Human Cadaver Dissection: The First Cut

This is the first post in a series of reflections on my time in a human cadaver dissection lab.That said, if you’re the kind of person who had a hard time dissecting a frog in high school biology then you might want to sit this one out.


“You can look at his face first if you want to,” my professor tells us as he drags the zipper open along the body bag’s seam. The tang of formaldehyde fills the air.

We’re heavy with protective gear. A thick white lab coat hangs almost to my feet. Nitrile gloves cling to my hands. Yellow plastic wraps my arms from wrist to elbow. My face is hidden behind a mask and goggles.

“But you don’t have to do it right away,” he says as he finishes unzipping the bag. “Some people feel uncomfortable looking at the face.”

I think that I am one of those people, but I don’t say anything. I’m afraid of what he’ll think.

A layer of plastic sits beneath the body bag’s thick flap. It looks like a garbage bag, the kind you’d use to gather dead plants from your garden. He draws back the plastic to either side. I brace myself, expecting to come face-to-face with the bag’s occupant, but there’s a cotton sheet soaked with preservative beneath the black plastic. The unmistakable shape of a human being sits beneath it.

He stops at the cotton sheet and looks up at us.”Ready?”

“Yeah,” I say. I see my parter nod from the corner of my eye.

I hold my breath as he peels back the sheet. The skin is pale, yellow-white. My eyes immediately fall on pair of incisions running along the inside of both thighs stained with a red so dark it’s almost black. A matching cut mars the tissue midway up the side of his neck so deep that it looks like the aftermath of a knife attack.

I follow my professor’s finger as he points to one of the cuts in the thighs. He explains how the cut provides access the femoral artery. With the artery open the embalmer could pump fluid into the body, taking advantage of the body’s circulatory system to replace every drop of the cadaver’s blood with preservative. Then, with two fingers he spreads the wound open to expose something that looks like frayed wire.

He fingers the frayed material. “Once the blood’s out they just tie up the end of the artery with some string.”

Hearing him say this gives me a little shock. I can’t help but feel that using something as simple as string inside someone is wrong somehow. Maybe not wrong, but crude.

My professor begins his dissection demonstration at the chin. Scalpel in hand, he makes a shallow incision along the curve of the jaw bone and begins separating the skin from the layer of fat and connective tissue beneath it. As he peels the skin back I recognize the white fibers of the underlying connective tissue and feel a burst of confidence. When I’d signed up for the class I’d been unsure about my ability to translate what I’d learned on anatomy models to an actual human body. Now I begin to feel more comfortable, and as he offers us scalpels I willingly take one.

Our work for the day involves making incisions down the front of the thighs and separating the skin from the underlying tissue, much the same way he did with the chin. Other dissection teams have already removed the skin from the chest and abdomen so our work is meant to build on theirs. He asks if we understand, and we both say yes. I’m glad he doesn’t ask if we’re nervous.

My hand has a slight tremor as I make my first incision from the top of his right thigh downward toward his knee. I use a pair of forceps with serrated teeth to hold the skin taught and gently cut through the layer of fat beneath. My cuts are clumsy compared to those of my professor. A layer of fat remains on the body in the wake of my cuts, rising and falling like a mountain range on the surface of a globe. But the longer I work at it the cleaner my work becomes and the more confident I feel about my ability to perform in the class.

After ninety minutes our professor calls time. During our clean up time my mind lingers on who this man was before he reached us. Not too long ago he was doing all the things that people do. What were his goals? Did he achieve them before the end? Or did he die plagued with regret about what he should have done differently. Did he have children? Did he fall in love? When he was dying, did he realize that it was the end?

I feel like I have a lot more to say, but in the interests of posting I’ll leave it there.


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