Sometimes when we walk through the mall, my boyfriend Scott will whisper: “How many people here do you think have held a human heart?” Or: “Do you think that guy ever removed a brain?” Scott has held a human heart and he says it’s heavier and whiter than you would think. He will remove a brain from a female cadaver in March.
Scott is in his second year of pre-med. He, along with two other students, based on their high grades in anatomy class, are the body preppers for this semester’s anatomy lectures. The dissections are supervised by two part-time anatomy professors. One practices as a physician’s assistant, the other as a chiropractor. His entrance into the small cadaver club has triggered an obsessive fascination in me about the logistics of body donation, dissection and disposal.
Scott’s school has three cadavers on loan to them from a major university in California. When Scott’s school is done with the three bodies, they will be sent back to the university.
To donate your body to science in California, you fill out a form, have it signed by two witnesses and then notarized. The other way the bodies come to the donation program is through next of kin. For instance, when my grandfather died, I was told my mother called UCLA and they came and picked up his body from our house within an hour or so of his passing.1
Each body donation program in California—there are only a handful—has its own standards but they are all roughly the same: they do not accept bodies that have had major trauma or had their organs (besides the corneas) removed. Many do not accept the bodies of people who are more than 250 pounds overweight. They will, however, come to your house and pick up the body; some will also make arrangements for the body to be transported back to California if the donor dies out of state. Not UCLA; UCLA will ask you to pay if the body is more than 75 miles away; Stanford’s cut-off is 100 miles. They want the bodies right away.
Before the university transports the body to Scott’s college, the body is treated with chemicals inside and out. A tube connected to a pump is inserted into the jugular artery to flush out as much blood from the body. Blood clots very quickly and sometimes the clots will stay inside the arteries and calcify. During his last dissection, Scott described removing hardened blood clots the size small rocks. They were a muddy brown color. Some were less than solid, he described those as “mealy.”
The artery is then tied off with a little string. The skin is coated in a mixture of chemicals that absorbs its moisture. These two procedures allow the body to be so well preserved that they do not need to be frozen when stored at the college.
Donated bodies can last for two years, or longer. I was under the impression that once a cadaver’s ribcage or arm was removed, they were not used again and a new body was brought in. I have no idea where I came up with this idea, and this is not the case. A cadaver can undergo an infinite number of dissections for roughly two years. When organs are removed in order to be shown to students, they are then put back inside the cadaver. To expose muscles, ligaments or bones, a careful incision is made so the skin can be used as a flap. That way it can be opened and closed several times over.
At all times, per the university’s instruction, the cadavers have a thick green opaque sheet that covers their face and genitals. Scott said this eases a lot of the student’s initial queasiness. It also gives the cadavers an aura of otherworldly gravitas. The sheets say: This person is not here anymore, they are safe and you are safe.
The three loaner bodies are kept in a cadaver room at the college. The cadaver room is part of a gleaming and modern new building that’s just a few years old. The cadaver room looks like a hospital’s operating room. There are three beds for the cadavers, bright overhead lights, pearl gray floors, shelves for the tools. The tools are “German steel.” Above the bodies are giant “snorkel vents” that circulate the air and control the temperature.
The students are hyper aware, supremely focused and silent in the cadaver room, Scott said. The room feels charged with a serious and somber magnetism. No music is played while the students spend hours making tiny incisions. Chat is kept to an absolute minimum. This is to ensure the dignity of the entire process, Scott said. The snorkel vents are too loud anyways.
The color palette of cadavers is different from what you’d maybe think. Instead of pinks, purples, reds, and blues, most of what you see is gray, white, brown, yellow, and clay. Except the gallbladder. The gallbladder is electric green.
Everything that is removed from the body—fat covering an organ (did you know that all our hearts are covered in a little yolk-sac of fat?) or the sticky cobwebs of connective tissue are placed in a biohazard bag. The bag is never far away from the body. When a body is returned to the university after its service, the biohazard bag travels with it.
Back at the university, the arms and legs are removed, catalogued and then stored in a library for medical students. Future surgeons, medical researchers and med students can access limb library. The rest of the body is incinerated.
I asked Scott if he wants his body donated to science now that he’s seen what happens. “Absolutely,” he said, and “No question.” Whatever hesitation he originally felt when making his first incision was washed away by a powerful wave of wonder. “The body is unbelievably intricate and detailed; just the ligaments in the foot are mind-blowing,” he said. “You are looking at millions of years of evolution and it stuns you. It’s a privilege.”
Next week Scott and his fellow students will remove a liver.
Natasha Vargas-Cooper is a reporter in Los Angeles.