Dissection is a crucial part of medical school’s curriculum but, like many of my peers, I was incredibly nervous about meeting my first cadaver.
A cadaver is a human body that has been donated by a deceased individual to be used by medical students and professionals to further their knowledge of the human anatomy. At ARU's School of Medicine, we do full body dissection. We're the only medical school in England using Thiel embalmed cadavers which preserve a 'life-like' appearance in comparison to formaldehyde, which makes the body rigid and grey.
I had never seen a dead body before and wasn't jumping at the chance. However, at the same time I recognised how useful it was to my understanding of anatomy, so I knew I’d have to persevere.
Around November time, we had a session where we were introduced to the cadavers for the first time. We were split into groups of around five, so that if we needed support during the session, we could easily access it. Additional support was available from the University chaplain who was present and also said a few words at the beginning, thanking the donors – and this really eased my nerves.
When we walked in, there were five cadavers, but they were covered up, which I was very grateful for. Instead, we gradually rolled up the sheet covering the body in sections to reveal the toes and feet first and then the head and face last, at a pace suitable for everyone in the group. I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t fun and myself and pretty much everyone else felt uncomfortable, but by the end we felt like we were all in the same boat and that we would all, eventually, get used to it.
Throughout the year, we have two-hour dissections together every Tuesday. During these sessions I have learnt to appreciate how important it is to learn anatomy from a body and not a book, as the human body is a 3D structure and cannot always be conveyed effectively in a 2D format. Members of my year group who are interested in surgery have also found the experience beneficial, as the Thiel embalmed cadavers maintain the same qualities as living skin. Additionally, as we have one cadaver per seven students, we get the chance to see variation across the cadavers, including different pathologies and male vs female. Every human body is unique, and we're encouraged to have a look at other cadavers at the end of the session and see how our cadaver differs from others and what makes them the same.
If I could give any advice to someone who might be nervous about meeting their first cadaver it is: prepare to feel unsettled. Initially, it isn't a pleasant experience, as you would expect, and it's OK to be nervous and not feel great. Some of my peers did cry a little bit but now they are more than happy getting stuck into dissection. Prepare to persevere because it does get easier!
Personally, what settled my nerves when I first met the cadavers was to recognise and appreciate the donation that had been made by the individual. These cadavers were donated voluntarily in the hopes of aiding the learning of future medical professionals and to me, it felt like my duty to put my nerves aside and ensure I was utilising what is an invaluable learning opportunity. I still can't believe that I've been able to hold a human heart in my own two hands.