I broke a rib and I enjoyed it-my first anatomy practical

Looking for 'cadaver memes' I found this. I just had to use it.

I haven’t written much lately, work and various other things has gotten in the way. Right now I find myself in bed back home for the weekend after catching the flu, perhaps or perhaps not related to an eventful trip to Amsterdam last week. The trip was for ICSM RAG, the ‘raising and giving’ society, essentially raising money for charity. I have honestly no idea how a trip to Amsterdam raises money for charity. But I’m not complaining.

Pretty me on the coach home infecting everyone around me.
Pretty much me on the coach home infecting everyone around me.

Back to this post. Anatomy. I’ve wanted to talk about this since I started anatomy last month. So here it is.

Imperial is unique as a Medical School because I’m at it dissection is done using full body cadavers. Most Medical Schools in the UK days have opted for using prosections as their method of teaching anatomy-simply put parts of the body instead of the whole. Both methods have pros and cons, but overall I’m glad Imperial have stuck with full body dissection.

For our first year, there isn’t a lot of anatomy. We had a taster session on the first week of freshers (I think ‘taster’ isn’t good word choice, it really reminds me of Hannibal…), there we got to see different body systems and became familiar with the rules and layout of the dissection room. Last month we properly started anatomy by looking at the thorax.

Before you even enter the anatomy room you have to put your bags away in the locker room, which for some reason always has a huge pile of coffins in it. I’m not sure if it’s just the teachers’ macabre taste in interior design or they are supposed to remind us of the fact we are dissecting real bodies, donated by real people. Regardless, you then go through the process of gloving, aproning and goggling yourself, you’re now ready to start.

One pro of full body dissection is it really puts things in perspective, however this can also be very daunting. Personally, I’m from a family who work in the funeral business, so it doesn’t phase me. But a lot of people get freaked out. And that’s understandable. Here in front of us is a body that used to be up, walking around like you and me. They probably had a family, they probably had a job. It’s quite a humbling experience.

Typically there are about nine students to a cadaver, which is just about the max you can get around the cadaver without things getting too crowded. Each session your group will be given objectives for what to dissect and how to go about it. The very first session involves removing the rib cage. This isn’t easy.

I’ve watched post mortems before and they remove the rib cage pretty quickly, making it look easy. But here you have a group of first year med students, who hopefully have not had any experience cutting up human material. You have about ninety minutes to saw through the sternum, crack each rib along the side of the body, before finally removing the rib cage to expose the internal organs underneath. It’s not a quick job, and it’s not easy. And nothing looks as organised as the diagrams.

Everything looks nice and orderly in the diagrams. It’s not.

About three or four times we thought we had sawed all the way through the sternum, and then a demonstrator would tell us we still had further to go. Meanwhile we had to break each rib. With an instrument most akin to a nut cracker, we would take it in turns to locate a rib, encircle the device around it and then ‘crunch’. It’s a sound you really can’t forget. It’s a sound you can’t put it into words either.

Humans like to find similarities in things. And personally the flesh overlying the rib cage really resembled streaky bacon. However, after being minced slightly by the ‘rib cracker’ it started to resemble tuna. Dissection is bizarre because the formaldehyde used to embalm the cadavers stimulates the appetite. Consequently, a lot of people leave the dissection room finding they really want something to eat. Some medic friends actually had ribs for dinner after this particular session, the irony of which they didn’t see until I pointed it out to them.


The demonstrators move around the room, appearing every ten minutes to check how you’re getting on. This can be helpful because they can give you advice about how to go about the dissection and apply the teaching in the lecture to what is in front of you. However, I find the demonstrators often give contrasting advice, and different opinions on what to do and what not to do. This makes sense, these people are experienced with this and have therefore developed their own personal styles. But for someone who is doing this for the very first time, hearing a lot of differing opinions is frustrating. I guess it kinda reflects the fact that there is little certainty in Medicine, there isn’t much you can say definitively.

Regardless of conflicting opinions, mysterious coffins and post-dissection hunger, anatomy is really fun. I’m not sure fun is the right word considering the context of what we are doing, but what we are doing is certainly interesting and amazing. Getting to see what you read in your Grey’s in front of you, or locate the pleura mentioned in your lecture on your cadaver makes everything seem so much more real. When we finally removed the rib cage to expose the lungs underneath, it was amazing. Luckily we hadn’t damaged the lungs whilst breaking the ribs, making things a lot easier for when we removed the lungs in the next session.

Donating your body to Medical Science is a very commendable act, and I think every Medical Student really appreciates and benefits from the opportunities this provides. Learning anatomy in this way isn’t just useful, it’s a privilege.

Looking for 'cadaver memes' I found this. I just had to use it.
Looking for ‘cadaver memes’ I found this. I just had to use it.

One comment for “I broke a rib and I enjoyed it-my first anatomy practical

  1. Anatomy sounds really interesting. I cannot imagine how it must have felt like to finally cut open a real human body. It would be scary but exciting at the same time. By the way, did you have ribs for dinner as well? Joking.

    Amazingly written article. Had my attention from start to end. Good job 🙂


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