How to Prepare for Cadaver Lab (A Med Student’s Guide)

Cadaver lab is one of the most intimidating places to learn anatomy. The labs are cold, the smell is odd and then of course there’s the bodies.

Preparing for cadaver lab can make the whole experience a little easier. Here are my top five tips:

  • Don’t go into lab on an empty stomach
  • Watch a few dissection videos beforehand
  • Let someone else do the cutting and dissection first
  • Wear a lab coat, scrubs or clothes that you don’t mind getting messy
  • Remind yourself; everyone else is anxious too

Being new to dissection, that’s a lot to take in! That’s why I thought it might be worth expanding on the in’s and out’s of cadaver-based learning – as well as share some more tips on dealing with things like the smell, the cold and the weirdness of being around dead bodies…

The kind of things I wish I’d known before having to do so myself!

How to Survive Cadaver Lab

Surviving cadaver lab is best done by preparing and being aware of the kind of environment you’ll most likely find yourself. For many people – myself included – a cadaver lab (or mortuary, as it is in some cases) is a foreign place. Temperatures are lowered to slow decomposition. Chemicals to keep things sterile. It’s not your usual classroom!

Coming back to my original tips, here’s why I think each can help…

Eat Beforehand

It’s very easy to feel naseous and light-headed in a cadaver lab if you’re not used to it. Having had something to eat (light of course) or drink beforehand can help prevent that. As can flexing your thighs if you do feel like passing out (helps your blood circulate better).

I also think it’s a good idea to take some water to drink with you if the lab allows. Staying hydrated helps you focus and keep your mind on what you’re observing.

This is also the same advice I give to med students before going into surgery. Particularly the squeamish ones who have similar fears of fainting at the sight of blood, tissue and everything else.

Weird Tip: Many people advise chewing gum (if you’re allowed) in anatomy or cadaver lab. Apparently it helps. As long as the gum doesn’t fall into any cavities of course…

Dissection Videos

Surviving your environment is all about knowing as much as possible about what you might face. Dissection videos, for the most part, help in that regard. They’ll show you a lot about how cadavers are stored, placed and dissected. As well as best practices and the correct use of tools.

Thankfully there are many good sources online where you can watch videos of cadaver lab-based teaching and dissection work. You don’t have to spend a long time watching these either. Just get a gist for what goes on and how it might look.

Doing this research (you can also use books) can help in a couple of ways:

  • Identifies potential problems (aspects of the lab you might struggle with)
  • Identifies possible strengths (areas you could be of help to others in)
  • Shows interesting ways to overcome common problems (e.g. covering a cadaver’s face to make the experience “less personal”)

Obviously there are many different lab set-ups and ways to approach cadaver dissections. So the videos you watch might not be totally applicable to your case. But they will help you get a general idea of things.

Let Someone Else Take Control

You might be surprised to learn but not all medical students have to dissect a cadaver. In fact, you can kind of coast through med school curriculum’s without even touching one. If you let your colleagues do all the work!

The same applies for you though no matter what context (or class) you find yourself in during cadaver lab.

If you think you might have problems, feel strange or whatever, let someone else take the lead instead. Nobody is going to expect you to start exploring free of supervision your first time around. So take some peace of mind from that at least.

Wear Suitable Clothes

Obviously surviving lab means not bringing home any “bits” to remind yourself of it. To do that you’re going to want to wear sensible clothes.

Some cadaver labs might be strict on this anyway, others might be a little more liberal. Your best bet is to wear a white lab coat or a pair of scrubs. Both those options are designed for this type of environment. They’re also easy to clean and sterilise for future use too.

Oh and another top tip is to actually bring a spare pair of clothing to change in and out too. As well as storing the clothing you did use in lab in a separate bag or carrier so as not to “contaminate” whatever else it is you’re carrying.

Also; cover up any part of your body you don’t want splashes on!

Understand: You’re Not the Only One

Most people are weirded out by seeing a dead body for the first time. It’s completely normal.

Entering into a cadaver lab, for the uninitiated, involves staring mortality directly in the face. To not be even slightly emotionally stirred by that would be quite unusual. So ignore any people who you might feel “seem confident”.

Inside they’re probably just as nervous.

The Importance of a Cadaver in Studying Medicine

If you’re in cadaver lab for a medical course you might be wondering why what the importance of it all is. I know I felt this myself at first. Especially when you have so many great anatomy resources to learn from; YouTube channels, websites, games etc that don’t involve seeing a dead body at all!

