Friday 15 May 2015

Dissecting Room - King's College London

Dr Adebayo 'Bayo' Alade and cadaver
It is an experience that changes the way you think about your own body and those pressed tight against us as we go about our daily lives. Last month (10/04/2015) I was given the opportunity alongside poet Kevin Acott to enter the inner sanctum of King's College Dissecting Room. The days before were full of visions of unimaginable deaths that spawned in the mind, for this was my first encounter with a dead human body.

Professor Harold Ellis CBE
We were welcomed by doctors Adam Wahba and Alistair Hunter into the large steely Dissecting Room. The light came from fluorescent tubes and frosted windows as we put on our white lab coats and the demonstrators their green. There were obvious signs of death of course with body parts suspended in clear liquid jars and sealed square boxes.

Dr Alistair Hunter
Luckily it wasn't hard for the eyes to be distracted as Head of Anatomy, Dr Hunter, gathered the 60 first year students in front of him. I was relieved that he started his demonstration on what looked like a papery model of a torso. It was an amazing piece of workmanship with layer after complex layer unravelling as we delved deep into the intestine's domain. The model was a chestnut brown and Dr Hunter's gloved hands pulled it gently into pieces as he looked out into the faces of his young charges. So adapt and familiar was he that you couldn't help but think of those legendary soldiers who could deconstruct and rebuild a piece of military hardware whilst completely blindfold.

The students were going to be guided by their demonstrators as they delved deep into their specimen's gut. Dr Hunter reeled off a fluid list of places they would meet on their journey, as if the students would be venturing down a meandering country road. Places like Spleen, Anal Canal and Plicae Circulares were interrupted with views of arcades which were described again and again by Dr Hunter and the other demonstrators as beautiful and wonderful. In fact often these words were doubled up and it was easy to be enthused by these beautiful beautiful descriptions.

The Dissecting Room was peppered throughout by stainless steel sarcophagus shaped boxes with long handles down their sides. We of course knew what lay inside but just before we opened them up there was a moment of realisation. The model Dr Hunter had so expertly handled was no demonstrators toy, this was part of someone's body and had been preserved by such an expert's hand as to transform it beyond what I imagined flesh could be.

Cadaver feet

There wasn't anything to fear when the first of the cadavers or specimens were revealed despite the anxiety a restless night had inflicted upon us newcomers. First the layer of stainless steel was swung open like a beetle preparing for flight, underneath was a layer of clear plastic and blue cloth that ultimately revealed bodies that had leached their colour. Silvery tags hung on fingers, toes and heads presumably to keep the cadavers together if limbs were separated from their neighbours.

Dr Andrew Davies
As the first dissection started under the direction of Dr Andrew Davies is was clear that the students had an unusual relationship with their specimen. There was an enormous respect for what this person (and their families) had given them, the opportunity to learn and to prepare themselves mentally for some of the challenges ahead. There was a disconnection too, not least because the flesh looked neither pink, plump nor bloody, in fact it had a waxy coating like a beige leather sofa that had been wiped down with an oily rag.

Dr James Bates
Our brains' ability to compartmentalise and rationalise were compromised on many occasions not least when Dr Davies used twine to tie parts of the body together. This simple procedure kept our lines of sight clear but also reminded us of how a butcher might truss his wares. The smell was not unpleasant but underneath it all was a base layer of meatiness that caused rumbles of distress for some of our stomachs.

Nearly all the faces were covered with a white cloth which depersonalised our cadavers. It was hard to let our imaginations run riot for there was nothing to base our narratives on, no clothes, no name, nothing. Still the bodies gave us the stories of their lives through the way they had died and the surgical procedures that had punctuated their living days. The heads had been relieved of their brains and the open cavity that remained felt as if it were a wafer cornet awaiting it's scoop of strawberry ice cream.  The head of Dr Adebayo 'Bayo' Alade's cadaver had been lifted up on wooden blocks and there was a suggestion of the mechanic as he and his students lifted the bonnet of the chest.

Dr Adam Wahba
The knowledge that was contained both within the specimens and the heads of our Doctors flowed out effortless and in depth as I wandered throughout the room.  Despite Dr Adam Wahba holding court with humility and modesty you could see the adoration of his students and I too felt a sense of awe and magnetism around the all the doctors. It was their calmness and uncomplicated logic of how a body works, how it ails and how it ultimately stops that give them this iconic halo. There is nothing that Professor Harold Ellis CBE hasn't experienced is his long and varied career in medicine, for here is a man who qualified as a doctor in the same month the National Health Service began.

This was not purely an experience of mechanics like listening to a Haynes Manual for a mini cooper being narrated by a well educated reader. I found one face that was uncovered and it rocked the knees a little, it was the small stubble of sooty hairs like scythed or burnt straw poking from a pale field that suddenly felt very personal.

What was unexpected was the moment when you caught sight of a specimen's hands and sometimes their feet. They looked liked they belonged to sleeping men or women, and that they would spring to life at any moment. It seems as if there is nothing more black and white than being dead or alive, but the brain still plays tricks with the firmest of perceptions. There is no hint of gore nor horror in the dissecting rooms for neither breeds in a space possessed with such overwhelming respect for the dead. The doubts of the mind did breed in the days after our visit though, even in the following hours as we took the train ride home. In between the seats hung commuters' hands in the deep spaces where empty coffee cups lay. Dissecting and making sense of the living world was going to be a challenge in the weeks, months and quite possibly years to come.


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