6 Realities Inside The Lab That Harvests Your Organs
If you wanted to be laid to rest in factory condition, we have some bad news for you: Either due to an illness, autopsy, or biopsy, chances are that a hospital is going to eventually cut out some of your organs, which they'll then send for storage/analysis to their pathology lab, raising the obvious question: How fucked up is it to work in a place like that? OK, maybe that's only the obvious question to us. So we sat down with Lisa, who used to work in a pathology lab, and she said ...
Your Organs Arrive At The Lab Via Pneumatic Tubes
Doctors and nurses are very busy people. They have just enough time to gut you like a Halloween pumpkin, but they can't be bothered to schlep your guts from the operating room to the pathology lab themselves. That's a task for ... what? Organ monkeys? How does that job get done?
"I worked at a medium-sized hospital," Lisa told us, "and even then it was a good seven- to eight-minute walk from the lab to the OR." That's why a lot of hospitals still rely on pneumatic tubes.
"Liver's stuck. Get the medical broom handle."
You don't really see them around anymore, but back in the early-20th century, pneumatic tubes were more popular than polio and the Charleston combined. Basically, they're pipes that use compressed air or a vacuum to transport small packages over short distances, like letters and memos in old-timey office buildings, or human flesh in new-timey hospitals. Lisa explains:
"In my hospital, the specimen's journey started in the operating room, where one of the nurses would pack it up in a specimen container. There are various sizes, ranging from about the size of a small prescription bottle (for skin biopsies) to containers shaped like cookie tins for kidneys, partial foot amputations, big ol' sections of bowel, etc."
Or you can use a hand to play the most horrifying game of tag imaginable.
"The nurses would put the container in a biohazard bag," Lisa continues, "then slip the paperwork into a sleeve on the outside of the bag, and put a bunch of specimens into a pneumatic tube capsule. ... Then you go to the tube station, which is just a hole in the wall with padding where the capsules land, and push a bunch of buttons to tell it where you want it to go." Which means that whenever you're in a hospital, there might be containers full of Cannibal's Delight whizzing by just inches away from you inside the building's walls.
Doctors Call Dibs On Body Parts
If a surgeon removes something weird from your body, it goes to the pathology lab for storage. It will stay there for about six weeks in case the doctor was wrong and it was a totally normal thing that really needs to go back inside you, ASAP. According to Lisa, "This results in the walls of our lab being lined with metal shelves holding hundreds of specimens floating in jars" -- like some kind of artisan pickle store.
"Would you care for some organic, free-range, dill pancreas?"
After six weeks, the specimens get incinerated as medical waste, unless a doctor simply decides to keep one because of how cool it looks. Lisa says, "Doctors would leave notes on particularly interesting specimens like 'Save this one for me!' and then it would be kept in the lab indefinitely. ... Whole organs from autopsies would be kept by the pathologists for teaching, ostensibly, but I have to assume that some of the docs just liked the creepy 'Victorian-era medical oddity freak show' aspect of keeping organs around."
A few doctors managed to build some impressive collections. "There was a shelf of specimens in the walk-in fridge that was 'Dr. Smith's shelf,' which was full of ancient, gray organs swimming in formalin that hadn't been touched for years, but that we couldn't do anything about, because it was Dr. Smith's."
What would happen if someone removed one of Dr. Smith's specimens, you ask? Oh, nothing. Nothing that anyone could ever prove, anyway.
"... And like a week later, there was this riot down in the village."
The Lab Constantly Smells Of Shit
"If I came into work in the morning and smelled poop, I knew it was going to be a bad day," Lisa told us, which first made us laugh, but then she continued with the story and the laughter died.
"People with cancer or other blockages sometimes have the blood supply to parts of their bowel cut off, which makes the bowel die while it's still inside them. So the surgeons take it out and reconnect the good bits. ... That dead bowel goes to pathology, so you have necrotic tissue that's starting to rot, plus fecal matter that's pretty old, plus the smell of flesh and blood, plus the formalin used to preserve everything, and you have this awful cocktail of smells that never seems to get out of your nose."
You can't even see a poop emoji without getting flashbacks.
"Also," Lisa unfortunately continues, "the pathology assistants had to remove the feces manually, to get samples from the bowel, which sometimes ended badly. Once, one of the residents decided to put the end of the bowel over the spigot on the sink, like a hose, to flush all of the poop out the other end of the intestine. He underestimated the force of the water, or something, and suddenly there was poop-smelling water all over his bench, his face shield, his blue plastic gown, and the floor."
Thankfully, none of it hit the fan, so it couldn't have been that bad.
