The blue coated man looked up with an air of faked surprise: “oh, what do we have here? .. it’s a hole… !” His index and middle finger disappeared underneath a fleshy gap, “… and you can put your fingers inside it too…” he said with suspicious excitement while looking at a startled white-coated female standing across from him. The meat shifted under the pressure of his wiggling fingers from inside. She reluctantly but diligently slid her digits in the beefy gap as he pulled his out.
“Now repeat after me” he said, “superiorly, I can feel the subscapularis ” he dictated, “… the …sub …scapularis” she repeated hesitantly, “… and inferiorly I can feel the teres major” he continued mechanically, “…the …the teres major” she echoed, and quickly retracted her two fingers from the meaty hollow.
Her latex glove was covered in juices; it smelled like formaldehyde and death. At least now she knew the quandrangular space was in the arm-pit.
Welcome to Anatomy 1003.
Two white-coated teenagers dashed by and swung the door open. An intense blast of sweet, alcoholic odor hit my nostrils. I followed the boys inside to find a large brightly illuminated room abuzz with white and blue-coated bodies hurrying to collect scalpels and gloves, scrubbing hands and signing-in. There were unbuttoned lab coats with mini-skirts and high-heeled boots, more disciplined ironed coats clutching post-it ridden anatomy atlases, and then everything in between. I stood still and purposeless amongst the doctors-to-be. Around me, a frantic automated march of humans took place: the living seeking the dead. Against my hesitant and alarmed self, everyone else seemed so removed and casual in comparison, like lobotomized hens trailing in the formalin scent. Once they found a suitable corpse, the waltz came to halt, and the coats formed a small island around the dissection table.
My stomach growled. I felt dizzy and misplaced in my oversized lab coat.
“Yeah, uhm, I don’t really know what I’m doing myself” said the brunette in the blue coat “but like, you can follow me and join one of the groups. We, like … hey girl! How was your summer? … uhm … yeah so we, like, share corpses so the morning group gets one half and we get the other half… hey John!” She motioned for him to phone her.
I’d been a bone lady until then, but the time had come for me to face the meat of the matter. As a PhD student from the Anthropology department I was granted permission to attend a second year anatomy class. I was going to dissect a Homo sapiens.
There was no time for cold feet or a quick philosophizing about the human soul, death, and our purpose on earth. By the time my own light-blue latex gloves snapped over my wrists, the plastic tarp had been peeled back to uncover the assigned defunct and I found myself stomach level with very old and very dead lady.
“Testing…1, 2… hello? Ok, everyone…” announced the professor from the front of the room, “for those of you with female corpses, you should examine the breast area if you can. There’s not much there, but feel free to poke around. As clinicians you’ll end up spending most of your time inspecting the female breast more than any other part of the body, so get used to it”.
The skin looked like something between leather and plastic. The face was covered in white linen underneath a plastic bag, from which contour I could see a mouth agape. A scalpel slid awkwardly through the skin, upper chest and breast came folding across the shoulder. There was no fat to work through, and a quick glance in either direction made me realize that this was a good thing. Two thick yellowish bacon-like flaps hung heavily from either side of the corpse behind me. The students busied themselves scooping the thick fatty ooze that still adhered to the body’s muscles into a human waste disposal bucket beneath the table. I discretely fought an urge to regurgitate.
Over at my table, two females with scissors pecked their way through the fascia. A blue-coated man came over to inspect our progress. Under the judging gaze of the more senior anatomist the student’s hand slid and his scalpel sliced through an artery. He gazed up to meet the blue coat’s disapproving words: “you just killed your patient,” he said, as he took the scalpel away from the white-coated student. “You don’t need a scalpel for this” he continued, and he plunged both his hands into the cadaveric lump. Juices flew, bits of flesh were ripped, specs of white gunk came flying in every direction and a wire saw was ordered. “We need to cut through the clavicle“.
“Do you know who invented this instrument!” exclaimed the second blue-coated gentlemen who with Machiavellian airs tested the tautness of the wire saw string he was holding face-level, between his two extended hands, “Mister Leonardo Gigli! And do you know what he invented it for?” he continued, “for slicing between a woman’s pubic bones for birthing!” he answered. “He was inspired by the sight of a jagged knife during a country banquet.” He tugged at the wire once again and handed the saw to a student before wandering away.
