The Privilege of Dissection


A year ago, I was ecstatic about getting into medical school but the first year seems to have flashed by in an instant. It’s been a tense couple of months as we had to pass all the end of year exams to proceed to second year. I really wasn’t sure how I’d performed but I am so relieved to say I’ve made it through.  About one fifth of the cohort need to resit at least one exam and a few students have been “invited” to leave the course.

Looking back, one of the highlights has been full body dissection. Surprisingly, it’s offered at increasingly fewer medical schools in the UK. Instead, schools now use computer based learning, videos, pre-prepared pro-sections and plastination.  In some ways they’re better but they can’t replace the experience of standing over a body, scalpel in hand, carefully cutting and peeling back layers ourselves. Dissection is an amazing learning experience.

However, preservation of a cadaver is not without its effects on the donated body, everything becomes a shade of grey or beige and the formaldehyde stings the eyes. Whilst it must feel different to cutting into a real living human body, all the organs, muscles, nerves…etc remain in the same place so it helps us to build spatial awareness of where everything is – I can’t imagine gaining that from a book or a computer simulation.

The first time we “met” our cadaver Mr(s) X, there were a few nervous classmates. It’s understandable that some people felt faint as the dissection room is warm and the smell of the chemicals combined with the realisation that you are in a room full of dozens of dead bodies laid out on tables can be overwhelming.

Dissection is strictly regulated by the Human Tissue Authority and the school warned us that anyone caught cutting bits off the body and using them in pranks could forget about ever practising medicine. I can’t imagine how anyone could do that as it just shows a lack of respect for the person who kindly donated their body for the benefit of our learning. Anonymity and privacy are also prioritised. All we are told is the age and what the donor died of and any phones have to be switched off as almost all of them have cameras.

With each session, we progressed to removing the organs and studying them to back up our lectures and reading. Each time I was astonished by the ingenuity of the human body. It’s been truly amazing to see how everything is packed so well inside and how everything functions so well together.  No wonder man has found it difficult to design and produce anything artificial that even remotely functions as efficiently and reliably as nature. Millions of years of evolution.

After our end of year exams we attended a funeral service for those who kindly donated their bodies, together with the donors’ friends and relatives. Attendance was optional but the fact that so many students and teaching staff showed up signified that we all had the same thoughts of respect and thankfulness.

So, a big silent thank you from me to you Mr(s) X.


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