Your Flesh Becomes An Arts & Crafts Project
Cancer is a real son of a bitch, with the power to kill even God, so whenever a hospital removes a tumor from a patient, they have to be stone cold bastards, too. They cut away a lot of healthy tissue surrounding the tumor, just in case some sneaky cancer is hiding inside it. That sacrificed healthy tissue is called a "margin," and it's what pathology lab workers end up looking at most of the day to make sure that a patient's cancer hasn't spread.
"I appreciate your enthusiasm, but stabbing each individual cell is not an effective treatment."
However, Lisa points to a slight problem with that procedure: "Once you take a lump out, it looks like a wobbly yellow blob of fat and there's no way to tell which way is up." So even if you find a little bit of cancer in one corner of the margin, you won't be able to explain to the surgeon where they should stab their patient a few more times to get all of the disease out ... unless you color-code the specimen.
"The surgeon or the pathology assistant would take a breast lump, for instance, and then carefully ink each edge of the specimen (for example, blue for the left, green for the right, yellow for the bottom, black for the top) and note down which edge went with which color. ... That way, we could very carefully make slides from each edge and label them so that if we found cancer cells at the blue edge, the surgeon would know to go back in and remove more tissue from the left side, etc."
Basically like playing life-saving games of Twister and Operation. At the same time.
So that's how we fight cancer: with the power of coloring!
You're Picturing Your Organs All Wrong
Years of horror movies have probably given you a fairly accurate idea of what the inside of the human body looks like, right? Let's take color for example. We all know that our organs are all shades or red and pink, what with them sitting inside us all day getting marinating in blood. But then there are organs like the gallbladder. Lisa explains: "The gallbladder is bright green!"
"Shit! She's got plutonium in her chest! We need to rip it ... oh, never mind."
"It's a small organ located on the right side of your abdomen, and its purpose is to store bile to help digest your food. Bile is actually green, so the gallbladder is also green. Stones can form in your gallbladder if the bile salts crystallize, which is incredibly painful." Despite that, she says, "The stones can be quite pretty, ranging in color from gray to turquoise to forest green."
Your liver is also nothing like you're picturing it. "It's a pretty imposing-looking organ; it's not squishy like the rest of your abdominal organs, and it's much darker. It's smooth, firm, dark burgundy, and it has a pretty angular shape. It's also bigger than people think; it takes up a fair amount of the right side of your torso, just under your rib cage."
No way Dr. Lecter ate that in one sitting.
Lastly, let's talk about why every disemboweling movie scene is wrong. According to Lisa, "Your intestines aren't just a jumble of tangled rope sitting in your belly! It really bothers me when movies and TV shows get this wrong. If the intestines have been surgically removed, they might look like rope, but if you're disemboweling someone, the intestines don't just spill out because they are attached to tissue called the mesentery" -- which actually looks like a horrific fleshy spiderweb. You'd think horror movies would take advantage of that disturbing fact, but we guess "rope made of bubblegum" plays better on film ...
The Work Can Be Surprisingly Dangerous
Zombies aren't real, so why do pathology techs wear chainmail in the labs? According to Lisa, "You always assume that every single specimen is HIV-positive and treat it accordingly, but close calls have happened. Once, one of the residents cut himself while dissecting a specimen from someone with hepatitis. Cutting yourself is actually pretty easy to do. Some people wear chainmail gloves on their non-dominant hand for that reason, but a lot of people don't like them because they interfere with your sense of touch and your dexterity."
You're performing delicate lab work, not shucking oysters.
"Another time," Lisa continues, "we got a lung specimen that seemed fine, so it was dissected on a regular bench, but then a report came back that it looked like tuberculosis, so we had to isolate all the equipment it had touched, and everyone walked around breathing pretty lightly until we found out how to clean up tuberculosis germs."
Speaking of breathing, there are a few studies out there that suggest that formaldehyde, the thing used to preserve human remains, might actually give you nose cancer if you inhale too much of it. It's why pathology lab techs wear sensors to measure air quality and make sure that it isn't above the allowable limit for all the various chemicals. But as horrifying as that is, it's kind of comforting to think that even in death, our bodies still have the potential to influence other people's lives. It would be nice if it was through something else besides giving them cancer, HIV, or hepatitis, but you take what you can get.
"If this is your last breakfast burrito, colon, in death you shall have the last laugh."
Lisa is an aspiring nurse practitioner working in LGBTQ and sexual health, and will probably never quite grasp the nuances of normal dinner conversation. Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist, interviewer, and editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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