Would you ever let a medical student, who most likely has no clue what they’re doing, cut open your body and have a look at your insides? After you’re dead of course. Not even if it’s in the aid of their education? I don’t know if I would to be honest with you.
I was in my local chip shop the other day chatting with the lads that work there. The topic of conversation eventually came onto my life as a medical student, so I told them my anecdotes about medical school that I usually tell strangers. Predictably they were both awed and disgusted at hearing that during my first year at medical school I dissected an actual dead human body, a cadaver.
I understand why this would amaze some people, I was definitely amazed at first, but I can’t comprehend why people find it so surprising that medical students do this. If you had to go into hospital for an operation and the surgeon said to you: “I know what I’m doing because I’ve read about it in textbooks but I’ve never actually seen the inside of a human body before”, you would not be impressed I’m sure (not that this would EVER happen in real life).
Having said that, not all medical schools in the UK have full body dissection as a part of their curriculum, most medical schools do prosection or computer simulations.
At my university in Sheffield medical students study anatomy in our first year and we dissect a human body over the course of the year. We are put into groups of 8-10 and one body per group. I get asked so many questions about this so let me address some of those questions here.
Whose bodies are they and where do they come from?
The people who we are dissecting have very kindly decided to donate their bodies for medical education and science. Most of them have usually been in the medical field themselves in the past.
What happens to them after you’ve finished?
We dissect the body in portions over the year. When we are done with one portion of the body it goes into a box. Each body has its own individual box. At the end of the year the box is sealed and buried or cremated depending on the wishes of the family or the individuals wishes before their death. The university holds a beautiful mass service for all the donated bodies that the friends and family of the deceased can attend. All the students are encouraged to attend this.
Do the bodies smell or rot if you’re dissecting them over a year?
No. The bodies have been preserved in chemicals, essentially formaldehyde. This makes the body and the whole room smell very strongly of chemicals. Unfortunately the preserving process leaves the inside of the body looking like a dull pinky grey colour which makes it difficult to differentiate things.
Do you know who they are?
We do not know anything about the person or who they were before they come to the dissection room. All we know is what they have died from. Most groups give their cadaver a name, my group decided to call our person Dianne.
Have you every played a prank on anyone with a hand?
No. These people have very generously donated their bodies for our education. It would be poor thanks and very disrespectful to then use them for a prank. Also there are very strict rules and laws in place which prevent taking any human tissue out of the dissection room. Students can be, and have been, kicked out of medical school for pulling pranks like this.
People are always asking me why I don’t find this disgusting but trust me when I say there are worse things to do as a doctor. When choosing a medical school I only applied for those that did full body dissection (I’m not a sadist, honest!). Dissecting a cadaver is a privilege and a remarkable experience unique to a few medical schools. I will probably never again have the opportunity to hold a human heart or brain in my hands. How many people can claim to have held a human heart or brain in their hands? Very few. Dissection is one of the coolest things I have ever done and I look back at it very fondly.
Dealing with dead bodies and people can unfortunately be a common part of a doctor’s job, you can’t save everybody after all. The prospect of encountering a death or a dead body is daunting (I hope I never have to) but having been exposed to dead bodies already I know this is less intimidating. There was a girl in my group who spent the entire year sitting about 6 feet away from the body with a textbook firmly clutched in her lap and she kept her interaction with Dianne (our cadaver) to a minimum. Some people just aren’t cut out for it, which is fine because it doesn’t mean that they will be any less of a competent doctor.
Some people faint just at the idea of facing a dead body however in the dissection room most students faint for an entirely different reason. We are always warned about fainting in the dissection room, maybe its the smell of the chemicals or just the fact that we are stood around a table for two hours first thing in the morning. The people who do faint are not the ones you expect. You do not expect a big rugby player to faint but that’s exactly what happened in one of the sessions. A guy on the table next to me just went down very unexpectedly and hit the floor like a ton of bricks. Luckily he was ok, I’m sure as a rugby player he’s used to being hit by things.
If I haven’t disgusted you or creeped you out by now then enjoy the next few gross anecdotes. One of the most disgusting and interesting parts of dissecting a human body was the brain and eyes. The eyes are intriguing organs and I had the pleasure of dissecting them. Eyes are quite solid objects packed full of a jelly like substance. When cutting the eyes open it makes a horrendous popping sound and squirts the clear jelly like fluid everywhere which was not pleasant at all. Luckily I did not get any in my mouth. I was told of another person who was very vigorously cutting away at their cadaver and ended up flicking a sizable piece of tissue into another persons mouth. The thought of this just makes me cringe.
Take home message of the blog: I am very grateful to the people who have donated their bodies for us. This has definitely made me want to help people and have an impact even after I have passed on. Although the prospect of donating my body for dissection is not one that appeals to me at the moment, I will definitely sign up to be an organ donor and I have recently signed up to give blood. I don’t think of organ donation as giving up a part of yourself to keep a stranger alive. Rather a stranger is giving up their whole body to try to keep a part of you alive. It’s a gift you can give that costs you nothing.