Saturday, August 26, 2006

Mortal Kombat-style

Yesterday I broke a man’s spine.  I tore the vertebrae from his body with my bare hands and pulled out his spinal chord.  It was awesome.

Gross anatomy isn’t for everyone.  In fact I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle it. I have seen a fair number of surgeries performed, but have never been the one holding the scalpel.  After a week over lectures we were ready for our cadavers.  

My first worry was the smell.  There’s a reason that there is no perfume with a hint of formaldehyde in it.  But after the first few minutes I had completely blocked it out and have hardly noticed it since.  In fact there’s a rumor going around the med students (lacking any scientific credibility) that formaldehyde causes a hunger reaction.  And it’s true that no matter how much I eat before lab and no matter how grizzly our procedure I’m always starving half way through lab.  True lab is three to four hours long and right in the middle of the day, but I get REALLY hungry.  Yesterday the following food references were made: cheese, pulled pork, slim jims, jam, butter, Doritos, spaghetti, roast beef, pizza and onions.  I’ll spare you the details as to which body parts look or smell like the previous items, but suffice it to say that you are what you eat.

I need to make two quick points.  First, I am profoundly grateful for the man who donated his body to me.  I have a good time in lab and will continue to joke about what I’m doing.  I mean no disrespect to the person who used to occupy this body.  I’m certainly not going to use his body parts to play practical jokes, but I don’t have any problem enjoying my dissection.  Second, if you were grossed out by the food comparisons above, you shouldn’t read the next little bit.

Our first day we skinned our body’s back.  This was probably the grossest thing we’ve done thus far.  You have a lot of fat on your back, and fat is not fun to work with.  There are six of us for each body, so there’s a fair amount of team work involved in dissecting.  I mostly worked at removing the skin from the shoulders and clearing away the tissue underneath.  By the end of the day we had revealed all the muscles on the back and neck.  Our second day we started working with the multiple layers of back muscle.  I had imagined using scalpels for everything, but in reality we use a wide variety of tools.  And a lot of the time we just use our hands.  So as we tried to separate our muscles I often find myself pushing my hand down through layers of muscle, trying to find borders or using my fingers to tear up levels of connective tissue.  We started cutting away muscles from their various attachment points so we could fold them away from the body.  So as we get further and further into the body we’re basically unwrapping the muscles and leaving them around the border of the body.  The trapezius muscles fold up by the head and look exactly like seraphim wings.  Yesterday we focused on the neck and the spine.  I spent my time on the spine, which was fine by me.  Most groups used a bone saw to cut into the vertebrae, but we opted for the hammer and chisel.  This wasn’t really a macho thing, just that none of us liked the smell of burning bone.  So I began chiseling into bone, which is an unforgettable sound.  Imagine cracking your back, times ten.  Eventually we started tearing away the posterior segments of the bone with our hands, revealing the spinal chord.  We were shocked to find our spine filled with congealed blood.  This is not normal, and actually indicates that the cause of death listed by the doctor (heart attack and diabetes) may not have been correct.  We ended our day by severing all the spinal nerves and storing our chord for later use.

Lab is no cake walk.  We stink, we spend a lot of the time memorizing structures and we have to make sure not to slice ourselves (two people have gotten stitches already, and I sliced my glove, though not skin, on bone shards yesterday.)  We get splattered, squirted and quizzed for several hours at a time.  But it’s rarely boring.

Song of the moment: “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” The Clash


Amy said...

Here's a tip from the morticians for formaldehyde, you dab a little bit of Vick's Vapo Rub in each nostrel. It might tingle, but the smell won't bother you. Try it.

Anne said...

Does your deceased friend have a name?

There was an interesting story on NPR last year which you have probably either heard or heard about. They followed a group of med students through their gross anatomy lab, recording their reactions to various stages of the course. At the end of the semester they had a memorial service for their cadavers, which I thought was a nice gesture.

Does this experience make you more or less likely to donate your body to medical science?

SJS said...

Hey, that's way too House-ish. You're going to have to start a second blog for the squeamish.

Jeanette said...

Can I tell you how incredibly jealous I am? Why can't I skip all the annoying stuff I'm doing now and do that instead?