Meet the Cadaver

cambodia2 017The acrid smell of phenol burned in my nostrils. I was already familiar with the smell from my days of doing chromosomal mapping as an undergrad but it had never been this strong. 

I imagined the nose hairs cringing.

Twenty eight silver tanks were lined up in two rows up and down the long room. So clean. So bright. So cheerful.

The odor was overwhelming. A classmate down the way asked to be excused but did not quite make it to the door before passing out.

I had been assigned to tank number one along with three other souls. Strangers, really. I knew them about as well as this cadaver.

We eyed each other suspiciously.

Someone turned the crank, the shrouded body rose up…. There was no soupy quagmire. Not at all what I expected given the fact it was called a tank…

I busied myself organizing the dissection atlas to the appropriate pages. 

If I don’t make eye contact, they won’t ask me to do it.

“You go first.” A hoarse whisper.

“No. YOU go first.” A loud whisper back.


Someone elbowed me hard in the ribs.

I looked up.

Three sets of eyes stared back at me. They were looking at me to make the first cut.

Why me? 

What the hell?

Someone held out a bright, shiny scalpel. I took it, hesitating. It felt so heavy. Slippery. Cold.

Our cadaver was face down on the metal slab. This was nice. I was not yet ready to see his face. 

We were to start with the back, peeling the skin off to reveal the musculature underneath. Eventually we would trace the nerves and muscles on their routes to the spine.

I slid the blade down the dead center of his back, directly over the spinous processes. The line was surprisingly straight considering I was shaking like a leaf inside.

Don’t let them see you nervous.

I half expected blood to come welling up but there was none. 

Of course there was none… Silly!

Nervous giggling slipped out of my mouth as I tried to work the skin back. It was much harder than it looked. My tank mates tried to offer helpful suggestions.

Feeling a presence behind me, I looked over my shoulder to see one of the anatomy professors standing there.

He rolled his eyes and sighed.

“You newbies don’t know jack.”

Taking the scalpel from my hand, he cut a slit at the top corner of the skin, stuck his finger though the hole, and used it to pull back as he expertly filleted the cadaver’s upper back.

“That is how it is done.”

He handed the scalpel back to me, winking. 

He was not wearing gloves! This man had just touched a dead body and he was not wearing gloves.

Suddenly, I was lightheaded.

Deep breath. Focus, damn it!

I passed the scalpel to the fellow across the tank. “Your turn.” He nodded acceptance. I was relieved.

The smell followed me home. Even a shower could not wash it off. Two showers later and it still seemed to well up from my pores.


So this is what I am going to be fighting? 

I felt terribly inadequate.


97 thoughts on “Meet the Cadaver

  1. The guy in the scrubs looked too young. The thought of him rummaging around in my innards within the next few minutes was not reassuring. “Don’t be stupid,” logic whispered in my ear.”He must have done this many times before…” “Ah,” said fear, “but how many were still alive at the time?”

    It was a teaching hospital… I’d done mammalian dissection (and the whole eyeball thing in school when all the boys left the room in various states…). I know how neatly packed those innards are supposed to be. I wondered if surgeons in training were taught how to put them back…

    For some reason, I wasn’t reassured…. πŸ˜‰

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I’ve done guest teaching in two places that used the “tanks” – thank heaven, UNC uses no tanks and an embalming solution with very little formalin, the only problem being mold after a few months. When I was an anatomy student, I had a horrible respiratory reaction to the amount of formalin – had to use a mask, plug my nose and double glove. But the smell is a constant – you have to shower and wash your clothes. I could have been that instructor – I showed students the same technique every year. Thanks for this – it did take me back! I still find human anatomy fascinating after all these years!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I once had an agreement to donate my body to science after I died, so that some prosector could filet me in the same way. The agreement has expired before I have, and I’m too lazy to fill out all that paperwork again. But your vivid description does tempt me.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. One of the doctors I worked with used to share her stories of med school with me. I have to say I really enjoyed them. She & the other Drs shared so much of their knowledge with me. It’s such a privilege to have. Thank you as well! πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Victo, this brought back nurses training practice in the morgue! That was years ago with more comprehensive practice allowed. Hadn’t thought about until I read your post. Think smells and reactions might be similar! Chryssa

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ew, ew, ew! Lawyering is so easy compared to this. Out of curiosity, do you know how many people get to this point in medical school and then it’s out the door, never to come back? I can’t imagine it’s common, but I would think it might happen on occasion.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. My experience was rather the opposite….I had heard horror stories but I had no reaction to the dead person in front of me, We started with the upper arm and brachial plexus; we had the only female cadaver that year.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. There was an earthquake on the first day of our dissection. The cadavers began to shake and we were all terrified to death thinking that they have come back to life. Fond memories of med school.
    PS: We did our dissection bare handed too! πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Cool post Victo. I’ve seen accident victims and dead bodies from illness but never with an up close, bloodless, take ’em apart sort of familiarity. Definitely a unique perspective.

    I’m not sure many have thought about this but people seldom die where the cadavers are needed for medical students. Also, in some jurisdictions it is considered poor form to put local cadavers in front of local students in case someone gets their Aunt Jenny or Uncle Fred. As a result there is a significant business in transporting cadavers around the country in temperature controlled trailers. I know some guys who do that for a living. Not a load a hijacker would appreciate. ha! Also it is important to reassure the police in case of an accident that exposes the load the road. ha! Happy Halloween!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Were you not taught the Vick’s trick? …. Putting Vick’s in your nose? Nothing worse then the smell of death. *shudders* And to think we all will end up like that some day. May as well live to the fullest while you can!!! πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Reminds me of the Bodies Exhibition. It really made me think.

    The more I think about how physical features are deemed to change or disappear the more I become aware that alive we are biologically speaking brains on a skeletal frame with complex layers of hard and soft tissue that somehow work either well or not to keep the brains alive.

    Death or being a corpse then sounds like sleep minus breathing and ever waking up. Cadavers as non-morbid practice units, interesting topic.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I am reminded for some reason of that well worn advice that one should never volunteer for anything. In your case you didn’t volunteer but still ended up performing the first cut, on the corpse whose lips, had once been kissed but was now beyond both pain and bliss. A fascinating series of posts on disection Victo. Thank you. Kevin

    Liked by 1 person

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