Anatomy: body, death and scholarship

It all clicks when you’re able to see an organ in its place.

Art by Jun Kwoun

Every now and then, you see students don their white coats on the grass in front of the Anderson Stuart Building. Some think it’s a weird first-year thing, others don’t really care, but ten minutes before each lab is scheduled, students flock to the lawn to put on their PPE before heading into the building. Despite the rising temperatures, the sandstone building stays cool, the air tinged with the chemical smell of ethanol.

In my time studying anatomy, my attitude towards the practical portion of the course has changed dramatically. In the beginning, the experience was completely foreign. It was shocking to see cadavers laid on stainless steel benches for students to prod at. I still can’t  stand the smell – mostly chemical – of the lab, and once had to leave a friend waiting at a restaurant post-lab because I caught a whiff of ethanol on my hand. Now, the space is a strange mix of sacred and instructional as I have come to understand the enormous undertaking that is body donation.

Gloves on, phones away, it’s sometimes a struggle between my waning motivation and the empty sections of the worksheets we’re told to complete each week. Surveying the specimens they’ve rolled out for the current topic, I try to find one that will reveal the most detail, and provide the best view of the structures I’m required to identify. This is categorically impossible, and much time is spent each week waiting for a demonstrator to check in on me before taking me to a bench with a better view.

During the first lab, I was shocked by the demonstrator’s use of a skewer to tease out the different vessels in the upper limb (an anatomists’ term for arm), before he pinched the almost string like nerve, pulling it into a triangle as it stretched between one piece of flesh and the other. Now, I poke and prod at specimens, trying to reveal the great truths of the brain, or digestive system, or something else ridiculously complicated.

Specimens are essential to anatomy students. Lectures are not to be discounted, but it all clicks when you’re able to see an organ in its place, as well as all its related structures. Depending on the topic, there are limbs, torsos, individual organs and systems laid out on the tables for study. Most jarring are the viscera (organs), which are locked away in Sistema boxes that could have been used to transport cupcakes, or something else inane, but instead contain flesh and its accompanying ethanol juice.

Body donations are complex, and require much forethought by the donor. There are forms to fill out, and next of kin to be informed. The Anatomy Act (1977) sets out a complex set of rules for donation, designating who can sign off on a donation – interestingly, even if someone expresses their wish to donate their body, if their next of kin does not consent then it’s over. Should they die within the Sydney metropolitan area with none of the disqualifying conditions and their next of kin consents, USyd may retain their body for up to 8 years with the Department of Health, or indeed indefinitely. The families are not allowed to view the body, or any body in the program.

Cremation or burial is offered, but bodies are buried in a private cemetery in Macquarie Park and are therefore unable to be visited. If cremated, ashes are scattered amongst gardens in the Northern Suburbs. Donated bodies are sequestered away for the sole purpose of enriching students.

Specimens are prosected by professional staff within the Anatomy department, and may take weeks or months to prepare. Delicate specimens depicting the precise relationship between the omentum (a fold of connective tissue between the stomach and other abdominal organs) and the intestines seem simple, but require dedicated and precise expertise to create.

Anatomy is one of the truly holistic courses one can take at university. Students learn an immense amount about the human body in a very short time, but they are also confronted with the ethics of their learning conditions. In America, where medical students dissect an entire body during their first year of training, it was common to rob graves in the 19th century to provide learning material. Today, instead of desecrating burial sites, medical students rely on the generosity of donors; people who wish to dedicate their body to scientific discovery and training.

Before even stepping foot in the lab, students are confronted with this knowledge. They learn to use lab time productively, maximising the use of a specimen before moving to the next item on an exhaustive checklist. They wade through the intense jargon, the oppressive smell, and the unfamiliar textures, all for the purpose of better understanding the human body, its structures and ailments.

Often lungs are slightly blackened on the outside – tiny collections of carbon induced by smoking or inhaled pollutants. Sometimes a structure looks completely different depending on the specimen. Vessels surrounding the heart may be excessively muscular due to high cholesterol levels. On all specimens, there is evidence of a life lived, and students are taught to grapple with that as they study.

Despite it all – the smells, the sensations, the tinge of death at the corners of the labs – anatomy remains a strong passion of mine. The opportunity to study cadavers is not something to take lightly, and any discomfort is easily quelled by the gratitude students have for donors.

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