A medical student goes back to the anatomy lab before residency

by Christopher Bayne

I still remember the first time I entered the anatomy lab. Heck, I remember the first time I entered the hallway leading to the anatomy lab.

I wouldn’t say an anatomy lab “smells.” That is, an anatomy lab doesn’t smell “bad”: the odor can’t be defined as good or bad. Really, it’s neither. But the scent is distinctive. If you’ve been there, then you know what I mean, and you’re getting a mental whiff now.

Tomorrow I return to the anatomy lab, this time as a teacher. I’m still a medical student, but instead of anatomy lab as my first rotation of medical school — as it was nearly four years ago — this time it’s my last rotation of medical school. I will be assisting my anatomy professors in teaching retroperitoneal and pelvic anatomy to our school’s physician assistant students.

I was nervous that first time entering the anatomy lab. Sure, I had seen anatomy labs during medical school interviews, but the humidors were either clean and unused or the cadavers were covered and hidden. That first day was about the unknown. What was I going to see? How much were they going to ask us to do? But maybe my biggest questions that day revolved around the literal experience: Like my classmates, I wondered what dissecting a dead human was going to feel like–from the emotions and thoughts that were sure to mug my brain to the feeling of fat between my gloves.

I learned a lot during anatomy lab, and I credit the upperclass teaching assistants for a lot of my experience. I remember a fourth-year student, Matt, helped me learn the abdominal vasculature and digestive system. Starting with the celiac trunk on the aorta, he traced every artery with a stainless-steel dissection probe until it reached an organ. Then he found other supplying arteries and traced those back to their origins. The whole time he effortlessly recited the anatomy. And then he would do the whole thing again, only this second time he made me recite the anatomy. I respected Matt for his selflessness; he never left the lab until I could recite like him. He was the reason I learned abdominal anatomy. I can still see his extra-large latex gloves bunching at the fingertips and how his hands were so slippery from the adipose tissue that he could barely hold the probe.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to being a little nervous about returning to the lab. I know what to expect this time, of course, so thoughts of the unknown don’t have me worried. Instead, I’m nervous about the figurative experience. This rotation is my last, which means I am about to graduate — about to become a doctor. As a first-year student, I was full of questions and self-doubt, and it was convenient to think I had four more years to learn what the heck Matt was talking about. But in another four-weeks I will exit the anatomy lab, and medical school, for the last time, and I will enter another lab of unknowns: residency. In some ways I feel more prepared to enter residency than I did to enter the anatomy lab as a new student. At least this time I have some idea of what to expect. But residency lab has gurneys, not humidors. The mistakes are real, and the unknowns are deeper.

So first-year students, forgive me if the dissection probe slips from of my fingers tomorrow. I am here, and I want to help. But I, too, am a little unsure of myself, and I still have a lot of reciting to do.

Christopher Bayne is a medial student who blogs at HokieMD.

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