A lesson about pig lungs

If you lay a pig on its back and slice open its belly, what you’ll find inside is anatomically identical to what’s inside a human: same size heart, same size lungs, same organ makeup.

I’d seen Jennifer Brink, the chair of Ivy Tech Northeast’s Respiratory Care program, demoing the pig lungs to a group of high school students last week, and I wanted to learn more. (OK, really, I just wanted to play with some pig lungs.)

Everybody wave to Jennifer.
Everybody wave to Jennifer.

Jennifer told me to give her a heads up about when I wanted to talk about it, and she’d grab a pair out of the freezer. Because here at Ivy Tech, we keep pig lungs  hanging around for just such an emergency.

For our demo, there is a smell in the air. It’s not chemicals, like formaldehyde, and it’s not overpowering. It just kind of lingers.

“That’s the blood,” Jennifer says. “What you’re smelling is the iron. It’s kind of metallic. Blood stinks.”

Inflated pig lungs

Then came the lesson. Here’s what I learned about lungs that I never knew before:

  • Deflated, they feel like a hunk of meat. If I would have fondled my Applebee’s steak last night, it probably wouldn’t have felt all that different from the pig lung. (Except, you know, warm. ‘Cause my steak wasn’t raw.)
  • Inflated, the lungs are spongy and soft. Jennifer threads a breathing tube down the trachea and can pump up the lungs. It’s eerie and awesome to see them “breathing.”
  • The trachea is rough, with a series of little C-shaped cartilage running down it. Go ahead and run your finger down your throat–that’s the same cartilage you’re feeling.
  • Like human lungs, each pig lung is divided into lobes. The right has three–the large bottom lobe and the smaller middle and top lobes. The right has just two–the large bottom lobe and the small top lobe–to make room for the heart . If a person gets lung cancer in one of the lobes, doctors can remove the lobe entirely, and the person can continue to breathe fine.
  • In fact, a doctor can remove an entire lung, and the other lung will pick up the slack.

Since the heart was in there, we talked about that, too. It was a dark purple muscle, much tougher than the lungs. And Jennifer could point out the arteries, which were considerably smaller than I’d have thought. My grandma has a number of stints in her heart, and whenever I thought about this in the past, I imagined arteries with at least a 1-inch. It’s closer to a millimeter.

A sliced-open pig heart

Jennifer gets her lungs from an old-school butcher shop in Monroe, near where she grew up.

“I can get all the pig lungs I want,” she said.

That’s because the butcher doesn’t use lung meat; he just throws them out if Jennifer doesn’t want them.

She uses them for demonstrations to middle and high schoolers and occasionally for her own students. And no matter how many times she’s demoed the pig lungs, she still gets excited. Our pig lungs had a bleb, a small air pocket, like a blister.

That's the bleb.
That’s the bleb.

“I’ve never seen one of these before,” Jennifer said, and after she popped it–which was tougher to do that you’d think, the lung membrane is stronger than it looks–she showed that the bleb was a result of a tear in the lung. In a human, this is what leads to a collapsed lung. In a pig …

“This guy would have been in trouble,” she said.

Check out a short video clip of the lungs “breathing” below.


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