Thoughts about the first time in the lab

Many of our attendees are very familiar with dissection labs, and some come in for the first time since med school. Depending on where attendees are from, there may be social or religious aspects to consider, and we are both experienced and respectful of individuals approach to specimens and the lab.

One worry may be what condition the cadaver is in when the study starts. Unless your course specifically wants the cadaver to be brought in without any preparation, tissue usually undergo a cleaning and preservation process before they are used for study. This study preparation can reduce biohazards and unfortunate scents which may arise during the course of the study. Formaldehyde solution may also be used to help preserve the body for use during longer study periods (but we don’t commonly use preserved tissue as fresh frozen specimens give a much better learning experience). In many other courses, cadavers used for studies are two or more weeks old at the start of the study, but are stored in a freezer to prevent further necrosis.

For some people, it is the visual or mental concept of working with the cadaver which may induce some nausea—but another major factor is smell. In order to reduce any smell-based nausea that may arise, those in the lab will often place a strong smelling substance under their nose in order to block out the smell of the cadaver. Some labs may be equipped with tables that produce a downward draft, which pulls scents underneath the table and out through the venting. With time, you may also become accustomed to the smell of the cadaver because of sensory adaptation. Because we have fresh frozen tissue, smell is not a concern from our attendees.

The visual aspect of working with a cadaver may cause a stir for those without previous exposure. In many cases, if the whole body is not needed to study the device, the portion being studied will be removed from the cadaver for your use. For example, if your study only needs the legs, you may just have a table with an array of legs. Severed limbs are understandably unsettling, but such practices help preserve other areas of the body for other studies. There may also be cases where the areas of the body that aren’t being studied are covered during preparation in order to keep visuals of the cadaver at a minimum. Usually our labs mimic the set up of an operating theatre, with only the relevant anatomy visible and with drapes the same way as a patient on the table would be covered by.

Although many people want to work non-stop in order to gain as much time with the cadaver as possible, it’s completely acceptable to take an occasional break. Staff would rather have a nauseous person leave the room than for someone to get sick inside of it. If you feel uneasy about a certain part of the course, do not try to force yourself to stay in the room.

These specimens were specifically donated to further the fields of science and medicine. Respect and admiration should be shown for their generosity.

We always start our courses taking a minute of respect for the generous donors who have given their gift to those of us who are left behind.