What’s it like to attend a cadaver dissection?

I’d finally decided to do it. After a long time thinking about it and talking about it with my partner, this was it. A 6 day dissection class. With real cadavers.

Ascending the lift, I was apprehensive. I had dissected animals as part of my degree but I had never seen a cadaver, let alone used one as a teaching tool.

In a locker room, with other students, we were all quiet. Some were returners, others were, like me, new to this. After locking our phones and valuables away, and putting on our white coats, we were led into the lab.

As we walked into the lab, it was impossible not to notice all of the 5 shiny humidors that contained our bodies. The lab was large and cold, with specimens persevered in formaldehyde on workbenches.

We sat on stools in a circle, introduced ourselves and were off on an incredible journey.

Once we had discussed what was about to happen, we gloved up and were led over to the humidors, which were now open, revealing linen wrapped forms. The coverings were removed and we were invited to look carefully at each and make a choice as to the one we were drawn to work on. I chose a man – I couldn’t honestly say why. He was an elderly gentleman, well built.  He was lying face up. There was a line of stitches in his groin – the closure of the hole to get to the femoral artery to input the embalming fluid. His head was shaved and his arms and legs were freckled.

Now it was crunch time. You think about death abstractly. You know that it is the absence of life. You know that there will be no warmth. You’ve heard about rigor mortis but nothing can prepare you for actually laying your hands on an embalmed cadaver. I was, oddly, surprised by how stiff and cold it was. Note here that I say ‘it’ and not ‘he.’ My initial reaction was that whatever had made this form ‘human’ was no longer there. This thought would change as the dissection progressed.

Having been shown how to use the forceps  and scalpel, we were now asked to remove the skin. Yes, you read that correctly, remove the skin. This conjures up pictures of flaying, of Silence of the Lambs but no, it was nothing like that. Skin is attached very firmly to the superficial fascia layer beneath. At one point we had to turn the body over to remove the, much thicker, skin on the back. I now appreciate the term “dead weight.”

Many blunted scalpels later, we could look at our form without his skin – barring his hands, feet and face; the superficial fascia or adipose layer is so thin in some areas, that it takes a degree of skill to dissect it beautifully.  The colour was most shocking – yellow – especially when all 5 of the cadavers were placed side by side on their gurneys. But they were still recognisable as male or female, the rounded curves of the women, their breasts and hips given form by this superficial fascial layer.

Day 2 was the removal of this layer. It was soft and oily – a result of the fat cells breaking down as we cut through them with our scalpels. Careful not to cut too deep and hence into the deep fascia underneath, we began to peel back this blanket. One group of more experienced dissectors managed to remove the whole of the superficial layer in one go. They laid it on a gurney next to the body from which it was removed – a woman.  Apart from her genitals, she was no longer recognisable as a woman; this covering had given her form and now it was gone.

The  layer of deep fascia is one of the most difficult to dissect. It clings to the muscles, wrapping around each, separating them. It is strong, pliable, criss-crossed like a matrix and it is everywhere!

Muscles next; now we were into more familiar territory, but even this was far removed from the conventional anatomy in books like Netter or Grays. Each muscle was wrapped in superficial fascia, but when this was removed, the muscle just came apart in our hands. It made us realise that what we think of as knots in our muscles, couldn’t possibly exist. So what are we doing when we massage or treat someone as a therapist? Bearing in mind the layer of superficial fascia over the top of the muscles, are we actually doing anything to them?

Nothing about this experience is normal, yet it has become routine. On into the viscera; I held the heart in my hands, shone a light through the diaphragm, watched as the teacher used a bag to inflate the lungs, amazed as they ‘pinked up.’  One group removed the brain and the central and peripheral nervous system, laying it out like an ethereal skeleton.

And finally, when our week was done – there was not enough time I can tell you now – we laid everything in a body bag in a coffin and held a moving ceremony where we thanked the donors for what they had allowed us to see and learn. I admit, it was emotional and I shed a few tears. The camaraderie in the room had been fantastic and we had participated in something very few people have had the privilege to do. I would be back!