Tuesday, April 15, 2014


The first time I saw a dead person. And my thoughts about it. 

As a side note, Stiff: the interesting life of human cadavers, by Mary Roach, had been on my TBR list for quite some time now, and I'll probably read and review it next.

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...I walk into the room, surrounded by a group of jumpy juniors and seniors, eager to see the dead bodies, unsure of what to expect. There’s an odd odor in the room, pungent and acrid. We split up into small groups and follow each medical student to their respective station, where blue body bags lie on the tables. The medical student in charge of my group - Em, according to her nametag, says she’s going to show us the digestive system. She unzips the blue bag, and the smell of formaldehyde shoots out, burning my nose and coating my throat. Em instructs us to put on gloves, purple latex gloves that make my hands sweat, and then starts pulling out the organs, naming them, explaining their functions as she goes along. The body swims in the embalming fluid that’s dripped to the bottom of the bag, and little pieces of tissue and fat and coagulated blood that was overooked when the body was being cut open float on the liquid. The esophagus, the stomach, the liver, the small intestines, the large intestines. She gives us the official names for each part, weird names derived from Latin, because intestines are not intestines, but intestinum tenue. See here, that little pouch, the appendix. And that one, the gall bladder. She lets us touch them, hold the kidney and feel how heavy it is, pinch the thick walls of the stomach. A girl asks if she can take a picture, and Em says that we should respect the privacy of dead people, so no pictures please. And then seven minutes are done, and it’s time to move on to the next station, to learn about the heart and lungs. I see Em stuffing the parts back into the body cavity, a jumble of whitish, pinkish, grayish lumps, all connected and interconnected. And then I get to feel the heart, stick my fingers in, through the pulmonary trunk into the right ventricle, and it feels like one big gummy heart, thick in some places, thinner in others, squishy yet stiff.  At one station, we explore the arms - skin peeled back, progressively deeper cuts to show the layers of muscle and ligaments, pale bones that look like they’re covered in chicken meat, and the same girl who asked to take pictures of the dead bodies points out the chicken resemblance. The med student at that station shrugs and says that muscle is muscle. And all of a sudden, two hours of touching body parts are over, take off your gloves, wash your hands with soap and water, formaldehyde is non-toxic but you don’t want it on you all the same. There’s a big sign in front of the sinks: DO NOT WASH ORGANS IN SINK. Wash your hands and dry them, and now let’s have a moment of silence for all the dead people that donated their bodies so we could poke and prod inside them today, so that we could see how the body really looked from the inside, not bright red and green and pink and blue and labeled like in our textbooks, but a confusing jumble of stuff, all red with blood when they were alive, and now all grayish because they’ve been embalmed. And then everybody looks up, smiles, the students thank the med students, the med students thank us back for being so cooperative and interested, assure us that they are sure the donors would be glad to know that their bodies were used to educate highschool students for two hours on an early Sunday morning, thank us again, and then everybody disperses, and now it’s lunch time, so go get a pizza, don’t think about the dead bodies anymore. There's a cafe downstairs that has light meals if you're interested, great tuna sandwiches, and ham and chicken ones too, so if you don't want to walk to the pizza place, it's available. So close that I bet you can smell the embalming fluid, thick and intense, trying to keep the bodies from decomposing, smell it as you enjoy your tuna sandwich. Dead humans upstairs, dead fish in your mouth...