The Truth About Anatomy Lab

Before reading this post, please take time to review my disclaimer here.

If I had to pick a theme to encompass this semester thus far, the theme would be time. What time is it? What time do we have to be there? ? When can we stop studyingHow much time left on the exam? How long have we been studying? Where has the time gone? How much time is that meeting? Time, time, time. There’s never enough of it, but I’m always ready for whatever-it-is to be over.

Speaking of which, I have neither the time to write this, nor the amount of sleep I require, but I think I need to say it.

Simply because it bothers me so much, I feel like I have brought up the fact of having no time to reflect at least a couple times on this blog. Where it bothers me most though, is anatomy. I don’t have the time to be bothered though.

We were told to be grateful for the gifts of these donors’ bodies. We were told strict rules of how we would show that respect. (No cell phones in the lab, no pictures, be courteous, be mature, don’t take body parts, etc.) Some of us have even had cadaver labs before. Let me say this though, having now done both. Medical school cadaver lab anatomy is nothing like undergraduate cadaver lab anatomy. Do I feel more prepared having taken undergrad anatomy? Maybe I was more prepared on the first day of school, for words like “inferior” and “malleolus” to pop up. Maybe. I may remember some superficial muscles from anatomy 3 years ago. Rarely has this been true. I got my feet wet handling a dead body. Barely. (We shared two bodies with about 100 students.) Still, I don’t feel like I was prepared for the semester in store. Not really at all.

Some days it doesn’t bother me at all. I go in, do my work, chatting and laughing and focusing on the anatomy and other things and then I get out, and go get my dinner and go back to studying.

Some days I do not want to go in there. Not at all. Some days I just can’t find it in me to touch the bodies or talk or even think about anatomy. Because some days, it really just feels wrong. Honestly, I don’t even know how to deal with it. And even worse, I think a lot of people really aren’t dealing with it at all. It’s just become something we have to do.  We have to do it for a lot of reasons- because we have to learn it, and we were told to do it by our instructors; we’ve even been told that it’s a noble pursuit. Unfortunately, the severity of it gets ignored in the name of duty sometimes.

I feel like I’m doing something straight out of a concentration camp somedays and nobody has told me how to deal with it!

I’ll even go so far as to admit to ignoring the fact that they were humans at all. The smallest details sober me up though. I went to another group’s table and saw that their cadaver’s legs, (skin still on) were peeling like a sunburn. Something I don’t have to learn and not at all relevant to this anatomy unit, startled me and reminded me that her skin gets dry and flaky just like mine. We are humans. And one of us is cutting the other up.

I know how terribly fibrous and tedious it is to pluck through the connective tissue of the back of a human neck. I know the best technique to skin a human stomach- and leave the fat on- in less than an hour. I know the different texture of cutting through the human heart pericardium. I’ve heard the sound of a human tendon peeling off of bone, of a human sacrum being sawed through. Of flinging human fat into a bucket. I’ve had a neck ache from cutting on a human body for too long. I’ve wiped my forehead with the back of my glove, only to find that I’m wiping my forehead with the fatty “grease” of another human being. I’ve gone home with my cadaver’s armpit hair stuck to my shirt, found flecked bits of human tissue in my hair, in my scrub pockets, on my body. Each and every human body in that room has a distinct smell. We’ve made up names for them. Some nice, some not. The women’s hair on their heads is shaved. There is poop still in their intestines, though it doesn’t always stay there.

Are you catching my drift? I want to scream, “None of this is normal, or even OKAY!” Its not healing, its not easy; its ugly and its dehumanizing. These are opposites of what I’m trying to do here!!!

But for all the terrible, disgusting things I have beheld in that horrid lab that I hate with a passion, there is good. There is always good.

I have physically seen human organ cancers and surgical alterations and held a human gallstone, and a human ovary, and a human kidney in my hands. I have learned and traced and touched and owned the knowledge for myself what is in the human body. The depths and awe and intricacy and straight up crazy things it has to teach us. I felt the juicy, soft texture of a lung and looked inside a heart. I know the shape of each vertebrae and why its like that. I got elbows deep into the spinal cord and saw straight down a trachea into the lung. I’ve traced the ureter from its beginning in the bladder and out of the body. I follow the arteries to each and every place the hearts pump their blood- their sizes give away their importance. I’ve palpated a lymph node filled with disease and one that was healthy and smooth like a pinto bean. I’ve compared sizes of prostates to other bodies and looked at inflated bladders and black lungs and liver cancer.

We laugh and joke and play and gosh darn it, we get every last thing on our list done because its what we have to do and we are medical students.

If I choose to donate my body to a donor program I wonder what the students will say. What will they speculate about my life, my scars, my abnormalities. What will my body tell them? The truth is, a cadaver tells very little about what really mattered in their life. Would they have ever known or cared to know if their hepatic portal vein was much larger than normal? No.

Though I find it incredibly skewed that I know so much about my cadaver’s insides without knowing them personally, I know their anatomy- the health and diseased states of it. They’ve taught me a lot and I won’t let it go to waste. Cancer is ugly and surgeries leave gruesome scars. Palpation is a key tool I will always have in my hands. Variations are numerous- no body is the same. These are things they have taught me about patient care even though I wasn’t able to do anything but cut them.

They’ve taught me the depth and beauty and intricacy of the human body designed by God. They showed  me the beautiful mess that it is and allowed me to touch it and see it outside of a textbook. They’ve left me amazed, wowed, grossed out and “oh cool!”ed.

The truth about anatomy lab isn’t spoken about much. I certainly didn’t know what went on. A lot of it is unavoidable, and no one is completely innocent or at fault. It’s going to be messy and gruesome and uncomfortable. I think the point of it is to get the most education out of it that you can- both didactically and emotionally. Gratefulness, always. I now think donating my body would be a great sacrifice, one I am not sure I can stomach.

If anyone is asking me, though, I think it can be handled more gracefully by medical schools and medical students alike. My class isn’t particularly keen on mamby pamby feelings chats because we are so busy, but I think a candid briefing before anatomy starts and a debriefing after the semester would be helpful for us as future physicians. What we are called to do is heal and humanize and what anatomy lab is right now, is anything but.

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