It’s STEM science fair night at the local middle school. A teacher friend has asked me to give a presentation on pathology. Happily, I’ve discovered that my assigned classroom has a life-sized anatomical model, which I immediately take apart, arranging the plastic organs in anatomic order on the table in front of me. I’m slightly disappointed that the spleen isn’t removable, but it’s ok.
When the students arrive, I ask if they are OK seeing pictures of organs. They seem enthusiastic about it. That’s good news. I’m not used to teaching younger kids, and unsure how 12 year olds will respond to the material. Prior to this evening, the only child I’ve ever taught was a pathologist’s daughter, who came to “bring your child to work day” and watched me dissect what she cleverly termed an “appendix-not-the-kind-in-a-book” with equal parts interest and disgust.
In preparation, I had carefully selected a few pictures of benign, non-messy looking organs like the liver and tonsils to include in the presentation. When I show them, I am relieved when they elicit a a few “ewww-s” and “oh gross-es” followed by wide grins.
Only one student leaves to go to the bathroom and doesn’t return.
The remaining group is particularly interested in the autopsy section of my talk, and when question time comes around, multiple hands shoot up. The discussion is nothing short of lively. After the students begin asking questions, the parents in attendance chime in with an equal number of questions. They were just as curious as the students were about the topic of death! It seemed that they never lost their own adolescent curiosity-it took the honest inquiries of youngsters to bring it back to the surface.
Afterwards, I make my way to a room to pick at a some snacks set out for the presenters, where a teacher thanks me. I can’t help but wonder if she has any idea what I just talked to her students about. Next to me, a plant scientist complains loudly that his attendees talked throughout his presentation. Despite his numerous efforts to silence them by pointing out their rude behavior, the chatter persisted.
Not a peep from my students. Confirmation that they were clearly enthralled. I left the fair secretly a little puffed up.
The questions the kids and the adults had for me are things I’d wager most people secretly want to know. Here are a few of them:
“Do dead people stink when you get them?” They can, but hospital refrigeration retards decomposition. “What’s the longest you’ve waited to do an autopsy?” About a week in the hospital, up to months at the medical examiner’s office. “What happens to the body and the organs after an autopsy?” The body cavity is sutured closed, and the organs are placed back in the body for the most part. “How?” In a bag. “Do overdose victims go to the medical examiner’s office?” Yes(I am not sure what prompted the student to ask that question, but I felt for him). “What is the grossest organ?” Gross, you mean messiest? I hold up the plastic colon and small bowel models. “What about the stomach?” Oh yes, that can have smelly stuff inside of it too. “What do the brains of dementia patients look like?” Conveniently, exactly like the brain of the anatomical model in the classroom, complete with widened sulci(how did they know??)
Death Q&A is the best! I could do it all night. Any more questions? Bring them on!
The vintage classroom torso model I used in my lecture is also available for a limited time at Urban Remains.