Science Anecdote: Experiencing My First Autopsy!

Yesterday at work, I was unexpectedly invited to sit in and watch an autopsy!  It has been something I have wanted to do since I started working at the hospital, not because I have any intention of doing it for a living, but for the learning experience and just to be able to say that I did it!  I am going to try and recount what happened and my feelings during the whole process so DO NOT READ IF YOU ARE SQUEAMISH, my intention is not to gross anyone out :)

Okay!  Here it goes …

I followed Xavier (the guy who does all the cutting and processing of the body) down to the morgue, which I had anticipated to be much larger and open in one room a la CSI, and told me I had to get suited up in the proper protective gear:

  1. Change into a pair of scrubs.
  2. Don a white jumpsuit-esque outfit that zipped up the front.
  3. Put on a pair of booties to cover my flats.
  4. Snap on one pair of rubber gloves (one size too small so they are nice and snug).
  5. Slide on two plastic-y arm protectors with elastic around the wrist that go to the elbow (to shield you from icky stuff getting on you when reaching into the body cavity).
  6. Put on another pair of gloves (over the pair I already had on).
  7. Don another plastic apron thing with sleeves for even more protection from sprays and spills.
  8. Put on one final pair of gloves over the other 2 pairs.
  9. Secure a well-fitting mask that covers the nose and mouth.
  10. Put on a cap to cover your hair.
  11. FINALLY, put a plastic face shield on to protect from splashes, etc.

We retrieved the body (which was male) from the cold room.  The gurney was moved next to the table that would be worked on and the white bag was unzipped to reveal the body.  To be honest, this was probably the worst part of the whole procedure.  I had no idea what to expect as far as the body was concerned.  I mean, I have seen dead people at viewings and funerals, but they are all made up and look relatively “normal”.  This body was in the same state as when he died, tubes and all.  After the body was moved to the table and the water turned on to keep things relatively clean during the procedure, a Y incision was made (probably the second-freakiest part of the whole thing).  The skin of the chest area was cut away from the ribcage and the front part of the ribcage was then removed by using a buzz saw-esque instrument.  The ribcage was lifted off, carotid arteries tied (to make it easier for the mortician to find later), a cut made below the voice box and the lungs and heart were carefully cut away from the chest cavity walls.  The whole mass of lungs, heart, etc. were removed in one piece and placed on what Xavier affectionately called the “lunch tray”.

The organs of the abdomen were next: Liver (which was about 1.5x the size it should have been, and the cyst on it ruptured and the liquid shot in my direction as it was being cut at – Exciting!), Spleen (which was GROSSLY enlarged, about the size of a small head), Kidneys, Adrenal Glands, Stomach, Intestines, Pancreas, Bladder, Prostate Gland … I leant a hand during this process by holding organs out of the way, which was pretty awesome.  By this point, the body didn’t seem to have a face anymore, I took it as an educational experience and all I saw was isolated areas of body cavity with organs being moved and removed.  Every so often I would step back and look at the table and imagine it from the point of view of someone who wasn’t in my position, someone who may accidentally walk in on the procedure and see how horrifying it looks.  Science, medicine and learning isn’t always clean and pretty my friends …

The intestines were cut open and cleaned (Xavier called it “doing laundry” as this was done over a basin of water to remove intestinal gunk).  At this point, all the organs were weighed and inspected as needed and prepared for analysis by pathology.

I looked over and noticed Xavier was sitting at the head of the body and was cutting away the scalp from the skull.  It was actually kind of odd and amusing seeing the scalp and hair pulled over the face, it looked fake!  A bone saw was then used to cut a V shape into the front (to make the replacement of the skull cap easy and to prevent it from moving around, kind of like the top of a jack-o-lantern) and around the circumference of the skull.  The cap was popped off to reveal the brain – AWESOME! The brain was more greyish in color and the vessels were very apparent.  It was removed carefully and I could see the optic nerve, pituitary gland and cerebellum.  As Xavier held it in his hand I was amazed that that one organ was responsible for everything we see, feel, experience and do …

At that point I was getting a bit hungry (oddly enough) and had a long drive home.  I thanked Xavier for letting me watch and for the awesome experience, and that was about it!

I imagined being more grossed out or freaked out by the whole thing, but it was quite the contrary!  Towards the end I was sauntering around the room, poking organs and checking things out like I did this every day.  It was definitely an experience I would not pass up if you have the opportunity to do it, whether you are in the medical field or not.  It is interesting to see what your innards look like and where everything is.  I know most people know what our body looks like in cartoon diagram form, but there is nothing like seeing and touching the real deal!

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Long Weekend! « What. No Mints?


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