Sunday, March 20, 2011

my thoughts on my recent trip to the cadaver lab....

When I made my decision to go back to school, it was a big deal. When I made my decision to enter the Medical Assistant program, I had my concerns about the math involved and giving injections. When I started school and realized that I would also have to be dissecting a cow eyeball and performing EKG's to people with their shirts off, I got really nervous. Having completed all of these tasks and having little to no problem with any of them, I felt pretty good. I was able to do them all because of a decision I made to overcome any obstacle thrown at me because I wanted to do my absolute best while I was in school. However, once I heard we were going to a cadaver lab and taking apart a human being, I started to second guess my career choice. Here I am now, done with the lab and how do I feel? I am so thankful that I made the decision early on to face all of my fears. I have learned more than I ever could have hoped for by not letting anything hold me back. Granted, it was not the easiest thing to see a body cut wide open and having to take all of the parts out to examine them. But.... I did it and I would do it again. It was an excellent use of $30 and 3 hours of my time.

For those of you who haven't experienced this before, let me expain how my trip went.

Upon arrival to the college where the bodies were being stored, we were ushered into a lab complete with sinks, microscopes and gas nozzles. We were given all of the instructions and rules on how cadaver lab would work. It was advised to us that the smell would be unlike anything we'd ever smelled before. (They must have never smelled me fart.) I found out that bodies are preserved by a mix of chemicals that's basically anti-freeze. This compound can keep the bodies fresh and avoid decomposition for up to two years! As a matter of fact, one of the bodies we would be working on, had been in the lab for a year and a half already. The other body had only been there for about 3 months. Back to our instructions, we were provided with protective lab jackets and goggles and were told that we could wipe Vick's under our noses to tone down the stench. (I chose not to do it and I didn't ever regret it.... the smell wasn't that bad.) The room we went into was tiny. The two bodies barely fit in there together with the large metal containers they were stored in. Therefore, we had to put one to the side and only focus on one at a time. All of the students there gathered around the box and our lab guide opened it up. At first glance, there was nothing to see. The body inside the box was zipped up in a body bag. I got my first sense of nervousness when I could make out the outline of the person inside, but I had committed myself to being there so I dug my heels in and soldiered on. Next, she unzipped the bag and inside was the body, but it was covered in a wet sheet. The outline was even more defined, but not quite as disturbing. At this point the smell began to overtake the tiny room. I don't think I could describe it even if I wanted to. It was honestly unlike anything I had ever smelled, but it was not NEARLY as annoying as formaldahyde. Before I could allow my brain to compute the complex smell, she took the sheet off. What I saw underneath was not quite what I was expecting. The face, hands and feet were all wrapped in a type of gauze and completely hidden from view. (We were told that studies had proven that the face, hands and feet are all things that trigger an emotional response. Because of that, they keep the covered to avoid any adverse reaction.) In the bottom of the bag was a yellowish colored liquid with little things floating in it. I asked our guide exactly what it was made of, she stated that it was a mix of the spray that was used to keep the body moist and the fat that was melting away from the body. After hearing that, it took me awhile to stop staring at it. What about the body itself, you ask? Read on my friends.... I assume most of you have seen a dead body by now. The way it looks like it's made of plastic and fairly pale. Well, this body looked like it was made of plastic, but it also looked like some kind of jerky. I think part of it was the fact that it was a year and a half gone, but the man had also been fairly large.... so when they removed all of the fat, he had a lot of loose skin. His chest was completely removed and just resting on top of his organs. His shoulders and thighs were cut open so you could flip up the skin to view what was underneath. His throat was wide open so you could see everything from his chin on down. His penis was exposed and uncircumcised. We were told that he was in his 80's when he passed. I found out that the myth about hair and nails continuing to grow after death was wrong. Rather that the skin retracts from the nails and hair, so it gives the appearance of growth. Weird. Our guide instructed a couple of people to remove the chest and flip it over to put it on his knees. As it was removed, you could see all of his organs gray and lifeless. There were stringy bits all over the place and it had the look of overcooked pork. At first it was difficult to discern the different parts, but upon closer inspection, things started to take shape. From that point on it was taking one body part out after another. Talking about each one and trying to determine a cause of death. We saw stiches left from open heart surgery. We saw that he had an enlarged heart. We saw where they'd sown up his chest. We saw where an extra artery was attached. It was amazing. Funny thing is that I found it unusual how much his ribs looked like any full slab of ribs I've ever seen. If they'd have had bar-b-q sauce on them, they would have looked appetizing. Soon, his chest cavity was spread out all over his body. We then took a look at the inner workings of his legs and shoulders. We could take out the femur and see how large it is. Then something happened that made me cringe.... our guide took his penis and bent it in the middle and that's when I saw that it was cut in half. You could see all of the veins inside and how the urethra was underneath them. It made the functionality of it all so amazingly clear. Sadly, my penis felt sad or his, but the knowledge I gained made it worth it. Finally, the body was propped up on a neck brace and the skull cap was removed. There was no brain inside and there were little pins stuck into the pituitary, the optic nerves and the eye sockets. It was kind of bizarre that you could look inside someone else's head, literally.

Our guide moved the first gentleman aside and took out the other. With him being 'fresher', his organs looked much newer, were softer and had more color. Sadly, he was not fully dissected yet so we couldn't take him apart. He was about the same age as the other man, but had been a dementia patient and had been under the knife for stomach surgery at some point. He was also circumcised. After we had some time with him, we went to the other room to see the first man's brain. It was left whole as it is very rare to get it out of the skull in one piece. Because of that, we could pick it up and feel the full weight of it. The bad thing was that it was kept fresh with a formaldahyde type of chemical. It burned the nostrils. I found it kind of sad to think that this man's entire life, all his hopes and dreams, had been inside this single organ and that they were all gone now. I was holding 80 years of experiences in two hands. It was not physically heavy, but it was emotionally gigantic. I felt thankful that he had given himself to us so that we could learn. I think it will make me a better healthcare professional because of it.

That was pretty much it. We had some time afterwards to examine the bodies on our own, but after 3 hours, most of us were pretty exhausted. I know that I felt like I'd run a marathon. On our way out of the lab, we couldn't stop talking about everyhing we'd seen and done. We talked about if we found it helpful or not. We were all like little kids in a toy store. All of us could agree, however, that it was something we would never forget. When I got out to the car, the first thing I did was take a drink of my Dr. Pepper and off we went.. (Note to self: If you ever do this again, don't be surprised if the first thing you drink after leaving WILL taste funny!) If any of you ever have the chance to experience this and have the desire to learn more about the human body, don't pass it up. It taught me more than any textbook ever could. Nothing beats first hand experience. The only thing I would change is being a bit more active with the removal of the different organs. It took me quite a while to warm up to the idea. I eventually got my hands dirty, but not right away. And that's it. I hope this shined a little light on something that not everyone gets the chance to do in their life. I'll be back with the usual movie reviews soon.... until then, stay classy San Diego!

(the photo above is my class at the cadaver lab.... i'm the bald guy with the beard in the back....)

1 comment:

  1. Wow, thank you so much for the description of your experience, Joel. :-)

    I had heard before that yes they cover the faces to remove emotional attachment. Didn't know they also did that for feet & hands but I guess it makes sense.

    I'll admit that I've only seen a dead person after they've been "prepared" at a funeral home, so seeing one like you described would probably something that would be hard for me to stomach at first.

    Hope everything continues to go well with your education. I know it can't be easy. :-)