With so many people winding the halls on a daily basis, few stop to consider what lies behind an inconspicuous door just a few feet away from the hospital post office—the gross anatomy lab.
The smell of embalmment whacked me in the face the second Steve Wilson, the gross anatomy lab manager, opened the door to the lab. The lab itself was harmless enough: with bright white lights and shiny metal tables, it initially resembled a pristine doctor’s office. A closer look inside, however, revealed lines of tables covered with cadavers—some in opaque bags, others relatively exposed in clear plastic.
There are 44 cadavers in the lab at a time, Wilson said. The ones in blue bags are specifically reserved for medical students, and the rest are for physician assistants’ use. All were donated through the anatomical gifts program.
Handling the cadavers is no easy business. As we walked through the lab, Wilson pointed out drip buckets underneath the tables, which catch fluids that leave the cadavers over time. An additional black bucket on the side gives medical students an area to place the flesh they carve off of the bodies.
The average age of the cadavers is 79, however two males in the lab are ages 20 and 101, Wilson said. Cadavers stay in the lab for 18 to 24 months, and are cremated afterwards. If the family decides not to hold onto the ashes, Wilson drives out to a specific portion of the Duke Forest near the Duke Lemur Center to spread the ashes.
Making our way through the chilly gross anatomy lab, which is kept at 62 degrees to help preserve the bodies, Wilson offered to show me another portion of the lab. Moving past a gaggle of skeletons, some of which are made of real bone, we entered another portion of the lab where Sports Medicine students study cadavers.
Although the smell was slightly less pungent, a box of legs on the left-hand side and tables lined with sharp surgical tools did nothing to detract from my overall sense of uneasiness during the tour.
Almost as if he had been sensing my uneasiness, Wilson turned to me with a playful smile and said, “want to see something really spooky?”
As I waited outside of the embalmment room for Wilson to cover a cadaver he had been in the midst of embalming, I tried to mentally prepare myself to look at unprepped bodies. But Wilson was back quicker than I expected, and he proceeded to open the door to the freezer.
“Now this is like something in a movie,” he said as I stepped inside.
The freezer is typically lined with bags of bodies, but at that time only four were stocked in the freezer, Wilson said.
After keeping a brave face for a solid minute, I stumbled back into the gross anatomy lab, thanked Wilson for his time and sprinted outside into the brisk October air.
But I’m not the only one who has been thankful for simply surviving an excursion to the lab.
Rasheed Alhadi, a junior studying biomedical engineering, said his first encounter with a cadaver was unexpected.
“They took out the black body bag and wrapped in cloth was half a body—no limbs at all, no legs and no arms,” he said. “It was already dissected but to an extent so there was no skin on the body, but the face was intact.”
He added that the most disturbing part of the experience was when he unwrapped the head.
“The head was wrapped with the cloth, so first we unfolded the cloth around the body and that was a little disturbing, but once we unwrapped the head that was the most disturbing for me,” he said. “It was real and you could tell it was a person’s face, so I guess that was the weirdest thing for me.”
As a premedical student, Alhadi has never dissected a body, but discussed a time where he watched the dissection of a three-year old baby by students studying cervical spine testing.
“It kind of reminded me of a doll… like a doll from Toys”R”Us because of how cold and stiff the body was,” he said.
Imad Labban, Pratt ’85, took an anatomy course during a Duke summer session. Labban said his friend convinced him to take the class because he wanted a lab partner and promised it would be an “easy A.”
The class was on the anatomy of the leg, and when students arrived the first day, they were given a leg to work with for the rest of the six-week course. Labban and his partner were given a female leg.
“I felt sorry for the guys on the other side of me because they had this fat person’s leg, and fat when you expose it to air for a while gets rancid by week two or three,” he said. “So we have to go in and find all the muscles and veins and they were just chopping away at this thing.”
Many of Labban’s classmates were premedical students, but had picked up the course because they were on campus during the summer and wanted to take another “easy A.” As a result, many of the students struggled with the first couple weeks of dissection, he said, adding that one girl got sick on the first day.
“I couldn’t eat roast beef for the first two weeks… because the fact of the matter was when you start cutting into [the leg], it looks just like roast beef,” he said. “But by the end of it when we did have finals… we were walking around [and I had] a sandwich in my face eating and... we were totally fine.”
Aladine Elsamadicy, a first-year medical student, said even though it is difficult to work with cadavers, it is the best way to learn anatomy. Still, nothing quite preps a student for the experience, he added.
“In college I dissected a cow’s eye. Some people did a frog in middle school,” he said. “But it’s not until you get to this level where you’re not dissecting an animal, but a human who had a life [and] journey in this world that ended.”
This article was revised 11:06 p.m., Nov. 1.