A Cadaveric Nightmare

Well, the course MBBS doesn’t look too bad in the first sight. People will start respecting you once they know you are studying medicine. You will get to wear the prestigious medical lab coat, you will get to learn how to use the stethoscope, the Sphygmomanometer (these are instruments that always amused me), and all things related to the doctor. Things can be very exciting in the beginning.

Amidst all the excitement, there comes a subject to make things more interesting. That’s anatomy- the study of the structural organization of the human body. This brings in another excitement to the course-The dissection of a real human body.

The dead bodies are embalmed (a technique of preservation) and then made available for the medical students to dissect. Dissection of a real human body is the best method to study human anatomy. I was always excited about this idea of dissecting a real human body and when our anatomy teachers announced that dissections will start today, I almost jumped with excitement. Entering the dissection hall with the lab coats on, dissection instruments,dissection manual and the gloves, I found two human arms lying on a table. Later on, a new cadaver (preserved human body) too arrived on the spot. But there was something else that caught my attention the most: the smell. Formalin is an aldehyde (IUPAC: Methanal) that is extensively used in the embalming process. As the cadaver was new, it was giving out formalin fumes and the room was filled with the smell of formalin. The cadaver was not preserved well. So there was a faint smell of decomposing flesh too. I found the mixed smell a bit irritating (even though not anything offensive).

The teacher who had to guide the dissection arrived with gloves on. She asked: “Ok, Let’s start the dissection. We are going to start with the dissection of the pectoral region (the front of the chest). Who is brave enough to dissect first?” Well, I was in such a great amount of excitement that I wanted to dissect the whole cadaver in one go. So I quickly raised my hands, enough to get the teacher’s attention. She asked me to prepare my dissection instruments. While I was busy loading the newly opened sterile surgical blade to the scalpels, the head of the anatomy department arrived. As it was our first anatomy dissection, she asked the teacher not to ask the students dissect now, but to do that herself and make the students just see the structures. I was sad that I lost the opportunity, as it was the teacher’s turn to dissect now. I placed my dissection instruments back into the dissection box, held my books in my hands and stood at the back of the crowd to watch the teacher dissecting the pectoral region and that’s where the fun began.

The smell that was slightly irritating in the beginning now started to irritate more. The teacher started to remove the skin of the cadaver which exposed the superficial fascia. This released more formalin fumes into the atmosphere. I found my discomfort increasing. I started having an eerie feeling in my stomach and that’s where I started thinking: “Am I going to faint? I have heard stories about people fainting in the anatomy dissection hall. I used to think: What these people are worth for? Can’t they just see a human body being dissected? Even in my faintest of dreams I had not imagined that I am going to faint in the dissection halls mainly because I did not consider me that soft a man. I was in a mood to be Mr.Dissector and Mr.Dissectors won’t faint. I started moving the fingers of my leg vigorously (which, as I heard somewhere could increase blood supply and reduce the chances of fainting) but proved to be of no use. Slowly my eyesight began to fade. I knew I may not be able to hold any more. I quickly turned right expecting visuals of the nearby chair, but it was too late. I could not see a thing. I turned back to the crowd expecting some sort of support and suddenly everything went black.

I heard voices that were asking to hold someone and it was me. I remember being held by some powerful arms. I opened my eyes to meet the smiling face of the teacher.

“Take him there”

“No need, I can walk myself”

My pride (which I was not sure whether anything was left) was not allowing me to be Mr.Fainter. I walked all the distance to the chair and sat there. Another anatomy teacher came over to me and asked me to go and wash my face. I walked over to the wash basin. The teacher accompanied me. Well, the stories are true. Even non-soft people like me do faint in the dissection halls. This is the first time in my life that I am fainting somewhere and it was too unfortunate that it happened to be in front of fifty people. The teacher who was accompanying me to the wash basin said: “Don’t worry, it happens”! I felt a bit angry. Thank you for the information. That’s what happened now and I don’t seriously think there is a need for a commentary from your part. But I am the culprit here and I had to bear whatever comes en route.

Once I reached the wash basin, I felt dizzy again and the teacher who was accompanying me suddenly caught hold of me and carried me to an empty space. He gave me sugar to eat and that made me happy (I have a sweet tooth!). Sitting in the open for ten minutes helped me to clear my lung out of the formalin fumes and I started feeling good again.

With the teacher’s permission, I walked back to my dissection hall. From the teacher, I knew that I was the sole person fainted and that made me a bit sad (I seek company always and the thought that there is going to be nobody to share the Mr.Fainter title was too much for me).

When I re-entered the class I found a lot of white teeth. I was too ashamed to look up and find out the faces of these smiling people. What is there to smile? After all, it was simply a case of fainting! That is very usual, right? I quietly joined the back of the group. One person standing beside me asked:

“Rana, are you okay?”

“Do I look okay to you?”

He might have asked out of sympathy and I might have been a bit too rude, but that helped to seize any further sympathy expressions from people standing nearby. The dissection classes ended without any further problems. While I was walking out of the class, another one of my classmates came running to me. She was too sympathetic to me and asked:

“Are you a non-vegetarian?”

“Yes. Why?”

“And still you fainted?”

“Chicken does not come cooked in formalin”

That helped. She shut her mouth and walked away quietly. From the next few classes I verified the fact that it is the smell and only the smell that makes me dizzy. Within a week I got myself acclimatized to the smell and now I am very comfortable during the dissection hours. A few well preserved cadavers too arrived on the spot later and now I am on my path of becoming Mr.Dissector. Whatever be the condition of the mind, we should respect our bodies. If formalin in the air makes my body uncomfortable, then I should train my body to overcome that defect. That’s where I went wrong in the beginning. Foot Note: I came to know from my seniors that the first fainter in the dissection hall will become an excellent dissector in the future. That helped me to ease out a little bit. I want to be an excellent dissector and if fainting can somehow help me to do that, then fainting is for good!

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  1. If it is a theory class,
    You can attend theory classes without any problem, but when it comes to the practical aspects of medicine, you face trouble. There won’t be any nasty smell,or terrifying sights in theory, you know. Practical is the true thing. There is a proverb in Malayalam – “Eattile pasu pullu thinnilla” ;). Life is mostly based on practical knowledge. So practice the life,and be practical.ALL THE BEST.

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