The Anatomy Room – My experiences of Human Anatomy
“British are donating their bodies to science to avoid funeral costs!” wrote Sophie Jamieson journalist, in the Daily Telegraph 8th January 2016.
I was astounded to read this. Apparently there has been a 30% rise in ‘pauper’s funerals’ i.e. funerals where the family can’t afford to pay, and this cost is transferred to local councils. The average cost of a funeral is around three thousand pounds. One way of avoiding this is to donate your body to science after death.
I was a medical student myself thirty years ago, and reading this brought back a lot of grizzly memories.
“… it’s one of the only certainties in life – death and taxes …”
The anatomy room was a mandatory part of core medical training. There was no escape. To say I hated it was an understatement. But I seemed to be in the minority as most of my colleagues accepted it with reasonable fortitude.
The Subject of Death
I have never liked the subject of death – does anyone? Although it’s one of the only certainties in life – death and taxes. We just have to get used to it.
Working in a Nursing Home aged 17, I found my first dead body. Dear old Mr Harrington lay slumped on his pillow, his lips navy blue (he had suffered with Chronic Obstructive Airways Disease for many years) and his eyes wide open and staring. I ran for matron.
I agreed to help lay out the body. I was told it was a privilege, as the last thing you can do for a person on this earth. We did it in solemn silence, brushing his hair, shaving him, trimming his moustache, and weighting down the eyes. We clothed him in a white funeral shroud. This was death with grace and dignity, and a traditional funeral lay ahead.
The Human Anatomy Room
But in the Anatomy room, this was not just dead, but REALLY DEAD – dozens of corpses, long dead, now dismembered and pickled in formalin. Death in a whole new genre.
Open the door – the stench hits you – its fish and chips – but not the chips, just gone off fish and lots of vinegar. It’s more revolting than I can possibly describe and made me want to retch as I crossed the threshold.
In many medical schools, trainee doctors are given a body between four students to dissect under supervision. But in Southampton, our dissections were done by anatomy technicians (imagine that as a job!), the principal being that they did it properly, and we could see clearly all the important structures of the body. When there are four to a body and everyone is hacking away and not knowing what they are doing, a lot of damage is done and vital structures can be missed. Plus bodies are in short supply. So Southampton did things differently. Thankfully for me!
We wore white coats and gloves, and handled all the specimens very thoroughly. Yes, I did have to touch and feel and get on with it. But I loathed it more than anything I have ever done in my life. I got out of there as quickly as possible.
The very most revolting thing I recall was the abdomen. The demonstrator had made a cruciate incision to the torso – headless, legless and armless of course – and we were told to imagine the abdominal organs- liver, spleen, stomach, pancreas etc … and then slip our hand inside the body cavity to feel the organs and see if we were right. The stinking, cold, slippery, squelchy hideousness of this is still very prominent in my memory.
What do the Bodies Look Like? – People Ask.
Here’s the thing. Bodies don’t look like people. Their flesh grey and putrid, their skin and muscles vacuum packed onto the skeleton. They seem smaller people – prehistoric.
We didn’t have a whole body – we would have an arm one week, or a leg the next, or a pelvis – yes – just – a pelvis – no legs below and no abdomen above. Sometimes a head sawn in half.
I hated seeing eyes, and facial features as I couldn’t help wondering about that person in real life. What did they do? Why did they die? Why on earth did they want to end up like this, chopped into sections on a cutting board?
As a sexual and reproductive healthcare specialist to be – did I spend my time looking at the pickled genitalia? …Well? … There was nothing much to see! Remember a man always makes the excuse if his penis is small, that ‘it was very cold down there?’ … Well imagine, death, the freezer, the formalin, the air conditioning and the finite absence of even the whiff of a hormone – he’s dead! – the penises gave very little to be desired!! They looked more like gnarled old bits of rotted nautical rope that you might find strewn on seashore … or maybe I should say more accurately … bits of nautical string!
The women had very sad, grey vulvas with a wrinkled mons pubis, and the need for a magnifying glass to recognise the clitoris! Absolutely nothing to ressemble the beauty of a healthy young body! Very sad indeed!
The Emergency Plan
With a flash of inspiration – and a trip to the University book shop, I purchased a large Colour Atlas of Human Anatomy! Even opening the book however, was a horror story. I kept it hidden in my wardrobe, top back shelf, as far away from me as possible! I tried not to think of it at night as it gave me nightmares.
Gunter Von Hagens made fame by performing the first live autopsy on TV in 2002 – which he did in customary style, wearing a hat! His Body Worlds Exhibition, toured 47 countries and has been seen by 26 million people!
It seems much of the world is fascinated with the dead human body.
Thank goodness now – we have Google Body!