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Saturday, February 23, 2013

Trial By Bone Saw

('La Autopsia', 1890, Enrique Simonet)

Last year, I had the opportunity to watch not one, but two autopsies - we can say it was a very morbid dream come true. Twice.

The text you're about to read was written on February 21st and chronicles my personal views on the first of those two events. I hate to state the obvious, but dead people are involved and you may or may not like the subject. I hope, nevertheless, no matter where you stand, that you can be respectful about it. Thank you.

I slept terribly and woke up early. I felt sick, so I delayed breakfast right up until I realised that if I was going to throw up during my autopsy, I was going to do so regardless of whether I ate or not.

So I ate.

I met my friend at exactly eight-thirty and we walked to the Institute together. I had some fears in my mind. One, having to stand for an hour and a half - I have low blood pressure and a tendency to pass out at critical times, read also, while singing with the scouts in church, or worse, while bat-watching. Two, the bone saw.

The first time I realised what autopsies were all about, I was reading a book by Patricial Cornwell. It was called ‘Black Notice’, and the main character performed an autopsy on a crime victim - and it was all described in vivid detail. I had no idea things were performed that way, and I remember how utterly horrified I was.

Later on, I realised that opening the chest cavity really isn't the worst of what happens on that table. No. They pull the skin off your scalp over your face, take a bone saw to your skull, and then crack it open.

I am sensitive to skull-related issues. Cracking a skull. Tattooing a skull. Sawing a skull in half. Subconsciously, I guess I feel as if one's humanity rests cozily inside that little round box of bone. Therefore, it should be an impenetrable fortress.

Subconsciously, of course. On a rational, clear level, I know it's vital to get in there.

So, after waiting for maybe half an hour in the lobby of the Institute - a ten-person group, more or less, all girls -, we were sent into a little amphitheater, where we put our scrubs, masks and feet protections on. We left our bags and coats in there, and moved down to the autopsy room.

Two rooms, to be precise.

In the first one, there were refrigerated drawers and a full-body scale. Between them, an open door, and in the second room, a fairly overweight body lying on one of the tables.

Five tables, total. One for the overweight body, one for a set of drying bones, one for a strangely human-shaped white bag, one empty, and one for the body we'd come to see.

The first thing I remember thinking was... oh dear. This man looks alive. His eyes were half-open, so was his mouth, and even though his skin was starting to turn yellow-ish, he didn't look any worse than I did when I had hepatitis a few years ago.

I'd been hoping my brain would be able to watch the whole thing and... you know, disconnect. Stop thinking of that body as human, and start thinking of it as... I don't know, a sample for science. It sounds horrible of me and I do understand it, but hey, we cope how we can. But after seeing his face, I understood I wouldn't have it so easy. This is a human being. He looks like a human being, his expression is that of a human being, even his hands have that slightly curved, relaxed position as they rest on the table, like those of a human being. Good luck disconnecting from all of that.

There were two coroners, two young women, in the room, and they were the ones who coached us through the whole thing. They told us about the procedures, they explained every step as they took it, and all in all I think part of the reason why it was such a great experience was their attitude towards us, intruders in their workplace. A sincere thank you to them.

Anyway. We placed ourselves - and yes, we did stand for an hour and a half - at a cautious distance from the body and the coroners started by taking a few notes. Hair color, eye color, distinctive marks such as scars and tattoos, condition of the teeth. They turned him over so we could see the livor mortis in his back. I was slightly alarmed by the practical, obviously trained way they moved the body. I was extremely alarmed by the fact that his jaw wouldn't really open while they were trying to look at his teeth.

But I persevered.

They started by making an incision on the thigh, to take a blood sample. I thought to myself - wow, the human body looks like sponge. You know, when you take a sponge and cut through it and it sort of spreads so easily as you do it? Yes. Like that.

Soon after that, they started the Y incision on the chest. Again, I was surprised by how easy it was to cut through the skin. They pulled it back and then cut through the ribs with a big scissor-pliers hybrid - excuse my lack of medical jargon, I am a Criminology major after all. I was taken aback. You never imagine, as you touch your own ribs - do it now, please, I ask of you -, that they're so fragile you can cut through them. You never imagine your own sternum as a sort of lid that you can pull off your chest cavity to look at what's inside.

And yet that's exactly what it is.

The organs themselves, what's inside the chest cavity and the abdominal cavity, are nothing special. We all know what lungs look like. We may have never seen them being pulled off a dead body along with the heart, the windpipe and the tongue, but we all know what they look like and we're quick to dismiss them as ordinary. At least I was.

We had the chance to touch them, though - to evaluate their texture and consistency, since that was important for the case at hand -, and that's a little harder to dismiss as ordinary. They don't feel quite like jelly, but they're not different enough for me to be able to come up with another comparison. So jelly it is.

Touching the lungs was no problem. The problem, if I can even call it that, was looking down at my latex-gloved hands and seeing someone else's blood. It's surreal. There's no other word to describe the whole autopsy experience. It's surreal.

And the smell. I'd expected a horrible, gut wrenching smell of putrefaction and... well, death, since I think we all have our own different ideas of what death smells like. To me, today, death smelled metallic, like that tang of blood in your mouth when you bite down on your tongue, but amped up a thousand times. But, and this is important, only if I got close enough. For most of the session, I didn't smell a thing.

Which, if you ask me, only adds to the strangeness of the situation.

Then on came the tough bit. The skull. They cut the skin on the scalp and then, with the most excruciating sound - imagine, I don't know, tearing a piece of fabric - that made most of us look away, they pulled the skin over the face to reveal the skull.

Believe me if you will, but from that point on, it became somewhat easier. I think I finally managed to disconnect. There was no face on the body, just... just the place where the face should be, covered by a glistening piece of inside-out skin. It's as strange as it sounds.

I did see them saw the skull, but I was by the feet of the table, so I had a terrible angle and I'm glad for it. I have to say though, the saw sounds far less scary live than it does in recordings. Again, they pulled a lid off a box - they carefully detached the top of the skull to reveal the brain, and I was utterly fascinated.

From here on, it becomes ordinary. The whole autopsy myth I'd built for myself. It's not a big scary disturbing thing anymore. It's a series of careful systematic steps to reach a purpose - they did find the cause of death after all, right in the lungs -, and even though it is easy to disconnect from that basic... human empathy after a while, I think it's only because the further you go into the autopsy, the more you look at the body on the table, the less human it looks. It's a deconstruction, and it helps you cope.

Then they sew him back up, pull all the skin back in place, and suddenly you're not looking at the inside of his ribcage anymore and the eyes are once again open and the mouth is lopsided and it's once again uncomfortable, but you know you've made it through. And so you throw your tainted gloves in the trash bin and take off your mask and untie your green scrub and carefully remove your feet protections and wrap them all in a tight bundle as you dispose of them, and you're back in the real world. As you walk back through the first room, the one with the drawers, there's a new body that's just arrived, and even though this one also looks very much like a living breathing person, you're not disturbed anymore.

You're relieved. You've survived your trial by bone saw.

And you more or less feel that only if you could stay for the day and watch it all over again, you would.

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