Medical school starts with anatomy lab

When does medical school officially begin? Is it when you are given your white coat? When you sit through your first orientation activity? When you listen to your first lecture? Or when someone first mistakes you for a doctor?

While medical school commencement is truly is an amalgam of all of these things, the answer to this question is medical school starts with anatomy lab.

I entered the lecture hall for anatomy orientation already exhausted from the beginning of the day’s activities and the past week-and-a-half’s lack of sleep. Suddenly, smack dab in the middle of lectures on infection control and overviews of the Yale System,I unexpectedly heard these words spoken by our course instructor: “Today, you will meet your donor” and you could feel a dramatic shift in the gravity of the lecture hall. This was not just a lecture on “what to expect in Anatomy”.

You could hear little whispers of people talking about their worries, trying to figure out if they were excited, nervous, scared, or sad. These whispers were set against 2nd year Medical and Physician Associate students speaking about their experiences with the course and their donors and what they had learned. They read poems and spoke in metaphors, but most of all, they stressed the emotionality of the experience, something beyond any lab we have previously done throughout our scientific education. Almost immediately, all of those students who had previously been excited to cut into a body (I will admit to being one of them), began to be nervous and a little more humbled.

We were told that all of our donors had chosen to give their body to Yale for this sole purpose, likely because they believed in medical education or science. We were then confronted with our own thoughts of what we would do in this situation: Could we, especially since we had benefited from our own donor, later in life give our bodies to Yale for that same purpose? The general consensus…was no. But, for a mostly scientific, and not too religious heavy group of minds, why was this answer so widespread? Was it a fear of death? A fear of confronting death? A fear of what happens to your body when you are dead? Or even, a fear of what goes on in Anatomy Lab itself? Our innate apprehensions of donating ourselves only further made us more grateful for each person’s decision to donate his or her body to us, and to our scientific education.

One by one we slowly were split into Societies—that’s the name given to the small groups of students who will share pathologies and good anatomical findings with each other throughout the course. Each society was then split into dissection groups of four students each. Names flashed across the screen like the Survivor TV show. We could not help but hold our breath that our chosen group studied like us, thought like us, and even felt like us, as this journey would soon be a shared one with three virtual strangers. As I saw my name flash across the screen I was happy that my group was filled with people that I knew, but not too well, as their more studious personalities could help me focus on the daunting task at hand. In fact, it was clear just how serious they were when we met at the top of the stairs to discuss whether or not we wanted to “remove the band-aid” and reveal the face today. Our conversation went on longer than any of the other groups in our Society. Together we decided to take a moment of silence each day before dissection to thank the donor, yet, we also chose to reveal the face now, as it might be much harder to all the sudden see it later during a craniotomy lab. Also, honestly we did not have much of a choice as everyone else picked this option and we would have been confronted with faces all around the room otherwise.

We arrived at our table, Number 27, which was fitted with ventilation to protect us from both airborne pathogens and that preservation smell associated with anatomy courses in the past, and spent our moment to thank the donor. In our gloves, we then slowly removed the plastic and could see the faint shape of a tiny woman begin to form. I was excited that we got a woman, and a tiny one at that. This meant our dissections will be easier as she will have little to no muscle/fat to move out of the way. But, I quickly felt the importance of the next moment, and I held my breath as we removed the gauze wrapping covering her face. With every inch uncovered, she was no longer a donor, anonymous and under a sheet, but instead, a person. While we only knew that she was 85 and had died of ovarian cancer, we spent some time looking at her face and deciding what ethnicity she was (the consensus being Asian) and looking at her chest/body to hypothesize what the scars and stitches were from. Unlike one donor in our Society who looked he had died suffering for air and honestly scared me when I looked at him, our donor appeared as if she had died peacefully. As I stared at her face, it was almost comforting, though very “brush with death”, to see her sleeping on the table, eyes closed, content, free of pain, and completely willing to be there.

When we unraveled her arms, I saw nail polish on her well-manicured fingernails. I wondered how long ago she had gotten her nails painted, why she had chosen that color, if she was married and wanted to look pretty for her husband and, if she had simply wanted to feel beautiful. Or did a daughter paint her nails while her mother lay close to death? It is one thing to cut into a person with a face, but it became a whole new dimension for me to cut into a person with a past.

In the first chapter of Mary Roach’s book Stiff, she says that medical students learn to objectify through Anatomy. She thinks we suspend our emotions and through Anatomy so we can endure the class and our subsequent professions and we become less empathetic.

After my first lab, I couldn’t disagree more.

Jessica Gold is a medical student.

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