How It Feels… To Perform Your First Autopsy

2.27.2017

By Mary Ann Omoscharka

How It Feels2

Almost a decade ago, Eva C. moved to Kansas City from a small Greek island named Chios, and began her pathology residency at Truman Medical Center. Only a few weeks later, she performed her first autopsy. This is how it felt.

I remember walking to the hospital “dungeons” where the morgue is, rubbing Vicks into my nostrils, naively hoping it would prevent the smell of the decomposing flesh from hitting me. My outfit wasn’t exactly the chicest, as pathologists almost look like astronauts to keep themselves and the body of the deceased uncontaminated. I wore my scrubs, a not-so-couture surgical gown, goggles, a mask and special boots. The temperature of the autopsy room was significantly low. “Am I cold or am I nervous?” I thought to myself.

The rest of the team unzipped a sizable black body bag, removed the corpse and placed it on the table. I do not say this with pride, but I was extremely relieved when I saw the body of a thin man. Everyone in our field knows that the higher the amount of fat, the more repugnant the odor. The deceased was a 54-year-old male with history of chronic alcoholism, smoking and malnourishment.

The first step was opening the torso by doing an extensive Y-shaped incision, running from each shoulder towards the chest, ending at the sternum. A massive pair of shears must be used in order to remove the chest cavity and gain access to all the organs. I picked up the entire organ block and proceeded to detach the organs from each other, so that their sections could be submitted for processing. Vicks proved to be useless, as it cleared up my breathing passages and made the smell truly unbearable when emptying the bowels.

Immediately after, we used a saw to open the skull. Another inappropriate thought passed through my mind while I was removing the skin from the bone. “It truly seems like peeling a ripe lychee” I realized. The brain was taken out and submitted for examination.

After five hours, the body was sewed together, cleansed and prepared to be picked up by the funeral services. The cause of death would be revealed during the next 48 hours.

I spent the following days thinking this was not the path for me and obsessing about my options. Nine years later, I have performed 65 autopsies.

Photography by Emma Creighton

 

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