wasn’t sure how I would react to dissecting a human being. Now having gone through several labs, can tell you that the best word to describe cadaver lab is “weird.” I know that isn’t a very specific word, but its the only one that works.
The cadavers have been preserved with formaldehyde, and seem more like plastic dolls than humans. The skins is leathery and the limbs are all but immobile. There were six of us to a table, all standing around her trying to decide how to start. Our first task was to identify the muscle groups of the back, and it took all six of us to maneuver our cadaver face down so that we could access her back. The process was messy and difficult, but we took as much care as we could. I guess we were all subconsciously trying to keep from causing her “pain”. But the next step was to make the first incision, so that impulse would have to be overcome quickly.We carefully read the instructions, determining where to cut and how deeply. Then another student asked the inevitable question: “Who is going to cut first?”
The answer? Me. I wasn’t excited about the idea of cutting into another person’s skin, but I wanted to start as I meant to finish: confidently. Someone had to volunteer–it might as well be me. In the end, making the first incision wasn’t gross, disturbing, or life altering. At the time I was more concerned that I would cut incorrectly then the odd feeling of cutting into a body. In fact, for the majority of my time with our cadaver, I can honestly say I don’t feel ‘weird’ about it. I can’t say the same for when I leave lab, however.
The ‘weirdness’ of cadaver lab first hit me the afternoon of that first incision. After I had taken about three showers–the smell of those chemicals follow you everywhere–I started to make dinner. While cutting zucchini, I looked down at my hand holding a knife and suddenly thought, ‘An hour ago instead of a zucchini I was using a knife to cut open someone’s back.” It was an odd thought. I wasn’t grossed out or anything–I was still ready to scarf down my dinner–but I definitely became aware that dissecting a human being was not a normal experience for most people.
In many ways I am distanced from the idea of my cadaver as a person. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that when I am in lab, I am aware that my cadaver was a person, but the act of dissecting her seems normal. I can imagine that if I were cutting into a person who was alive, breathing, and looking me in the eye it would be a very different experience. But during the dissection you are following instructions, trying to figure out what you should be doing, and you get distracted looking at the anatomical details.
Every so often, I am ‘weirded out’ by the things while I am in lab. Yesterday, for instance, I spent nearly three hours dissecting the forearm and hand of our cadaver. At some point I looked down at my hands and realized how eery the situation was: I was literally holding someone else’s hands in my own as I skinned her fingers. Looking at our fingers side by side was disconcerting–we both had our fingernails painted red.
I don’t, however, want you to get the idea that I think the cadaver labs are a bad idea, or somehow disrespectful of our cadavers. I cannot emphasized enough how helpful and educational it is to view the actual structures in their natural configuration. I can look at pictures and slides for hours and not truly understand the anatomical placement of muscles, bones, or vasculature, but when you are forced to find a structure in your cadaver it solidifies your learning in a way that is invaluable. I do not know the name or life story of the woman who donated her body to my education, but she has impacted my education and future career more than I can say. The process of dissection might be occasionally unsettling, but 99% of my time in anatomy lab is spent discovering and learning.
The worst part about anatomy lab is that its a very long lab and I get hungry half way through. I shouldn’t be hungry as I cut into a cadaver, but I am none the less. Actually, I take that back. The worst part about anatomy lab is that the smell follows you everywhere. Half an hour later I’ll be eating a sandwich–because, you know, I’ve been starving for the last hour of lab–and I can smell the formaldehyde on my fingers. Yummy.
Ok, enough of the GIFs. And for those of you who were concerned, I will have you know that we students are extremely respectful of our cadavers. The faculty at ATSU takes the matter very seriously–especially since many of the bodies were from the Kirksville area. Imagine how traumatizing it would be to overhear students chatting about their cadavers in Walmart while you are doing your grocery shopping and realize they are talking about your family member. So we are expected to maintain a professional attitude, an expectation I am proud to say that we have met.
Anyway, I apologize for the overly gross and dramatic post today–I just thought that since anatomy is such a big part of my life right now, you all should be forced to hear about it too 🙂