What does a medical school dissection room have to do with Valentine’s Day? Read on to find out
I work with the dead, so when my other half says to me “You have my heart” I, confused, automatically take a mental note of what I have displayed on my pathology museum cardio-respiratory shelves before I realise what he actually means. You can imagine then that for me Valentine’s Day has a certain threatening quality and I wrote about it being the new Halloween for Huffington Post. Not for me are the schmaltzy rom-coms: instead I want a horror film that leaves me feeling exhilarated and scare-oused. I don’t want teddy bears or sickly-sweet candy: I want my roses the deep maroon of deoxygenated blood and my chocolates as dark as a contusion. If this is a holiday created specifically for love and sex (and I’m thinking here of the plethora of furry handcuffs and edible undies that fly off the shelves right about now) then it stands to reason I’d have my own dark take on the occasion given the numerous links between sex and death.
A horror film is a MUST for me and I have my usual go-to valentine’s horror romps listed at the end, but the one I want to focus on is Valentine in order to answer any questions people may have about medical school dissection rooms. The Valentine’s-cadaver link is generally tenuous, I realise, but it certainly exists in this film, illustrated by the opening scene. If you haven’t seen Valentine it’s a pretty awful and predictable teen slasher film but visually it has everything you’d want from a suitably romance themed horror: maggot infested chocolates, creepy cards, a hot-tub, champagne, and the strangest mask-wearer this side of Michael Myers in Halloween.
It’s the first murder I want to focus on: after a particularly bad date, medical student Shelley decides to pop along to the dissection lab at her college in the middle of the night (as you do) to dissect “her corpse” in preparation for an exam. She is subsequently killed in an imaginative way because of course she’s the only one there – apart from the murderer and a red herring, and about a dozen other cadavers. It’s a slasher film so of course it’s unrealistic and not very believable, but it’s highly entertaining. See for yourself here.
So what is believable or not believable about the scene? Many people don’t know a lot about the dissection of cadavers by students for medical education so I thought I’d throw some light on how it works in London at least.
In the beginning of this scene, Shelley explains to someone that Chad is “her corpse” but in reality, at least in the UK, there would never be one student per cadaver. Usually students must work in groups of about six to eight per body. This isn’t necessarily because there are too few bodies donated to medical science, it can also be because medical schools may not have enough storage space, particularly as the amount of accepted students has increased while the size of most facilities hasn’t. Also the cadaver wouldn’t be referred to by a name but by a number – in the same way that autopsy cases and specimen pots are – to preserve anonymity.
Here in London it’s the London Anatomy Office which co-ordinates the donation of bodies and supplies them to various medical schools around the capital. The identification number would be allocated by LAO staff around the time of embalming and added to all the paperwork.
And it’s this necessary embalming which means that cadavers do usually have to be purchased by medical schools. Although donating a body is free – you don’t pay to do it or get paid to do it – the storage and processing for use by the students, as well as transport to and from the facility, the upkeep of the facility and employment of staff, means that a cadaver can cost between £600-800, another thing to be factored in when allocating students to each one. One of the ways to decrease this cost is for the Anatomy Room Technicians to learn the embalming process themselves and that’s exactly what the boys at our university’s facility have done. Also, not everybody who wants to donate their bodies to medical science will actually be accepted. Certain conditions or procedures mean that some deceased can’t be embalmed properly: autopsy, open wounds and some surgery, and obesity are examples, and certain infectious illnesses will make a cadaver exempt from the process.
Medical schools differ but in ours dissection is not mandatory, and that’s an increasing trend across the UK. For those who choose it though, there are five optional dissection modules: Upper Limb, Lower Limb, Abdomen, Thorax, and Head & Neck (which is mainly taken by dental students.) Students can do all of the modules if they’d like, and if there are enough available spaces, and each one only lasts two weeks. They study at allotted times during the semester or term, and to gain access to the dissection suite students need to swipe their ID cards through two or three electronic doors. This satisfies the Human Tissue Authority who regulate access to any human tissue younger than 100 years old because an electronic record is kept of each swipe. The lock is only ‘abled’ between 9am and 5pm, so there will be no solo dissection of individual cadavers in UK medical schools, unlike in Valentine.
Once these modules are completed there is a memorial service for all donated cadavers: families, students and staff attend and it is funded by the medical school as a ‘thank you’ for the donation. However, individuals can have their own ceremony and carry out their own disposal if they wish.
So that was your whistle-stop tour of body donation in the UK! Procedures differ in other countries and a great book to read about US practice is “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers” by Mary Roach.
And if that got you in the mood, here are my top 5 Valentine’s Horror movies:
4) Lover’s Lane
Have a great Valentine’s Day!