Cambridge University is one of the few medical schools left in the UK that run full body dissections ( the other more generally used way to teach anatomy is via prosection ie using specific parts of the body prepared in advance ). A group of students are assigned to a table, a single cadaver (dead, human body), which they dissect over the course of the year. Last Tuesday was my first in person dissection session. The first time I touched a corpse- cut into a human being. It felt quite monumental.
Just a disclaimer, there are some ethical considerations behind this article. Oliver Sacks has come under scrutiny for making his patients his ‘subjects’. I would like to avoid this as much as possible, though I admit that is probably going to be quite hard as my blogs do tend to be quite egocentric. Rather I would like to spend some time to appreciate the donation of the individual who has gifted their body to further medical education. Their families don’t have funerals and they are ‘patients’ without voices. It truly is the first exercise of trust and integrity. I was so tentative not to ‘ruin’ the body by cutting to deep ect , because there is a level of gravity in handling a human body which can’t object to anything you do- in a lot of way’s it is as vulnerable a human condition as we can get.
Due to the pandemic and social distancing guidelines, what would have been 4 hours in the dissection room weekly, has now been reduced to 2 hours every fortnight. We aren’t missing out on the learning, broadcasts are shared on our learning platforms but it does seem quite a shame to be missing out on this particular experience. Though I do think the masks and visors minimized the potency of the smell. However going in on Tuesday has been a highlight of my time so far at uni.
Prior to going, the second years had warned us ‘people will faint’, ‘you might feel queasy’. I had constructed a far more macabre picture in my mind than it actually was. Lifting the sheet lying over the corpse… didn’t move me as much as I had expected. It just felt like getting to work. Whilst making incisions, I was very careful. Actually too careful, and as a result very slow. At the end of the session, the demonstrator ( a lovely retired orthopedic surgeon who had coincidentally spent much of his life in Glasgow -where I am from), came and pushed aside the bicep muscle- which I had painstakingly separated from the connective tissue- to highlight some arteries and nerves. Seeing the human body from that perspective… well it really does put existence and mortality, questions I grapple with regularly, in a new light.
Eventually we will all end up as pallored bodies on a table. That person had a life, perhaps a family, desires and dreams. Now they are gone. However their legacy will live on through the impact they’ve had on myself and my colleagues. In a way their death has allowed them to keep living in our minds, as our first patient. Living in our minds, that will then go onto use this experience to alter the life paths of future patients. Cause and effect. In some sense they have become immortalized.
After we went into the Annex section of the Dissection Room. There were some interactive virtual tasks to do, and a prosection of the hand. My brain was a bit fried at that point but again it was all immeasurably useful and interesting. Preparing for such sessions through research seems vitally important to do service to the abundance and quality of amenities we have access to as medical students at my university. Anything less would be a disservice to the donors.