Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dead bodies

I was warned that seeing cadavers would affect me in ways unthought of. Surprisingly, it wasn't their exposed muscles, their organs that were passed around, or their faces seemingly frozen from those final moments before death.

You know what got to me?

Their hands. 

The skin had not been dissected from the cadavers. The first person I examined was a ninety-one year old woman who had perfect long manicured nails. Her skin was dotted with age spots, and her hands, oh her hands looked as fresh as the day she died, pardon the morbidity. 

The second cadaver, a seventy-something man also had hands that strangely enough evoked emotion. On his right index finger was a band-aid; he had died with it on and it was never taken off of him. That band-aid strangely made me think of who he was when he was alive. How did he cut his finger? On the day that he died did he happen to place that band-aid on his finger, unaware that his demise was quickly coming?

My professor told us to be respectful of the bodies we were about to see, re-named "Kate" and "Paul". Being respectful entails not making jokes they'd be"horrified" to hear if they could indeed still hear and only saying things that they'd approve of. (How am I supposed to know what perfect strangers would/would not approve of?) 

Very somber, my classmates enter the cadaver lab. Somehow I get a spot right next to our first cadaver, Kate. Her body is wrapped in towels, each section covered. Her chest is first revealed. Her first layer of skin is carefully peeled back, revealing the very thin layers of skin. Beneath that, her adipose tissue is removed. Kate had spent her life taking care of herself and her innards clearly display this. As her ribcage is removed, we see her lungs and her heart. Her heart is quite enlarged. Cause of death: congestive heart failure. 

Next comes her organs: stomach, liver, gallbladder, large and small intestines. We pass around her liver, and random fact: the liver is a pretty huge organ. 

Out comes her small intestines, and we stretch them around the length of the room, approximately twenty feet. 

We examine her uterus and ovaries; apparently it's pretty impressive that she still had them at the age of 91 though it is speculated that she never had children. 

Kate also had a hip replacement, but it looked more bionic than anything else.

Her brain is later passed around and there is evidence that she had a small brain tumor that she likely never even knew about.

Paul is next. He was a large man both in height and in weight. All I knew about him was that he was a man who did not take care of his body, and his innards truly did not lie. As we peeled back the skin from his still hairy chest, the first thing I saw were his lungs. They were black. Non-smokers will have some black tinge to their lungs from everyday pollution exposure, but this man's lungs were solid black; it is unknown how long he was a dedicated smoker.

Paul also had many broken ribs and the bruises and burns on his chest were indicative of CPR and defibrillator efforts.

As Paul's heart was passed around, I finally got a chance to hold his heart in my hands. It was surreal. It also gave that phrase a new meaning.

As we progressed through his body, there was evidence of fatty liver disease, cysts on his kidneys, and more surprisingly, the size of his stomach. Text book stomach measurements are eight inches in diameter. Paul's stomach was more like a foot and a half long. Also, his intestines were madly disproportionate--the large intestines were huge, the small intestines too small and short.

As we went back and forth between Paul and Kate, I couldn't help but wonder what sort of life they had lived. Why they decided to donate their body to science. What it was like for them to die.

All too soon though, cadaver lab was over. We pieced the cadavers back together putting organs, ribs, and skin back in their respective places. 

Dead bodies are weird. Especially their hands.

"You are a person and then you cease to be a person, and a cadaver takes your place."