Anyone can learn human body vernacular. Anyone can look at a nice, clean drawing of the heart and say, “now that’s a heart!” A guy going into a professional medical field, though, can’t learn anything just by looking at those drawings. Think about how scary that would be: You’re about to go under the anesthetic, and there’s a newly-minted doctor in front of you with the scalpel, and he’s saying something along the lines of that episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: “Don’t worry, I’ve pretended to do this operation a thousand times. Look, this time they gave me a real scalpel! Cool!” Yeah, medical professionals need to have a rather exacting idea of what your innards look like, and so one thing medical and health professionals do to train themselves is look at cadavers. It’s a lot like the dissection part of your high school biology class, except in this instance, you’re not looking at a worm, grasshopper, or frog. No, you’re looking at a very real dead human who’s been cut open, leaving organs exposed for all to see.
Since my area of study is based mostly on biomechanics and physics, I didn’t really expect to have an opportunity to view a cadaver at all, but it came up in my anatomy and physiology class. Since it was worth a few free points, I decided to sign up. The Professor said if we were nervous or unsettled by the fact that we were going to, you know, look at a dead human who was cut open, all we had to do was turn in the signup sheet and that would be that. We would show up at our lab time, hand in the form, leave, and free points were ours. If we stayed, there were certain rules to be followed: Above all, respect the body. No photographs, no recordings, no holding the intestines against our abdominal cavities and pretending we’d been cut open by Jason or Freddy. I gave a bit of thought to maybe trying to lighten the mood with a zombie joke, but decided against it. We were going to be looking at a person generous enough to donate her body to a scientific cause, enabling future medical professionals to learn useful information about the human body by cutting her open. If someone did the same thing anywhere else, it would be considered desecration, so the cadaver deserved respect for permitting it.
The only zombie joke made at the viewing came before me and the handful of classmates with me followed the Prof in to see the cadaver, and it came from the Prof himself, and he did it mainly to reassure us that there was nothing to be afraid of. “Don’t worry, the cadaver isn’t going to get up and walk off,” he said before taking us in. “If it does, I’ll give you all A’s.” It put us at a little bit of ease. He also said that if we felt uncomfortable, we were free to leave. Anatomy and physiology, however, is not a course many people take as an elective. Most people who take it do it as part of a larger program, which means it’s safe to assume that almost everyone in the class has at least some level of interest in how we look on the literal inside. No one who was with me to view the cadaver left or had a noticeably debilitating reaction to the sight. I always had a rather strong stomach, so I assumed I would take it pretty well, but I honestly had no idea how I would react. I’ve been to funerals and seen graphic slasher flicks, but knew better than to assume looking at a human cadaver would fill me with the same reactions as those.
I confess to a slightly lightheaded feeling as I approached the cadaver and watched the Professor carefully peel back the layers of skin, fat, and muscle covering the thoracic and abdominal cavities. Any thoughts about those zombie jokes were sucked out of the room instantly. It was clear in only a few minutes the viewing wasn’t a look-but-don’t-touch show. The Professor invited us to touch certain parts of the cadaver to get an idea of what they felt like, and strange as it may sound, that helped put me at ease because it drilled into me the fact nothing about a cadaver was out of the ordinary. First, my classmates and I felt the skin. It was dry and leathery, which made perfect sense since leather is basically dried skin anyway; in this case, it happened to be human skin. After the skin, we touched the layer of fat directly underneath the skin. The Prof asked us what our first impressions were and how they differed from what we thought the body might look and feel like. I expressed my surprise the layer of fat was so, well, organized and neat. By then, all the A+P students were familiar with the school Health and Wellness Association displays comparing five pounds of fat to five pounds of muscle. My classmates and I had expected the fat to look like the organization’s plastic model chunks: Large and unwieldy, spreading out in many random directions. The Prof explained the fat in our bodies is actually liquid, and it only solidifies at room temperature. He then asked us to observe our hands after feeling the fat, and we saw that our gloves were now covered in liquid because the fat had melted upon coming into contact with our body heat.
The Prof riddled us throughout the viewing, asking what we thought one thing or another was to see how our impressions of the cadaver compared to what we were expecting. To give us an impression of how embalming fluid acts upon a human body, he also asked us to touch the liver and note how hard it was, in contrast to when liver is cooked at home and flops around in the pan. He showed us the lungs and was careful to point out the small amount of soot which darkened them slightly, explaining that lungs are likely to absorb a small amount of soot no matter what. They were mostly white, though, which told us they were very healthy. For comparison, the Prof then pulled out a full pair of lungs from a longtime smoker and passed them around. When I got ahold of them, I was surprised by how hard they were; it might have been the embalming fluid acting on them, as I had always imagined lungs to be loose and floppy. The Professor also pointed out the stomach and gallbladder. The stomach looked harder than I thought it would, like the plastic used in milk jugs, while the gallbladder was deflated. The diaphragm was a lot thinner than I envisioned, and the greater omentum a lot bigger.
We didn’t get to see the cadaver’s heart because the heart is buried deep in the thoracic cavity. Fortunately, the Prof had a pair of extra human hearts which he also passed around. One was normal size and the other was enlarged. The heart was the only part of the experience that looked and felt the way I thought it would. It was thick but flexible. The enlarged heart had an opening to look at the atria and ventricles, and when I looked at it, I made sure to take a closer look at both the aorta and vena cava. I had learned about blood vessel thickness as far back as the third grade, and it was drilled into my head for decades: Aorta – thick, elastic, muscular. Vena cava – thin and brittle with valves. I didn’t spot any valves, and the vena cava looked like it had taken a small beating, but they generally both fit their respective descriptions.
The most prominent part of the cadaver was the intestine, which sat there like a beached snake before the Prof removed it to show us the aorta and iliac arteries and show us what an arterial hemorrhage looked like. The arteries felt solid, but I didn’t want to accidentally rupture them by pressing down too hard or something, so I didn’t. Along the way to the aorta, he pointed out where the uterus would normally be and showed us the appendix. The appendix surprised me the most, because it was the size of a string. Medical students are all familiarized with the appendix being something thick and muscular, about the size of a finger, from all the grade school drawings that make a point of showing it. The Prof explained the appendix only grows to that size when it becomes inflamed, d told us why a ruptured appendix is dangerous.
The head was covered throughout the viewing, so instead of giving us a look at the cranium, he took out a human brain and passed it around. It was another thing that felt nothing like I expected, and another thing which may have been hardened by the embalming fluid. The popular image of the brain, of course, is spongy and manipulable, like in the Halloween episode of The Simpsons where Mr. Burns wore Homer’s brain on his head, but it didn’t feel that way at all. It was so solidified, it could have easily been used to hit someone over the head to knock them out. My classmates and I were a little surprised by the size of it, too. The Prof asked us if we thought it was a child’s brain or an adult’s brain when he took it out. We correctly guessed that it was a full-grown adult brain, and the Prof said he was surprised by the size of it the first time he saw one. The size would make perfect sense if we were to hold it up close to our own heads and remember how many layers sat between our brains and the outside world to cushion and protect them.
I wanted to see more than time permitted, and there was a lot more to see. Nothing looked the way we imagined it, or the way our online photos pictured it. The Professor had told us going in that if the cadaver had any parts which were as clean as our APR photos, it would become legend. It was certainly interesting, though, and for everything that went wrong with my semester, I’m glad I got to partake in the lab.