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First times - cadaveric dissection

Dealing with death and dying is part of every doctor's experience.

Cadaveric dissections can prove to be emotionally complex for those involved and often raise a range of ethical issues. It is worth thinking about how the procedure might make you feel before you participate in one.

Our cadaver was a 62-year-old ex-sailor... The cancer in his lung felt like sand under the blade. I felt it in my hands long after the lesson was over. It was strong and frightening... Even as we reduced him to pieces, I knew that he was real, that he had stories to tell, that he had looked out at the sea from the decks of ships.. 

Frank Huyler: "The Blood of Strangers: True Stories from Emergency Medicine"

Many of us will only have seen a dead body on television or in the movies, and that in itself can make us feel uncomfortable.

A cadaveric dissection might be the first time you have direct physical contact with a dead body, and it is difficult to predict how you might react emotionally.

You should consider a number of questions in advance:

  • What will a room of dead bodies look like?
  • What or who will be under the sheet?
  • What does a preserved body look like?
  • How does it, he or she feel to the touch?
  • If you have a religious belief, how will it affect your approach to cadaveric dissection?

In this most sombre and serious of situations you might reflect on your own mortality. There might be a temptation to act frivolously, but that could mask feelings of fear and confusion.

There is also the issue of how cadavers should be treated. You might feel a sense of duty to the person who donated his or her body.

The use of human cadavers for teaching purposes is so steeped in ethical issues that it has been cited as one of the reasons for abandoning anatomical dissection altogether at Peninsula Medical School.

The issues are not easily resolved, all of which adds to the frightening and fascinating nature of the dissecting room experience. Reflecting on the above might help prepare you for your first experience of cadaveric dissection.

How we approach death and dying will influence how we look after our patients throughout their lives and how we support our patients through their final days.