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What it’s like to work in an anatomy lab

Posted by bostonki on January 16, 2017 in biology, medicine, science

**Proceed with caution.  I won’t get too grotesque, but some details may leave readers with an uncomfortable knot in their stomach.**

Seventy year old organs, preserved in jars behind a locked glass door.  Some are more than organs.  There was a pair of conjoined twins and a multitude of fetuses at various stages of development.  I found out by cleaning off the glass jars once that these lids were not secure, and quickly changed tasks.  The smell of formaldehyde and antisocial coworkers hits you the minute you step through the doors.  All looks innocent upon first glance – just row after row of closed up lab tables, large doors lining one wall, and a roll-down metal door barrier along the other.  It’s only once you study or work here that you realize the large doors lining the wall are coolers to store cadavers and that behind that metal barricade is a complete embalming station and crematorium.

(mmm… brains)

I spent six months of my freshman year working in a gross anatomy lab.  It was extremely fascinating at some times, and utterly intolerable at others.

My coworker always had the ‘tour body’ on hand – the one we would show high schoolers who came through and marveled at it.  It was already completely dissected.  I remember coming here in my senior year of high school and seeing this very body, my class passing around the unattached limbs and marveling at the beautiful structure and complexity of it all.  I remember him peeling back the cadaver’s mesentery and small intestine and showing us the cadaver’s ovaries and fallopian tubes – how small they looked!  Now, I was on the other side of things.  We gave a tour, which thanks to the demanding teacher and obnoxious kids, resulted in them pushing and shoving their way into the restricted crematorium and embalming areas.  I think they were perpetually freaked out after that incident, considering there was an embalming in the process.

We did the famous work of the ancient Egyptians, without the cliché white wrap and with modern instrumentation.  The cadaver is to be placed on a clean table (all of the sudden, horrifying memories of being assigned to clean off a table post-dissection are flooding back).  They are rinsed down and their heads shaven.  A drill (yes, like the DeWalt in your basement) is used to make a small hole through their skull.  We go through the bone.  As the embalming fluid is pushed through the body via the femoral artery, blood exits through this hole (I know, I’m trying to be as least gross as possible), keeping the fluid pressure from getting too high.

I had a relatively high death tolerance.  I could take a group of students through a cadaver, rifle through it’s insides to find the stomach (which is actually quite hard to find when there is no food present, it’s just a thin sac with nothing in it).  I could drill the aforementioned hole and physically help push the embalming fluid into the further reaches of a body.  There were, however, my limitations.  The first time I ever assisted in cremation threw me for a loop.  So did the lab students’ last day in class, where we had to send various cadaver parts to schools around the city and state that requested them.  Or perhaps the week I spent transferring ashes from their metal tins to paper bags in anticipation of a mass burial for those who went unclaimed.  And many more experiences, which I choose to keep private both for the happiness level of this post and my personal reservoirs.

While working in an anatomy lab can be a (sort of) wonderful and educational experience, the death eventually overcame me like the dementors to Harry Potter.  Being employed there for an extended period of time can literally suck some of the happiness and life out of you.  My recommendation?  Stick to taking your fifteen-week required gross anatomy course, and then leave.  Being a student is much better and happier than seeing what goes on behind the scenes.  Trust me, I’ve experienced it both ways.