Participating in the gross anatomy cadaver lab my first semester of PA school was, I must admit, a difficult experience, for several reasons.
When you first walk into the cadaver lab, you are inundated by the smell of formaldehyde. The smell permeates through your clothes, your shoes, into your hair, and never seems to go away, even after you wash your clothes. Those who have also experienced this know exactly what I am talking about. I designated a specific set of scrubs and $10 tennis shoes from Walmart for cadaver lab, and threw them away the minute the final exam was over!
Another difficult aspect of anatomy lab was the actual dissection of the human body. This was particularly difficult when making the first cut, and then other times such as dissecting the hands, the skull, and the brain. There was something particularly human about the hands that I will never forget. This was also true of the skull and brain—there is so much anatomy to learn in these areas that once we finished dissecting, the results were barely recognizable as having belonged to a living human being at one time.
There is a certain attitude that one assumes in these situations in order to distance one’s self from the task at hand. This makes the difficult situation less emotionally tolling. Some resort to jokes, others just keep their mind on different topics. I will be honest; I had never actually witnessed a deceased human body before having entered the cadaver lab, except at funerals. Taking on a detached attitude was necessary to be able to perform the dissections. However, it is of the utmost importance when in this situation to avoid becoming so detached as to not remember that this cadaver was a human person. This person donated their body as a gift so that we, as students, could learn from it. I will never forget the incredible feeling of holding a human heart in my two hands, which I never could have done without this generosity. This person was a human being, with a family, a job, friends…a life. And although as students we may feel the need to lighten the situation to make it more comfortable, we must always be respectful of this person who donated their body to us. We would be at such a loss had they had not given us this gift.
At the University of Texas Medical Branch, each year the PA, physical therapy, and medical students hold a Willed Body Memorial Service as a remembrance of all those who donated their bodies. This was a beautiful ceremony celebrating their lives and thanking them for the gift of their bodies. I believe every school that uses human cadavers for dissection should consider holding a similar memorial ceremony to respect those who gave this gift.
So please, if you have the privilege of dissecting a human cadaver in the future, please treat the body with respect and dignity that the human person deserves and remember that you have been given an incredible gift.