After the sawing of the clavicle, the first blue-coated man ripped aside a flap of leather-like skin which was obstructing the view, he pulled the rest of the semi sawed-off clavicle that was still dangling from near the shoulder blade and then hooked his index around a few bluish string-like filaments floating about the innards; he then tugged on them until they teared apart: “Don’t do this during surgery. Your patient will bleed to death. Dead people don’t need veins though.”
Once they’d cut through the muscle and exposed the inside of the shoulder in all its glory, eight undergraduate latexed hands glided through the ribs and dug into the remaining flesh in search of the axillary artery - a large elastic-like tubular structure running from the ribcage to the arm-pit. I was asked if I wanted to touch it by one of the students, and like conspiring hyenas, the other students turned their heads towards me to cheer me on.
Up to that point their perfunctory attitude had made feel quite disturbed, but I was determined from the beginning to allow myself to slip into the Kafkaesque mood of the 2-to-4pm dissecting room sessions for the purpose of learning. I had not, however, envisaged metamorphosing into a cold-blooded butcher myself.
It was bad enough that the latissimus dorsi was worryingly reminiscent of a decent sized slice of Brazilian picanha, that the biceps brachii reminded me of chicken pot roast, and that my thoughts incessantly oscillated between “what’s for dinner?” “Ew, this is a dead body” and “Omg, does this make me a cannibal?” now I also felt the strange urge to touch, dig into, rip and saw open a shoulder out of sheer curiosity about the contents of the human arm-pit.
Around me, the room looked like a giant Mongolian sky burial site, where white-coated students scouted for morsels of decaying meat like vultures with scalpel blades for claws. Before me a macabre flock of scavenger birds taking turns to cut while the other salivating butchers awaited their turn with the carcass.
When the slow-motion vision returned to its normal speed, I took two glances to each side and plopped my light-blue hand onto the desecrated chest, ran my fingers through the clavicle and picked at the bits of pectoralis muscle that were still floating about in the cavity. It felt moist and gummy through the latex. But mostly it felt good.
I retrieved my hand from the corpse and slurped the saliva away from the corners of my mouth to let a student armed with a scalpel clean up the section.
The organ orgy continued below my nose, under the command of our blue-coated Edward Scissor-Hands’ dancing fingers. Like a skilled puppeteer he manipulated the brachial plexus area into a recognizable anatomical landscape. What before had looked like a nonsensical visceral potpourri, was now textbook neat.
“See this?” his right palm slid along the side of the rib-cage, “this is the serratus anterior muscle. It keeps our shoulder in place,” he continued. “What happens when this muscle is severed?” he asked his ignorant audience who simultaneously lifted their shoulders up to their ears in surrender. “Precisely. It’s called a ‘winged scapula’ … careless surgeons used to slice this muscle from the ribs during radical mastectomies.” he concluded while shaking his head disapprovingly.
The rustling of plastic started to be heard. The semi-eviscerated corpses were sprayed with formalin, covered up and laid to rest from the day’s explorations. I parted with my damp latex gloves and still oversized but slightly less pristine white lab coat. The pack of students scurried away as quickly and unorderly as they came in and as the door swayed back in forth under the current of marching bodies, I could feel London’s dampness reclaiming my nostrils.
“ … Yeah, I’m starving, let’s get something to eat!” exclaimed a student ahead of me. “I know right? That stuff really works. I heard it’s supposed to make you hungry … Don’t they use formalin to treat anorexia? Is that true?” replied a second student.
My stomach growled again. I caught bits of disconnected conversations on my way out, but even the aromatherapy torture exchange seemed less bizarre after the carnival of the grotesque I seemed to be just awaking from.
In the span of two hours I had gone from a flesh-avoiding anthropologist, to a bloodthirsty argonaut. A corpse was no longer a person; it was a big pile of meaty territory begging to be explored, and I couldn’t wait for prying open another one of its fleshy chunks.
I looked back at the room as the doors swung shut and grinned.
I had been fully Anna-tomized.