Last week in anatomy lab we got to see the cadaver for the first time. We’re not medical students, so we didn’t do any dissections or anything. This is just the body of an old woman that donated her body to science. Presumably this was done after she died. If it had been before she died I don’t think she’d have been very happy about it.
The body was prosected (that means they cut her into parts, but left most of them attached at certain points so we could move them around) by some of the professors at the college. Then they slathered her with fixatives and dropped her into a chemical bath to keep her from decomposing.
When I was a boy I visited my brother when he as studying animal science up at Utah State University. It was pretty interesting. I got to go with one of the vet’s on their rounds and that was pretty cool, especially for a fourteen year old from the suburbs. When she started drawing blood for various tests, though, the world started spinning a bit and I about hit the floor. Something about watching that needle go in and the blood come out I guess. Years later, when I was in my early twenty’s, I was trained as an EMT. During one portion of our training they showed photographic slides of actually emergency patients. “This woman has just had her lower jaw blown off by a shotgun. What are you doing to do?” Well, what I did was ask to be excused before I threw up.
Given that history, I wasn’t sure how I was going to react when I saw the cadaver. I mean, I knew we’d be studying her at some point, I just wasn’t sure if I’d pass out or not.
Well, I guess all the intervening years of working as a nursing assistant, and cleaning up after my children, have strengthened my stomach. Cleaning up round after round of blood, spit, and vomit from various sources does that to you, I guess.
It turns out that I’ve changed. Looking at the cadaver for the first time was really interesting. It was a combination of intellectual interest and grisly fascination. Part of my brain kept saying, “This is really cool! Look at that! So that’s how that works!” Another part of me couldn’t help but remember that the history of anatomical study hasn’t always been a “socially acceptable” one. There was a time when “anatomist” was a euphemism for “grave robber.”
Truly it was life changing experience for me, though. I felt both in awe of the elegance of living things, and the grisly horror of dead and damaged bodies. It took a few days to not look at any form of meat and not remember some structure on the cadaver. I cooked a roast last Sunday and couldn’t help but think, “This is what people are made of.”
At least I’m not up at the anatomy lab at the University of Utah. There you can dissect cadavers to the smell of microwaving Chinese food.