This blog post contains discussion and photographs of organ dissection and corpses.
Reader discretion is strongly advised.
No body to study with
Those readers with a finger to the pulse (see what I did there?) of the medical/anatomy education world will already know that there is a worldwide shortage of human cadavers for science. While donating your organs after you‘re done with them has become much more popular in recent years, the wholesale contribution of your entire carcass for scientific study is still frowned upon as weird, and even unfair to the family who need something physical so say their goodbyes to.
But in this world, where people are living for longer and procreating less, and the laws governing what you can and can’t do with the dead are becoming ever more specific; how does one teach budding scientists and physicians about the construction of the human body? Detailed anatomical drawings are a great starting point, and indeed were the progenitor of a lot of the understanding that we have of human anatomy today, but a scientist cannot live by drawings alone. Gone are the days of the likes of William Burke & William Hare, the 1800’s Scotsmen who took to stealing bodies from local grave sites (and eventually “making their own“ when the reserves ran out) to earn some quick cash at anatomy lectures.
Enter Samuel Piri, a teacher-turned-entrepeneur from Staffordshire who, in 2015 began performing live autopsies and operations with his company Inspire To Aspire Events, taking us back to those Victorian live theatre demonstrations (but with more regulation and hygiene!). ITAE runs several educational events all across the UK, including Anatomy Lab Live and, the event I attended, The VIVIT Experience.
Earlier this year, in an attempt to gain funding for expansion to the US and Europe, Piri and ITAE appeared on the popular investment reality TV show Dragon‘s Den, where they horrified and inspired in equal measure with their companion in education, VIVIT.
What Is VIVIT?
VIVIT is the world’s first semi-synthetic cadaver. He is a highly realistic synthetic body, cast from an actual human cadaver, with real (pig) organs in him that are used for demonstrations. Pig organs are used as they’re in much greater supply than human organs and more closely resemble human organs than any other mammal that we have ready access to.
What is the VIVIT Experience?
The VIVIT Experience is an educational event being conducted at universities across the UK for biological and medical sciences students/alumni and medical professionals. There are several different VIVIT Experiences, ranging from the “Core” one for undergrads and interested parties up to the more involved “Pro” sessions for students and professionals that are further along in their scientific careers. As a forensic science alum, I attended the Core event along with my mum, a medical professional, at the Sheffield Hallam University, South Yorkshire. There are many more VIVIT experiences happening across the country, and tickets can be purchased directly from their website or via their various Facebook event pages
What is involved?
The VIVIT Experience certainly isn’t for the faint of heart, VIVIT is center stage for the entire 5 hour event so you can snap plenty of photos of him in between the various lectures and practical sessions that make up the bulk of the day.
The first thing that struck me (moreso after the lunch break if I’m honest) is the overwhelming odour of death in the room. This wasn’t the sickly sweet smell you would associate with putrefaction, nor was it the chemically smell of embalming, this was what I have come to refer to as “fresh death” - a bloody, muscley, almost-but-not-quite-alive type smell which has left me with the opinion that I could never be a mortician. Second was the sense of calm that shrouded the room, audience included. I’m not sure any of us really knew what to expect, and I can only hope that the other students of VIVIT gained as much insight from the day I as I did.
The session started with a Lecture about the basics of post-mortem examinations; the correct terminology to be used during a post-mortem, how to correctly perform “the Y incision” on both male and female subjects (as there is a subtle difference), and then on to cranial and brain anatomy.
As you might suspect, this was followed by the first practical session, the dissection of a pig’s brain. Here those attendees who had paid the £10 extra for a goodie bag of PPE (personal protective equipment), a VIVIT notebook and a pen/pencil, could get truly hands on by working together with the other VIVITeers to remove the brain from a halved pig’s head and analyse the brain stem, the protective lining that surrounds the brain and all of the tiny little nerve endings that help spread messages across the body.
After a second lecture and demonstration, this time on the optic nerve and the eye, we did a second practical dissection, you guessed it. We dissected an eyeball. This was probably my least favourite of the 4 practical sessions as I’m actually pretty squemish about eyes for some reason. I was astounded by just how resilient they are. I always imagined they’d cave under minimal pressure, popping and going all gross and goopy with little-to-no effort on the part of the popper. In actual fact, this dissection was the hardest practical of the lot as a team of 3 people attempted to first dislodge the eyeball from under the eyelid and then sever the optic nerve so that we could remove the eyeball from the skull. Once the eyeball was loose we were able to inspect it more closely and even remove the lens from the top of one! (Again, a lot more difficult than you’d expect it to be!)
Lecture number 3 was all about the oesophagus and the lungs, what happens when you have COPD or asthma in comparison to a healthy lung and how it’s all connected. Dissecting the oesophagus was interesting, especially seeing how each of the “core organs” connected to each other. Again, it was a lot more hardy than you’d expect from a fleshy bit and took quite a lot of cutting to open.
Lecture 4 was matters concerning the heart; what a healthy heart looks like, how it pumps blood, all that fun stuff. The dissection was interesting, particularly because we were able to turn the heart practically inside out to really see its inner workings! We found a thrombus in our piggie’s heart and set ourselves a personal quest to excise it (which we succeeded in, go team!)
The 5th and final lecture didn’t come with a demo (for reasons that will become apparent shortly). The last lecture was on the gut - the intestines, the stomach, etc. We were talked through the structure and some of the key things to watch out for and then treated to a live demo of the dissection of a literal table full of guts, which stank. After that we were all given a link to a nice little participation certificate for us to download and display proudly in our homes/offices/etc. And we all filtered out of the lecture hall and back into our everyday lives.
The bare bones of it
The VIVIT experience is an utterly fascinating opportunity to learn more about human anatomy in a truly novel way. The lecturers are knowledgable, funny and above all, charismatic. They present the information in an easily digestible (pun totally intended) way and, in spite of the grizzly details, they leave you wanting to know more. VIVIT himself is amazing to behold and the overall experience is one that will stay with me for many years to come. It’s a must for medical science nerds, and a maybe for the remaining strong-stomached interested parties.
You can follow the exploits of VIVIT and Co. on;