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What are anatomy dissections really like?

Updated: Jun 18, 2020

By Sebastian Moshtael

When I tell people I am studying medicine, I often get the same response: how do you deal with all of that blood? How do you cope with all the things that go wrong? Isn’t it kind of gruesome?

While it’s true that there are plenty of not so pleasant sights within medicine, the notion that all doctors are elbow deep in gruesome bodily fluids isn’t quite accurate. Indeed, there are plenty of fields of medicine where there is next to no exposure to dissected bodies, and members of those fields are grateful for that. If you’re inspired by medicine, but despair at the idea of working with cadavers, fear not – it’s definitely not something you will have to deal with throughout your whole medical career. For some, however, the idea of working so closely with the body – and all that can go wrong with it – is part of the attraction of medicine and there are specialties available to those people too, surgery being one of them.

Fortunately, we are not demanded to confront cadavers throughout our medical career, but we do have to confront them when studying medicine. There is no one reaction that every first-year medical student has to seeing a cadaver for the first time! For me, the impersonal and aseptic nature of the cadaver rooms creates a sense of emotional distance, detracting from the fact that the object lying in front of you is in fact a dead body. There are so many stimulations in the room to distract you that you don’t have time to think properly about the life the individual in front of you had.

For me, it was only later in the semester that I sensed any chilling feelings. This is when it hit home, I realised this person was once walking, talking and going about their daily business. It was certainly unsettling, but also important. It reminded me that what we are doing in Medical School is not just learning science, but learning how to save people’s lives, that the emotional distance I was developing going in and out of the cadaver room will in turn support me in years to come by keeping more people alive and well. This emotional distance soon comes naturally, and you will find yourself comfortable enough after a dissection session to tuck into your Morrison’s Meal Deal and talk about the antics you got up to over the weekend with your fellow classmates!

We all think about what the cadaver rooms will look like, what the body will look like, what it will all smell like. In fact, often times, it’s the smell of the cadaver room that seems to concern most people I talk to. In fact, my Russian family members in the medical field used to tell me stories of how they would smoke and eat sandwiches in the room to try to cover the smell. Well, I’m grateful for modern technology in this case, because technology exists now to aerate the room properly and use chemical concoctions less pungent. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of smell in the cadaver room! With regards to the body itself, in my experience, it is certainly far removed from any preconception I had beforehand (most likely generated from the film industry). The real thing is a tough-skinned subject, whose insides have changed colour entirely by the cocktail of chemicals pumped through them. I apologise for the graphic description, but I would be doing you an injustice if I did not give you full disclosure. However, fear not, seeing a body so far removed from life helps to separate any emotion you might feel.

There is good reason that Medical school puts you through this ordeal. Whilst it is possible to learn anatomy by staring at diagrams and writing copious notes, for students such as myself who can’t sit still for five minutes, this method is inefficient. For everyone, the textbook approach renders it impossible to gain a full appreciation of the human body and understand the anatomical variations and connections that are present between body parts. This can only be appreciated when a trained anatomy demonstrator facilitates a session that allows you to explore further what you’ve learned in your textbooks the week before. Scientific diagrams and modern impressive technological simulations are useful. But the reality is that the real body and the drawing in your textbook are worlds apart. The reality is that you’re not treating textbooks, you’re treating real people.

Furthermore, there is a beautiful skill and art to dissection that allows you to explore the human body for yourself. Once you dissect and see the work that you have done, there is a sense of pride that runs through you as you admire your achievement. Again, this would be obsolete in a non-dissection orientated curriculum. Before I finish, it would be dishonourable if I did not acknowledge the huge gratitude that all medical students have to the cadaver and their family for allowing us to study and deepen our knowledge using their body. In this regard, we will be forever indebted to them.

I hope this entry has given you a bit more of an insight into anatomy dissection, dispelled some rumours and has let you know that it’s truly not as intimidating as it might initially seem. On a final note, I think it’s important to disclose that no one individual is forced to be present in the dissection room if they are not up to it on the day. Staff are more than accommodating, if you are feeling queasy and wish to leave. It’s quite common for people to feel that way, I have seen it myself on countless occasions, and no, it won’t make its way round the gossip train! Anatomy dissection is complex and intricate, and my experience might be different to yours and you might have further questions. If you’d like to talk about it further, feel free to get in touch with me – I’d be happy to answer any questions or just share experiences.

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