Human Cadaver Dissection: My thoughts

Disclaimer: Please be aware that the following post contains sensitive material on dissection and the topic of death. Please read with caution. In addition, anything discussed below is purely my opinion and not meant to be educational. 

It is currently 1am and I have no idea why I have the sudden urge to write about this topic now. Guess muse and thoughts are something that we cannot control. I do urge you to read with caution though. Death and the discussion of death are important matters in both the field of medicine and society. But there is a time and place. A way of discussion and an audience. If you are not in the right frame of mind or don’t feel ready to delve into such topics, I’d highly suggest you don’t read further.

In addition, I do just want to also clarify that the views expressed in this article are solely mine and do not have any bearing on the institution that I belong to. I do not aim to educate through this and this is simply a place for me to openly discuss my thoughts and opinions on the topic of death, dissection and autopsies. As said before, please read with caution.

4 years ago I came to university to study biomedical science and an integral part of my education was anatomy. I never liked anatomy. I couldn’t make sense of the nerves, the different bits of tissues and the seemingly endless names of this ligament and that muscle and that random fossa. It was made all the worse by the fact that my teaching was not just theoretical but also practical. My anatomy teaching was done through cadavers. A cadaver is a donated body of a deceased individual. Under the Human Tissue Act we were told in a rushed lecture during induction that we may not take photos, make inappropriate remarks, remove any human tissue and in anyway damage the cadaver. It was a very strange experience. I had never seen a dead human before and yet the actual cadaver didn’t look at all human. Sure the head, the face, the arms and legs were all identifiable. And of course the organs were all there. But still. I couldn’t help feeling a little grossed out. I never enjoyed my practical anatomy sessions. I could never really put my finger on it. And it wasn’t to be until two weeks back when I attended my first autopsy viewing that I started to understand my own unease…

My first year at university was pretty standard. I lived out in halls. I made friends, I attended lectures and did my best to be what I thought was a responsible 19-year old. At the end of the year, my best friend at the time signed up to do an anatomy dissection program. I joined too. After all a whole summer with my friends, a chance to do actual dissection rather than just observing and learning anatomy from a distance and my dislike of cadavers lay completely forgotten. Apparently my discomfort of being around the dead was not as great as my discomfort of being left behind on such a privileged opportunity.

So began a 6 week process of slowly removing the skin and fat from our allocated cadaver to expose the muscles, nerves and blood vessels underneath. Our bodies are fascinating. Did you know that veins can randomly branch off into multiple veins if a part of it gets blocked? Did you know that there is one fat long sciatic nerve that runs out from the back of your knee all the way down your leg? Did you know that the heart can enlarge and fill out the entire chest and in doing so actually deflate the lungs? Not only did I have the absolute privilege of learning anatomy but I got to actually experience it and see it for myself. I was the one now carving out the sciatic nerve, removing the heart, clearing out the fat from the branches of the veins. We used large metallic objects to open up the ribcage and proceed with deep dissection. I had never known how thick the aorta actually is. So much of blood is carried in this great vessel. So much so that a burst aneurysm in the aorta is fatal. The very essence of life had once flowed in the vessel that I now carefully dug around.

It was six weeks of wearing protective gloves, aprons, goggles. 6 weeks of carefully rinsing the scalpels, scissors, bowls with water and then bleach. 6 weeks of feeling awed that each one of us has this delicate and intricate system working inside us to give us life. And 6 weeks of gratitude to the individual who consented to give their body to us to learn from.  It was all in all a very different experience. There were about 40 of us, we worked in pairs, we listened to radio and chatted with each other all the time. It was a congenial and friendly atmosphere to work in. But occasionally someone would exclaim: ‘I’ve just snipped the saphenous (vein)’ or ‘I found the nerve!’ or ‘I’m still removing the fascia..’ and I would realise with a jolt that I’m working on a cadaver. This wasn’t just a generic office job. This was something special.

I’m not sure I could have done it again. It was truly a life-time experience which I never want to repeat. It was a strange time. To be dissecting away at actual human flesh. Yet is it still human in the same sense as you and I if that human is no longer alive? Do the dead get the same ethical privileges as we who are alive do? Was what I was doing inherently not an immoral activity? Or the fact that we asked permission before the individual donated the body means that it is now okay for us to learn from it? But did the person know exactly what would happen to their body? And is the body really us if what defines us as ‘us’ is no longer there? The biggest identifier is our own name. But here, the cadaver was nameless and we didn’t say he or she – we said it. As if we were talking about an unlabelled box: with no name, no background, no interaction.

Believe you me, I still ponder on these questions and probably will carry on doing so for many many years to come. Medical ethics especially on topics of death, cadavers and dissection is complicated. The law surrounding it is even more so. And even worse, my own thoughts on this are so conflicted I still don’t know whether I am more horrified I went through with the entire program or more fascinated. One thing is for certain:somebody actually donated their body so that I could learn more about the human body. About the details that make us tick. The least I could do was show respect and feel grateful.

Over the next few years I reverted back to grimacing every time I had to go down to the dissection room. I hated the smell of formaldehyde that was used to embalm the cadavers. Like I said, I never enjoyed learning anatomy. Still too many muscles, too many nerves and as fascinating as the human body is, it is equally confusing and complicated. It was not until two weeks back that the old questions and conflicted ideas of death, the dying, and the laws/ ethics of it all came to my forefront. And it was because I attended an autopsy viewing.

That, however, I will discuss in the next post.

If you have been in a similar position or have a particular view point on this matter, I would love to hear from you. Please, in your comments, be respectful to other people’s views, opinions and sensitivities.




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