Not for the faint of heart: Mrs. Lewin’s Class Trip to the SUU Cadaver Lab

by Carson Sawyer

Last Tuesday, Mrs. Lewin’s CE Anatomy & Physiology class went to a cadaver lab at Southern Utah University. Beforehand, they were asked to eat a good breakfast, put on good walking shoes, and bring a mask–to help with the smells of chemicals and cadavers that they would face.

I asked McKinley Hamilton, a CHS Sophomore, about her experience. “I thought that it was going to be a little bit different,” she said. “I didn’t know that they were going to be taking all of the integument off, and it was a lot drier [than I thought it would be]. It was also weird how the eyes were still attached to the brain, and I thought that the optic nerves would have been longer.” I also asked her about her thoughts during the closer inspection of the cadaver. Hamilton stated, “I was hesitant to touch anything, but it was cool to see how the [body parts] were different.” Finally, I asked her if she would do this again if she ever had the chance. “I probably would, but I’d probably not have the opportunity again because I’m not going into the medical field.”  

Myra Wareham, a CHS Senior, also went to the cadaver lab. “I really enjoyed it. I like doing that type of hands-on stuff, and it’s good to get used to it.” Myra Wareham wants to be a certified nursing assistant throughout college to help her get into medical school, so this was a great opportunity for her. “It was cool to see it in person because in class we just see a lot of cow hearts and pig brains. It was different to see human parts, and it made me excited to get into med school.” Wareham had also brought a baby along with her to the cadaver lab–mind you, one of the Adult Roles “babies” that are commonly seen throughout the school during this time of year. “It kind of prevented me from being really involved,” she said. “I couldn’t touch the organs because I had to burp my baby and attend to it, but I could still educate myself by looking at what was happening.” I asked Wareham if she felt queasy during the lab. “No,” she firmly replied. I was surprised by her quick response, so I had to ask her if she felt even a tiny bit queasy at any point in time during the lab. “Not at all,” she said confidently and with a smile.

I also participated in this trip to the cadaver lab with my class. We started our journey by walking from the Cedar High School building to the SUU campus. After reaching the campus, we filed into the cadaver lab. On my way in, I noticed three black countertops equipped with swivel chairs. Past them were two stainless steel dissection tables with hoods. All cadavers and parts were currently stored away and out of sight. 

I chose a seat closest to the dissection table in the upper left-hand corner of the room. The hood was closed. I noticed a tube that came out below the dissection table and into a bucket that collected drainage—clear fluid with flecks of red and black. Once the SUU instructor saw that we were settled in, she started the visit by doing a run-through of plastic anatomical models, including the brain and the heart. We looked at the chambers and the lobes, and we were given some quick identification questions. The instructor emphasized a lobe located deep inside the brain that she had found (from asking her students) was not covered in high school psychology classes: the fifth lobe known as the insula. After a series of eerie silences and some answers, we walked to the far counters where we picked up blue disposable gloves. We moved on to cadaver organs on trays. 

There was a heart—two hearts. They were dry. I heard someone comment that one looked like a potato while someone else said that the other one looked like chicken. There was also a brain–with blue eyes. The instructor carried it so that each of the students could get a chance to examine it. The brain looked like a brain, but it was interesting to see that the eyes were still attached and hanging. The instructor pointed out that her previous students saw a connection there with the brain-like aliens in Jimmy Newtron (The Adventures of Jimmy Newtron: Boy Genius). I was still processing, so I thought that she had said that it looked like Jimmy Newtron himself—I didn’t think he looked that creepy. I also saw that the brain contained a lot of dark lines of dried blood squiggling around it. When I touched the brain, it was somewhat firm. I also saw the attached spinal cord. Near the bottom, it branched off in strings. The instructor commented that this—the cauda equina—looked like spaghetti. She also said that the cauda equina’s (Latin) name stands for “horse’s tail.” I thought that the name fit well. 

After a while, some students gathered around the covered hood dissection table in the upper right-hand corner of the room, while those that were sitting at the nearest black countertop area remained seated. I stayed at my seat near the (still closed) dissection table in the upper left-hand corner of the room. The instructor finally revealed the cadaver and opened the stainless steel covers. I didn’t smell much due to my allergies (but for the rest of the day, I did smell a faint odor). The instructor then told us the cadaver’s age and sex. Some students remarked on the noticeable nail polish.

The cadaver was cut in the frontal plane, allowing the rib cage to be removed and reveal the organs below. An arm was also removable. The instructor explained that the integument of the cadaver had been taken off long beforehand with the use of a scalpel and hands. The muscles were therefore all easily noticeable, including what the instructor called the “Oreo” muscles of the upper arm: the biceps, brachialis, and triceps. 

After some instructions, organs started to get passed around. When they neared the area of the circle closest to my spot’s direction, I got up and ventured near the back in preparation to handle a few. The instructor also showed each of us the lungs. She said that it felt like memory foam. I squished the remaining squishy part of the lungs. It did feel like memory foam. I decided to sit back down. The instructor went back to discussing the cadaver (the small intestine can reach around 22 feet) as I saw the liver make the rounds. A student near the cadaver compared the integument to salmon. Another student commented that the ribs looked like ribs. Much of the preserved cadaver was compared to jerky. I walked back to the crowded group and held the liver. It was black, and it was hard—not as firm as a rock but close to it. I handled a few more organs, as well as bones displaying hip replacement and knee replacement surgeries that the instructor had taken out from what looked like a white bin. Afterward, I walked back to my spot. Mrs. Lewin was sitting nearby. I mentioned that I thought that the textures of the body parts were interesting. She explained to me that some of the textures could have been affected by their preservation. 

The instructor then went to the covered hood dissection table right next to my spot and opened it up to the students. I didn’t get up from my seat. I took as large of breaths as I could through my nose and mask. The instructor revealed the cadaver’s age and sex (opposite that of the first cadaver). I noticed nothing especially peculiar about the cadaver compared to the first one, but the instructor pointed out the comparatively larger amount of “material” that was left in the digestive organs. She also pointed out that it gave off its own smell. 

During the remaining five minutes, some students braved themselves under the instructor’s invitation to quickly examine the head of the cadaver. I heard a student remark on the cadaver’s white teeth. I looked on from my seat, but I didn’t see much as the students up close lifted what I thought looked like a mixture of plastic packaging and cloth. Others looked at the final display the instructor brought out: a midsagittal cut of a head (allowing us to see the brain in the cranium). 

Afterwards, I went over to the sink where a few others had already lined up to wash their hands. I noticed that my gloves had become slippery as I removed and threw them in the nearby trash can. I quickly placed some soap in my hands and thoroughly lathered them up while I waited for my turn at the sink. After I scrubbed my hands with water, I gathered with the rest of the students outside of the room as the lab came to a close. 

Before we went back to the school, quite a few students took out their smartphones. I thought that was gross (I gave it a solid half hour until lunchtime). Some students remarked on how they got substances on places other than their hands that were previously gloved. 

The class then walked back briskly to the school (we didn’t want to miss too much of XLT). As we were walking, I found that a short distance had grown between me and the rest of the class behind me and the two groups of two students in front of me. I thought that it was a beautiful day outside. The air was crisp and there was a cool breeze. It was different from that room. I thought of the cadavers and the health problems that they had—cancer and a heart filled with wires. I decided that I should focus more on my health. After I got back to Cedar High School, I washed my hands again.

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