An EMT’s First-Hand Account of the EMS Today Cadaver Lab

cadaver

I stood outside the doors, anxiously waiting for our group to be called. I felt a mixture of curiosity of the unknown and nervousness. I had never attended a cadaver lab before, having only heard other people’s experiences about taking a sneak peek inside the human body.

We were finally called into the room and were instructed to don our scrubs before gathering together for a briefing about how the lab would proceed.

At the end of the briefing, we all took a moment of silence for the people who donated their bodies to help educate and teach healthcare providers. We were told that the families of the deceased would receive a list of everyone who participated in the cadaver lab and worked on their family member—a final sign of respect and gratitude at the educational opportunity being provided.

We then found our assigned tables and met our instructors and cadavers.

I was in awe as I stood looking at a cadaver for the first time, but the realization came that they look no different than you or I; it was very different from what I had imagined staring at a cadaver would be like.

The cadaver’s hands, feet and face were covered discreetly, the only exposed portion of their body was the chest and legs. I looked into the chest, marveling at the way the human body was created. The heart, lungs, diaphragm and ribs all fit together in a perfect package, and I couldn't help but smile under my surgical mask.

Our instructor introduced himself and gave some of his background as well as inquiring about ours. I enjoyed listening to the different experiences and levels of training that we all had earned, and when it came my turn I blushed a little.

“Are you a paramedic?” he asked.

“No sir,” I replied. “I'm just an EMT.”

He stopped me right there.     

“In here,” he said, “you are the foundation of care. BLS is ‘basic’ for a reason; it teaches us where to begin. Without BLS there is no ALS. You got that?”

I couldn't help but smile again.

“But here today, we are all the same. You do what we do. You have a larger ‘scope of practice’ today.”

Awesome!

Our leader briefly went over the anatomy of the body before diving into the skills we would be practicing: endotracheal (ET) intubation, intraosseous (IO) access, pnuemothorax decompression and wound packing.

We began by briefly going over the anatomy of the upper and lower airway, and we then moved on to discussing the indications and contraindications for airway intubation and adjuncts.

Then it was time to try our hand at intubation with a laryngoscope. I hesitated for a moment. Would I be brave enough to handle the cadaver?

I had encountered deceased persons before, and never had issues handling them, but performing interventions and physically reaching inside to feel its anatomy? Could I do it?

Our leader told me to get a seal on a bag-valve mask (BVM) for another student, and without thinking I grabbed the mask, my hands resting on the cadaver’s face.

I was surprised at how cold it was.

When we began practicing inserting the laryngoscope and opening the cadaver’s airway, I caught my breath in excitement. After being able to visualize the trachea, I began my first attempt at inserting the ET tube, but couldn’t quite get the hang of it right away.

I was told I could give it another try after we went through the other skills. And next up was obtaining IO access in the humerus and the tibia.

I had only seen IO performed in videos shown in my EMT class. I had never experienced one up close before, let alone performing the skill on a human cadaver. I was surprised by the drill’s power and speed in the access.

We then moved onto pnuemothorax decompression, a skill that quickly became my favorite to learn that day. Enough of the cadaver’s chest remained so I was able to decompress between the third and fourth ribs on the mid-clavicular line, and also on the mid-auxiliary side of the chest between the fifth and sixth ribs.

After all of our skills were complete, we were told that we could use the remaining seven other cadavers in the room to try our skills. The instructor explained that every cadaver was different, and we might find other interesting challenges to tackle.

My group dispersed, and I walked to the cadaver’s head, wanting to attempt and hopefully succeed at intubating the cadaver.

The leader picked up the video laryngoscope and again demonstrated the skill for me, before having me attempt it with the camera. The tube slid in easily.

He then gave me a few pointers before going off to assist a group in another skill.

I grabbed the ET tube and laryngoscope. I carefully positioned my cadavers head.

Again, no luck.

One more time, I thought.

And to my great delight, the ET tube slid into the cadaver’s airway, and I couldn’t help but grin in sheer elation.

I looked up and saw one of the other students watching me. She smiled, making a motion for me to grab the BVM so I could bag the cadaver to check my tube placement. Sure enough, the lungs inflated.

Satisfied with successfully performing the skill, I moved around the room to see the other cadavers, stopping to listen to another group being taught about cardiac massage. It was amazing to see the instructor just casually pick up the heart and demonstrate how it would be preformed.

Fascinated, I watched as he stuck a hand inside the cadaver’s chest.

“You can feel the rings of the bronchioles if you place your hand here,” he said, turning to look at the group.

“Anyone want to try?”

Feel the bronchioles?! I had never imagined bronchioles as something you could feel.

I stepped forward, placing my fingers where I’d seen the leader place his.

I felt hard, seemingly cartilaginous rings encased in a thin, pliable covering, and again I marveled at the creation that is the human body.

All too soon the class was over, and I returned to my group’s table to thank our leader.

Before leaving I found myself focusing again on the cadaver—someone’s family member—and I wanted to thank them for giving me a glimpse into the wonders of the body.

I will never forget the experience of attending my first cadaver lab. My deepest thanks and gratitude to Teleflex for putting on the cadaver lab, and to my mentor, JEMS Editor-in-Chief A.J. Heightman, for bringing this amazing event to my attention.