Dissecting a cadaver cannot be replaced by technology

I was browsing the now famous mini-lecture website, TED.com, when a certain video caught my eye.  The presenter began by naming the various pitfalls of anatomy dissection such as its high cost and noxious chemicals.  He whirled through a short demonstration using his brand new Automage Table, a 3D touch screen rendering of the human form.  In his virtual dissection, he quickly and effortlessly revealed various organs and vessels.  He isolated the circulation system, then just the heart floating in space.  Zooming in, he displayed the four chambers of the heart in perfect three-dimensional clarity.  He showed every view I could imagine, except for the best one: the real one.

Technology carries the future of medicine, and that excites me.  However, technology can never replace one of the most fundamental experiences of a physician.  Even as a mere first year medical student, I am confident that dissecting a cadaver will remain one of the most poignant moments of my career.   Learning anatomy from a computer would truly turn medical students into computers themselves.

I remember the first day of anatomy vividly.  A prior group had just begun on my cadaver, and my group peeled back the white tarp to see their work.  A visceral wave of nausea ran over me, and I stepped back and sat down on a nearby chair.  Otherwise, I would have crumpled to the floor.  Sweat beaded on my forehead and my vision blurred.  After a few moments I snapped out of my trance.  I eventually returned to the cadaver, now slightly more prepared than the first time.  One of my colleagues was not as lucky, as a startling thud brought the room to an eerie silence.  A classmate across the room had fainted, assumedly overcome by the same torrent of emotion.  I battled on, observing while some of my more eager teammates began the dissection.  The scalpel was ceremoniously passed around my group of four, each person continuing to cut vertically along the back of the cadaver.  I was last.  I felt the heat of my peers’ eyes piling on top of my own trepidation.  I pressed the scalpel firmly into the tough skin, feeling the resistance of the tensile and leathery tissue.  The blade broke through as I glided further down the cadaver’s middle back.  I felt the subtle vibration of the connective tissue splitting, revealing raw and withered muscles.  I was entranced.  The awe, the fear, the privilege, and the humility of the incision froze my thoughts.  I had gained absolutely no medical knowledge at that point, but the humanity of medicine enveloped me.  There, for the first time, I felt like a physician in training.

Perhaps this sounds like hyperbole, especially to those that have not performed a human dissection, but my experience is not unique.  Ask any physician about their memories of anatomy, and they will describe their cadaver in startling detail.  I will never forget holding the enlarged heart that ultimately led to my cadaver’s death.  I will never forget feeling the sharp edges of her broken ribs, ostensibly the result of a last-ditch effort to resuscitate her after cardiac arrest.   Most importantly, I will never forget my first true step towards becoming a physician.

Drew Kotler is a medical student. 

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