I've spent the past few years preparing for a career in medicine by slicing up dead people and poking around, trying to find the little hamster wheel in the chest cavity that keeps us all running. Along the way I've learned a lot of lessons about how the human body works, sure, but more importantly, I've learned a bit about a little thing called ... love.
Oh no, wait: corpse juice. I meant corpse juice.
5You Get Quickly Desensitized To Gore, But That's No Excuse For Being Insensitive
On my first day in the cadaver lab I was already smearing Vaseline over my cadaver's face, spritzing her with preservatives, and prying her back open over a gore-splattered block of wood. Within a few days, it no longer fazed me at all. It turns out it's almost impossible to identify with these people in the midst of the dissection, because they just don't resemble people anymore. They're a project -- a bunch of biological curiosities you're dismantling and storing on a series of pie plates.
Sure, that sounds like what serial killers say, but I was doing it for science.
But there are other things that aren't so easy to be cavalier about. It really bugs me that the child drawer in the morgue was labeled in comic sans, because that's either a tasteless joke or lazy disrespect. I was really bothered when someone tied birthday balloons (not the cadaver's) to the end of a table. And then there was a senior pathologist who performed a fetopsy (fetal autopsy ... uh, one second ...
... there we go) and, after examining the fetus' GI tract, dropped the organs in the chest cavity and quipped, "I pronounce this gloppy and disgusting." We all have our defense mechanisms, but that kind of thing is less "hot doorknob from Home Alone" and more "needle-filled pit from Saw II."
But we're not all like that. Me? I am a fastidious junk-coverer.
A lot of students left the cadavers' genitals uncovered and, in some baffling cases, even used them as a handhold when peering over the body. Not me. In life, those cadavers (probably) preferred their privates private, or at least not manhandled like a grip on a pommel horse. I try to respect that. (Then again, maybe a few would have appreciated that the embalming process can and does hideously distend even modest genitals to Ron Jeremy proportions).
I'd warn you not to image search that, but you and I both know how that's going to turn out.
Also, I'd always apologize to my cadaver whenever I had to rest a textbook on her face or when I did a particularly terrible job dissecting, which was more or less always. I would even carefully explain the process I was botching. At one point, I gave her hand a reassuring squeeze when I moved it out of the way. Said hand was entirely skinless. When we began discussing the budding relationship of one of our lab partners, I did internally debate whether we should be chatting about sex acts while pulling apart the brachial plexus. Our cadaver was in her 90s. Did she really need to hear a discussion on how to deal with ball-sack sweat while engaging in a 69? Somehow the intangible stuff -- insults, propriety, and general courtesy -- becomes more important when we're cracking sternums and slicing arteries.
4It Is Way More Disgusting Than You Could Ever Guess
Each cadaver has its own fragrance, and your cadaver can absolutely go bad. I don't mean that it'll start smoking cigarettes and posting nudes on Instagram -- I mean in the same way a pound of hamburger goes bad. There's nothing like the smell of a rotting bowel cavity filled with months-old decaying human shit that wasn't quite embalmed properly. In that moment, you will weep bitter tears in terrible want for the comparatively floral aroma of normal, rotting human flesh.
"Ah, healthy decay! Not a shit bomb, and probably not a zombie."
Turns out Corpse Smell doesn't exactly wash off easily: Double-gloving doesn't help as much as it should, and sometimes "rinse and repeat" becomes "rinse and repeat and repeat and repeat and oh to hell with it."
Eventually, everyone develops their own tricks: I like to pour a gallon of lemon juice over myself, and one of my freakier lab partners douses himself in baby powder every day, which makes him look like a cocaine snowman slicing apart a human body.
"Which was coincidentally the cause of this drug dealer's death."
Subcutaneous fat ranges in consistency from yellow sludge to the world's most horrifying aspic -- until it liquefies and just glazes every surface. Every surface. It absolutely will not stop, like a Terminator of gross, until every touchscreen computer, every surgical tool, every clipboard, every chair, and everyone in the lab is covered in flecks of skin and bodily-fluid-lube. The pages of my textbook were soaked through and translucent. The floor near my cadaver got so oily that I slipped twice, once while holding a scalpel. I then acquired a shroud to stand on, so I wouldn't impale myself while whiffing it in a pool of people Jell-O.
Formaldehyde works as a preservative because it kills everything -- including us. Sometimes your hands will go numb, or you'll get an oozing skin reaction. I broke out in a rash, got horrible acne, and my tattoos became raised and itchy, like they'd decided, "To hell with this med-school stuff, we're going to go retire on some shitty DJ's neck."
Martin Allinger/Hemera/Getty Images
Again, probably not a zombie virus symptom.
Plus, it's impossible not to take your work home with you. No, literally: The morgue attendant told me that his wife has found chunks of cadaver in his hair after he gets home.