Getting the most out of Full Body Dissection

Although compulsory, whole-body cadaver dissection is becoming increasingly rare in UK medical schools. However, it is still considered an essential and enriching experience for many doctors and students. It allows you to appreciate the spatial arrangement of the body's organs and systems in relation to each other and allows you to begin to develop manual dexterity skills, which are an important foundation for many medical fields.

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Whilst compulsory, full-body cadaveric dissection is becoming less common in UK Medical Schools. However, it is still considered an essential and enriching experience for many physicians and students alike. The body is three-dimensional, so seeing and dissecting it gives you a context to images you see in textbooks, lectures and scans which strengthens your learning experience. It allows you to appreciate the spatial arrangement of organs and systems of the body relative to each other and lets you begin to develop skills of manual dexterity, which are an important foundation for many fields in medicine.

For most if not all students, dissection sessions are unlike anything they have done before. As such, it will take a few weeks to learn how to get the most out of your time with the body. Below is a list of ideas to help you in this process.

Read up beforehand

It comes as no surprise that the contents of bodies do not have labels and accompanying figure legends. If you do not know what you are looking at, you’ll get less out of the session. Certain components of the body, such as vascular and nerve supply to tissues, will not always be straightforward to find, so it’s important to know the topic of the session well so you can have confidence when seeking out these elements.

A simple way to prepare for dissection is to find out what it will be on and then read through any relevant lecture notes and textbooks for necessary detail. Then take a look at any worksheet that may accompany the session.

The British Medical Association have a short guide on preparing for cadaveric dissections. They suggest you consider these questions in advance to help you prepare:

  1. What will a room of dead bodies look like?
  2. What or who will be under the sheet?
  3. What does a preserved body look like?
  4. How does it, he or she feel to the touch?
  5. If you have a religious belief, how will it affect your approach to cadaveric dissection?
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Do not do anything you are uncomfortable with

The idea of cutting open a dead body is understandably daunting and uncomfortable for some. You can become comfortable dissecting quite quickly, but it might take you longer than others. You may feel embarrassed as others settle more quickly, but it’s important for you to not do anything you are uncomfortable with. If you feel uncomfortable dissecting any part of the body for any reason, tell your tutor and take a step back. You will improve with time.

There will be unpleasant smells

It is likely that certain tissues of the body you are dissecting will not have a pleasant smell. Coupled with this, a preservative, such as formaldehyde will be flushed through the body’s blood vessels, which can at times make your eyes water. If you need to take time to step outside the lab and have some water, don’t hesitate in doing so. You will get used to the smell to some extent.

You will be spending a few hours at any one time in the dissecting lab. As a result, it is likely the smells of the lab will latch onto your clothing, giving them a pungent odour. If you have any kind of social meeting after, it is best to bring a change of clothes. Also, whilst the blood of the body will be removed, the body will still retain fluid, which can leak when dissecting it. Speaking from personal experience, don’t wear your new pair of shoes to a dissection.

Speak up if you want to dissect

You should expect to be allocated to a body with approximately ten other students, which at times will feel like a lot of people around a single cadaver. You should also expect some students in your group to want as much time as possible with the body. If you want to dissect but feel you are not given the opportunity, you must take responsibility for your learning and be vocal, telling the team around you that you want to be involved more. Chances are the students spending maximum possible time dissecting are simply enthusiastic and are more than happy to let you spend time dissecting.

Concluding remarks

The time spent learning from the cadavers is an experience many physicians hold dear throughout their careers. Whilst these sessions are of course exciting, you should remember to be respectful. Although clinical detachment is a necessary trait of doctors, be mindful that the body you dissect was once a person, a mother/father, a brother/sister, who when alive agreed to donate their body. Ultimately, the opportunity to dissect is a gift from a patient to you.

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