The truth is though most medicine curriculas put a lot of precedence on it. Especially as it gives a chance for students to explore the connections between anatomical structures and how they look in real-life.

Most students, as this 2015 study in the Anatomy and Cell Biology Journal shows, are also in favor of it too. There they argue it being a “fundamental” aspect of their learning.

How to Deal With the Cadaver Lab Smell

Interestingly, one of the biggest complaints when it comes to cadaver lab is the smell.

I remember this all too well myself. Formaldehyde (one of the chemicals used to preserve cadavers) is quite pungent. It lingers in the nostrils for quite a while afterward.

Smell is also one of the main reasons that 75% of medical students surveyed in this 2012 study (from the Ethopian Journal of Health Science) claimed the environment to be “overwhelmingly stressful”. Although the abstract also states that 99% also considered cadaver dissection having “very important value” for anatomy learning too.

As for how to deal with it, here are some good pointers:

  • Wear a medical mask (bonus tip: apply lavender or tea tree oil to the mask)
  • Pray your lab as a good ventilation system (half-joke but maybe you could enquire beforehand)
  • Step outside and take some minutes to recover (don’t just “power through”)
  • Milk thistle can help with the headache caused by the smell (the glutathione increasing effects help your body detoxify formaldehyde – American Family Physician, 2005)

You also just get used to it after a while. Especially on repeat visits.

Note: Formaldehyde is also likely to make you feel hungry. Yet another reason to eat before…And no, it doesn’t make you cannibal.

My Cadaver Lab Experience

I’ve touched on my anatomy lab experiences before – and also given quite a few recommendations on this article; how to study for anatomy practical – but I’ve never really talked about my honest opinions about it.

So, here’s how I view cadaver-based learning now we’re on the subject…

  • Important (to a degree): Personally I only went to lab during mandatory class time and did all my observations, dissections etc there. I saw very little value going after hours (like many colleagues). Memorization happened with old-school resources.
  • Teacher-dependent: Success and surviving anatomy lab has a lot to do with your supervisor, professor or teacher. Get a bad one and the class is miserable. Get a good one and the class is a joy. I had a mix of them all. The one’s that really challenge you, put you on the spot with questions etc, I enjoyed the most.
  • Old cadavers: My school didn’t have fresh cadavers. From that perspective I’ve never actually seen a cadaver dissected from the surface. Medically-speaking I think it’s very important to see things done in the correct order. We just didn’t have the supply.
  • Cadavers Vs Illustrations: Trust me there’s a big difference between being able to identify a labeled structure on an actual cadaver and one drawn neatly on a flashcard. The experience is chalk and cheese. Unless you’re really hell-bent on pathology or surgery though, I’m not sure what the point of seeing a cadaver with all their guts ripped out actually is…

Generally though I found cadaver lab a bit of a drag if I’m being honest. The first few classes are exciting – seeing a body for the first time etc – but the novelty definitely wears off fast.

Where to Find Cadaver Dissection Videos

In response to one of my recommendations; that you actually watch cadaver dissections before heading to class, it would be helpful to know where to find them.

Here are a couple of recommendations I’ve used myself:

  • Institute of Human Anatomy – amazing YouTube channel that’s actually set in a private cadaver lab. Commonly runs live Q&A’s from inside the lab too.
  • Sanjoy Sanyal – Hundres of short dissection videos based on specific anatomy zones. Sanjoy is a demonstrator at one of the Caribbean med schools. This guy deserves more subs!

It’s also worth Googling around to see if you can find Acland’s videos too. They don’t have an official YouTube channel but you can find a couple of uploads. Acland’s is considered the gold standard dissection video course among many med students.

Books-wise I got a LOT out of Rohen’s anatomy – I basically have this to thank for scoring so high.

I think it can really help anyone in labs too!

Where to Find Cadaver Lab Workshops

Finally if you’re not a med student but interesting in learning anatomy independently then it could be a good idea to find cadaver workshops locally.

Many of these run day classes as well as longer term courses to fundamentally teach human anatomy to the general public.

A general search in the US, shows labs offering courses in:

It might be worth hunting down some in your local area to see if you can get some hands on teaching.

I didn’t know it was even a thing until now!

Image Credit – @ninoliverani at Unsplash