On September 8, 2000 world leaders met at the UN headquarters in New York City…
I smell dead people
***Warning! This post is graphic in nature an my not be suitable for all age groups.***
Two nights ago I had the opportunity to visit the cadaver dissection lab at a medical school in Center City Philadelphia. Over the past couple of years I’ve been a welcomed guest at the school as I’ve dated a grad Student who is matriculating there. As a business student at Villanova I was unable to take a strenuous anatomy course and was unable to take one during high school due to a conflict with another one of my classes – German IV if I remember correctly. In any event, this was the first time that I had been introduced to human dissection. It was, quite simply, an amazing experience.
I have always been one for hands on learning, but strapping on a pair of latex gloves and pulling back another human’s flesh, muscle, and tendons and cutting away their fascia to get a true understanding of how it works, is on a totally separate level. I believe there is great value to this and my experience left me with a deeper respect for those who’ve dedicated themselves, even in the afterlife, to the cultivation of the intellect. After my experience I am more open to the thought of this as my final donation.
The team of students to whom I was associated had the assignment of a dissection of the neck. My host had given me verbal guidance of what I could expect, but words fail to explain the feeling of being surrounded by dead bodies, or the stench of the embalming fluid mixed with human tissue on cold steel. I was green for a minute or two, but it quickly passed as I realized the learning opportunity before me. Even at 8:30 PM, a group of students and a professor were huddled around an elderly male, face down, on a large table. Under the table was an oversized metal bucket that initially caught me off guard. It’s actually there to catch the excess fluid, both human and scientific, that comes from the bodies wrapped in large sheets of plastic. There is a drain in the table just above the bucket. I waited for an appropriate time to ask if I could join the observation and moved in to see what they were working on. The team of students had stripped down the mans right leg and the tendons connecting his lower leg were being studied. The skin, and layers of fat had been stripped away and his calf muscles had been severed and pulled back exposing the underlying muscle groups and the lower leg bone.
The group would also stop to quiz each other about the roles of different segments. I did not comprehend much of the interaction as it was specific in nature and my understanding of anatomy is pathetically limited. While the group of gals who invited me to the lab continued their relentless focus on the neck of their cadaver, I worked up the courage to go explore another body at the end of the room. This was also an elderly man, but he was lying on his back. The upper portion of his body was covered in what appeared to be t-shirt halfs soaked in embalming fluid. His lower sections were unique and one of his legs had been completely removed. This man had, at some point in his life, severely broken his femur. The muscles surrounding his upper leg bone had been removed and at the base of his hip there was a metal rod. This rod actually repaired his once broken femur. Instead of doing a full hip replacement, the doctors who initially worked on him, kept the head of the femur (the ball section of the upper bone which connects to the hip) and screwed it into the metal rod which then connected to the still healthy bottom section of the bone. I wanted to see if I could move the hip joint to see how this all fit together and had a short moment of terror as it pulled out of the socket and i was left holding the upper section of the mans leg. My anxiety heightened as thoughts raced through my head that I really messed something up and that perhaps the school would be upset with me. I realized that someone had removed this section of the leg intentionally to show others how the initial surgery took place. I attempted to put things back to the way I found them and decided that perhaps I should go check on the gals who invited me to the lab.
Returning to the team I was curious to see that they referenced their books, and the fully labeled and detailed images within the books with little regard for transference of tissue, bodily juice, or embalming fluid to the book. After looking watching them for a moment, I realized that there were textbooks scattered throughout the lab and that each of them were deemed “dirty.” This set of books would stay in the lab and you would use them only with your gloves on. I flipped through an extra book and there were nice patches of blood and smeared tissue on the pages around the heart. Primarily, I assumed, because some student was dissecting the heart and didnâ€™t have someone there with a clean set of hands to turn the pages for him/her.
The lady, whose neck was being dissected, like all of the cadavers, was naked. She was on her back and her exposed breasts had a distinctive tan line. As one of the gals pointed out, this could have meant she was not sick when she died. Her face was obscured by a white piece of cloth and the portion of skin under her chin and down the sides of her neck had been removed. At one point in time she had been placed on her stomach and she had a deep hand indention on her oversized belly. She was an obese woman and although no information about her history was provided, I would guestimate that she lived a pretty good life. She did not have a c-section scar, but if I had to bet, I would say she was a mother. I hope her child(ren) loved her and I am thankful that someone carried out her wishes to be used for science. Thank you!
At 10:30 PM the ladies wrapped up their dissection of the neck and my two hours with the six cadavers came to an end. We all took our time with the strong Lava soap and the large, semi-circle metal sink had an ample supply of freezing water. Even after a full shower, and a change of clothes, the smell is still with me.
This Post Has 3 Comments
This is certainly a topic change for you and most likely the regular viewers of this blog. I have spent the last 3 years dealving into the mysteries that lie beneath the skin of human beings, and have spent the last 2 years listening and learning about the wonders of business, the stock market, and most recently wallhogs! It was a great to be the one to expose you to one of the few experiences you have not had up until this date. You handled it with incredible professionalism and level-headedness. I remember how I felt the first day of dissection lab, and I am sure that you had similar feelings. Thank you for taking this challenge, and being eager to participate and interested to learn about a topic that is such a huge part of my life.
Having the opportunity to literally explore the multiple layers of muscle, fascia, tendons, organs, and vessels is an experience that I will never forget. I am forever in debt to the wonderful people who have dedicated their bodies to science and given me the chance to develop into the best clinician I possibly can.
Thank you Meghan. These are the experiences I hope that more people have. Thank you for the opportunity!
Wow Kendall, this is sort of weird and strange. You better stick to business and stay out of these labs 😉