Wonders of anatomy lab
In medical school, I have almost every single class with all 230 of my classmates, and we’re always trooping from one place to another, all in a clutch like baby ducks. Most of us are using the free backpack we got at orientation, so you can tell groups of us from a quarter mile away. We’re even easier to identify up close, because we all smell like anatomy lab.
Every morning, all 230 of us stream into the anatomy building and head for the locker rooms. There, I am amazed to see that, yet again, my female classmates have all gotten up at 7 a.m. and put on nice clothes and eyeliner and matching underwear in preparation for dissecting a dead body.
“These,” I think, “are a different breed of woman than I am.”
I slip into scrub bottoms and an old t-shirt covered with paint—clothes I plan to burn after anatomy lab is over—and we head upstairs to dissect.
Five medical students are in my group, working on the body of a 79-year-old woman. The body is in a “tank,” which is a special metal table that opens and closes, and we crowd around the tank and work on the body with scalpels and scissors.
We are mostly quiet while we work, and we are thorough. We started with the chest, and we have seen the inner chambers of the heart, the tiny tough airways inside the lungs, and the delicate nerves that run underneath each rib.
A few things have surprised me. Some blood vessels in your chest are wider than a faucet. And there are no muscles at all in the upper two joints of your fingers; those are controlled by tendons attached to muscles in your palm and forearm. There’s plenty of anatomical variation: Bodies missing a muscle, say, or where the arteries branch in unexpected ways. Sometimes the smell in the lab makes me sick. The bodies are preserved by phenol and formalin, and the smell sticks on your skin and hair no matter how much you shower.
I’ve gotten used to the smell, just like I’ve gotten used to dissecting. On the first day of medical school, when the body is entirely whole, you have to convince yourself that you are going to cut into it.
But once you begin, you become engrossed in the dissection, in all the tough and delicate and tiny structures, and you begin to see the body in parts. You keep the body half-covered with a white towel. You don’t see the face. You don’t speculate, aloud, about her life.
I’ve heard a lot about how anatomy lab is brutal; how it traumatizes medical students, and prepares us to view our patients from a remove. If that’s so, I don’t think it’s from the dissection itself -- dissection fills you with the wonder.
What’s brutal is the amount of information you have to suck up as you go. There’s little time to stop and be grateful to the person from whose body you are learning so much. People get by in odd ways -- one girl said she finds herself patting the arm of her cadaver as the dissection goes on. Others dream about their cadavers. It’s hard to say what’s natural, or what’s healthy, in a situation like this.