What it's like to dissect dead bodies for a living

Hannah Lewis goes to work with a plastic eyeball tied to each of her two pigtails.

But when she gets face to face with her "patients" for the first time, she's usually wearing several layers of protective clothing.

If you live in the ACT and leave your body to science, Ms Lewis may well be the person who prepares your cadaver for medical students to study and dissect.

"Honestly, it's an innate curiosity that drives me with anatomy — and I like to spread that around, and inspire the students," says Ms Lewis, an anatomical services specialist at the Australian National University's Medical School.

"Quite honestly, dealing with these cadavers is one of the first experiences for med students, [in] having a patient.

"We actually call the cadavers patients when the students come into contact with them. It helps to develop an empathy that can't actually happen with a computer screen."

Ms Lewis says learning about human anatomy with the real thing is nothing like learning from models.

"To experience dissecting an individual … discovering their anatomical variations and the structure of the skin, the fascia, the fat — it differs in every single person, depending on their body composition," she says.

Each body treated with respect

Ms Lewis loves her job, but says she fell into it by accident. She's always been fascinated by death and burial, though.

"I decided to do a double degree of science and arts in archaeology and anatomy at the University of Sydney, and I discovered that they had a dissection program that they ran in January every year," she says.

"My first dissection was a forearm, so it had been cut mid-humerus … the first thing that struck me was that it actually had pink nail polish.

"It was going to be a deep dissection, so I removed the skin, the fat, most of the muscles to get to the bone structure, and every now and again … you'd be so immersed in your work, and then you'd look up and … go 'Whoa! It's a hand!'"

It was an experience that left her with a deep sense of reverence.

"Someone donated their hand for me to do that," she says.

Ms Lewis ensures every cadaver is treated with the utmost respect when it comes into her laboratory and embalming room.

Every visitor — student, staff, or contractor — must sign a code of conduct in accordance with the Transplantation and Anatomy Act.

The code acknowledges the altruistic generosity of the donors and their families, and the university's extreme gratitude. It also states that the bodies of the deceased persons must be handled with consideration — always.

Code of conducts like this are in place across all Australian medical science faculties where bodies have been donated.

Not your typical anatomical services specialist

Being young and a woman makes Ms Lewis the exception in her line of work.

"I think when most people think about anatomical specialists they have a particular picture in mind of this person that would be doing that job. Hannah definitely doesn't fit that mould," Riccardo Natoli, the ANU's Medical School bequest co-ordinator, says.

Mr Natoli's job is to deal with the living people who donate their bodies to the school for use after death — and their families.

He believes Ms Lewis is particularly well suited to her work.

"It's wonderful to have someone young and as vibrant … doing this particular work," Mr Natoli says.

"It can give a very different picture to what it is we actually do."

Part of Ms Lewis's role is to ensure the donated bodies are appropriate for study and dissection.

"It's not automatic, there's a couple of reasons why you might be rejected from the program," she says.

"Emaciation, obesity, dementia or Alzheimer's, autopsy, whole organ donation and amputation can actually hinder the process of the donor getting to me."

'They're still people to us'

It's also crucial the cadaver isn't carrying any communicable diseases that could spread among the staff and students who will work with the body at close quarters.

For this reason, when a body arrives at the facility, Ms Lewis dons several layers of protective clothing before beginning her work. She inserts a needle to remove blood from the left ventricle of the heart and the sample is sent to Canberra Hospital.

If it comes back clear, the embalming process can begin.

"This process is actually quite emotional for me sometimes, because you can tell that it's someone's grandmother or grandfather. I find myself talking to them," Ms Lewis says.

"Sometimes I have the joy of doing it with a lab assistant and so they end up talking to them too, and we treat them like a person.

"When someone dies they're obviously not there anymore, but the cadavers aren't objects — they're our patients.

"They're still people to us. It's a funny limbo to be in, but that's the kind of respect [we have]."

Body donation programs are run by many medical schools at universities across Australia, and differ in their requirements for eligibility.

If you'd like to donate your body to medical science, there is documentation that must be filled out prior to death, and consultation with your family is also strongly advised.