5 Horrifying Things Real Dead Bodies Do (Too Weird For TV)
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.
You 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.
It 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."
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.
Morgues Look Nothing Like You Think
In movies and TV, morgues are dimly lit basements shot in cold blue light with maybe a screeching violin or two for atmosphere. For example, there's, uh, The Morgue ...
"It takes place in ... the morgue."
But in real life morgues are places of work, and they look like it. They're well lit, since it's impossible to do a proper dissection with Matrix rave-lighting, and there are literally walls of sinks, because you're going to be washing yourself and your tools almost constantly.
They're not isolated, either: My current lab is around the corner from the gym, and another morgue I worked at was down the hall from a kitchen and a hop, skip, and a jump from a food court.
The smells from the Arby's were disgusting, but we got used to it.
That's not to say it isn't horrifying; it's just that the horror is more mundane. Like, there was a cabinet full of stacks of human organs organized into orange buckets and Tupperware. I'd glance up and see "lungs, 2011" written on some tape -- there were literally lungs older than my smartphone just sitting on that shelf. And there was our jigsaw, which was perpetually covered with fragments of human bone and assorted tissue. In our anatomy lab, there were a bunch of "specimens" (pieces of guy) just sitting on an AV cart. Why an AV cart? Well, apparently the AV department had rolled it in for a presentation and forgot it there, so med students started stacking stuff (i.e. 65 percent of a dude) on it. For some reason, the AV people didn't really want it back.
Your Body Is A Wonderland (And That Sucks)
Everyone is unique and different. Sure, that's magical or whatever, but it's also a pain in the ass when you're trying to learn how to be a doctor. If you're particularly biologically quirky -- you're the anatomical Zooey Deschanel -- you can seriously stall out my education. Because we only get one cadaver, and that thing has to last us a whole semester. We learn about bodies from those bodies, so if your lung is a mottled bag of stygian pus, I just have to hope I can make friends with someone who's got a good one that I can learn from.
We want you to die healthy.
Breast implants? Fuck 'em. Valve replacements? To hell with 'em.
We all pitied students with a fat cadaver: Every organ was caked with inches of the stuff that needed to be painstakingly scraped away, making every dissection twice as long and 10 times as disgusting.
But it was still nice of your mom, donating her body to science.
One of the worst stories I've heard is a bunch of students struggling over penis dissection all day only to discover the source of their confusion: The guy had a penis pump installed that no one had known about.
Dead Bodies Are All Sorts Of Fun, And All Sorts Of Dangerous
Most muscles are layered, and it's not immediately obvious what connects to what. So the best way to find out is just to pull on a tendon and see what moves -- it quickly becomes commonplace to beckon your lab partner by plucking the strings that manipulate a dead person's index finger.
"Real funny, Jean. Hey, check out what this tendon does."
A friend, Abby Normal, once mentioned how much she enjoyed digging around in the nerves behind the eyes.
"When I was at the back of the skull, there's a lot of fat around the eye and I would occasionally pull a muscle by accident," she said. "After one time I did it, my classmate put down her scalpel and was like, 'I'm done; it looked at me.'"
The cadavers will even make noises:
"One time, the professor and a group of students were examining a body and they put pressure on it in such a way that all of the gas in the body went straight up through the chest and past the vocal cords, and he said, 'OoooOOOOH.'"
"And that's why we have the class rifle now ... just in case."
But it's not all fun and games.
Once, one of our students got confused about his cadaver and his own arm, and he merrily sliced into his own skin. Bits of blood, bone and flesh have flopped into virtually every student's mouth at some point. If you get cavalier when digging in the cadaver with a scalpel and it breaks off somewhere in the recesses of a hip flexor, you've basically laid a landmine for your partner or future self -- one hidden deep inside rotting human flesh. Neosporin isn't going to cut it on that wound.
Tip: Scalpel mines are a great way to ensure future cadavers.
Operating a bone saw is pretty cool, but it leaves incredibly sharp edges. That means a run-in with a sawed-off bone can leave more than one mangled body in the vicinity. Abby very nearly split herself open on the end of a sheared clavicle.
Hey -- at least she could have pointed to the scar and told people that the guy who did that to her is now dead. Technically, that would've been perfectly accurate.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Horrific Things You Learn Preserving Brains for a Living and 5 Awful Realities of Transporting Human Corpses for a Job.
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