…Time stood still. For a brief moment, the fine powder hung in the atmosphere around me as if suspended, absolutely motionless. All at once the unpleasant, warm, dusty aroma filled my nostrils - a smell I wouldn't soon forget – as the particulates drifted down through the air, settling onto every surface within 5 feet of the stainless steel table. The high-pitched whine of the saw echoed through the room like a dying cat. I cut the power and placed it on the table next to the other instruments: hammer, chisel, hack saw. A fog of dust clouded my vision as I shook my head and removed my glasses. My attempts at blowing the fine, tacky powder off the lenses were futile. I brushed the bone dust off of my sleeves and looked around the room. The scene looked more like a woodshop than an operating room. I looked down at subject before me, the head cut cleanly down the middle to the tongue. The two halves stared off blankly in different directions. I was suddenly very aware of my teeth…
This week in Anatomy, our dissection tasks became more and more surreal, each day requiring something even more gruesome than the last. Since the head and neck region is filled with such delicate structures, time is of the essence in and you must move quickly, lest your cadaver turn into jerky. The dissection went as follows:
Day 1: Remove face.
Day 2: Cut zygomatic through processes and mandible.
Day 3: Reflect head.
Day 4: Bisect head.
The first step in this process was something straight out of Silence of the Lambs. While making your most convincing Hannibal Lecter chianti-and-fava-beans slurpy noise, you remove the skin of the face with a scalpel as cleanly as possible. I cannot stress this point enough: if your cuts aren’t clean, you aren’t gonna be able to fool the cops into escorting you off the premises of the crime scene and, ultimately, to FREEDOM. Once you’ve given the subject the closest shave of their life, you can proceed with cleaning up the superficial structures of the face, make a few cuts with the ol’ bone saw, and move on to the next step.
Now, it’s somewhat obvious by the descriptions above as to what each dissection will entail. However, there are no words to fully prepare ANYONE for what to expect when “reflecting” a human head. A range of equally terrifying and fascinating emotions accompanied this particular dissection. In a nutshell, “head reflection” requires you to insert your hands into the neck from both sides, working your fingers between all the scalene muscles, veins, arteries , and nerves until your fingers meet behind the esophagus. Once you’ve accomplished this, you work your fingers up and down, separating all the connective tissue that holds your throat to your spinal column, until there is a clean plane from the base of the skull to the thorax. After this simple and ordinary task, it’s just a few scalpel cuts through the muscles of the back of the neck, a couple of well-placed blows with a hammer and chisel,a quick twisthereand a twist there to break the atlanto-occipital joint…and Bob’s your uncle! Once that’s all said and done, you’re left with a cadaver whose head dangles limply by the fleshy structures of the anterior neck, closely resembling this childhood toy:
Head bisection, on the other hand, is much more straightforward. You take your hack saw, aim it as close to the midline of the face as possible, and go to work. The frontal bone takes some time, but once you get into the sinuses – wheooeeee! - does it go quick! We got it about as dead-center as possible, cutting the nasal septum right down the middle. With your trusty scalpel, you also get to complete the wonderful tasks of splitting the esophagus, uvula, and soft palate in half! Once the saw pops out between your cadaver’s two front teeth, you’ve done it!
Finally, enough nightmare fodder to last a dozen lifetimes. Huzzah!