The first brain a medical student sees in anatomy lab

Arriving in anatomy lab there was an obvious discontent in the air. People were slower to arrive than usual and then they were even slower to get changed in the locker room. Girls would start casual conversation, or would wait for 15 minutes for others to move from in front of their locker, just in the hopes that they would get 5 more minutes to think, 5 more minutes to avoid the inevitable.

Nearly finished with anatomy lab forever, you would think it was impossible for anything to phase us. We have cut, sawed, removed, and held virtually every system in the human body. However, the problem was that even if we cringed when the saw hit a rib, or turned away when our group decided we could see better if a limb was removed, we still kept the face covered, we still never looked at the most human part of our donors. Today, however, we had to remove that drape and today, we had to use a saw and cut out the most awesome, most uncharted, most fascinating, organ of the body, the brain.

“I am not going to be of much use today,” I told my lab partners as I walked to my table. They laughed and said that I am not much use most days, a fact that I acknowledged as I have become utterly sick of having to do these labs each week and learn the minutia of the body. But, when I tell them that this week I was going to be useless for emotional reasons, they smiled and empathized completely.

The two boys in our group started by making incisions and ripping the flesh in such a way that I had trouble looking at them. I was reminded of the time I shadowed a neurosurgeon and as he cut into a patient’s head with the patient awake he joked, “I am going to scalp you now,” only this time the patient was not going to be saved with the procedure, and this time, I actually could see (and hear) perfectly what he meant with his word choice. Once under the skin we had to remove the skullcap using a saw (an electric circular one) and a hammer and chisel. Last time we had used the hammer and chisel to remove a vertebrae and I could awkwardly break the tension by saying it felt like “we’d been working on the railroad.” Some groups even put on music. Today there was no music and no jokes, only the sound of saws.

I positioned myself at the end of the table so that I could see what was going on, but so that I could easily turn away. A friend in our Society (what we called our larger groups made up of 5 anatomy tables/teams) brought around masks to her group and asked casually if any of us wanted one. I looked at her and asked, “Why, will it make it stop?” She smiled at me with intense dislike for the day behind her eyes and said no, but the smell of cutting bone would at least go away. She was right. With my sense of smell cut off with the mask, my biggest issue became the sounds. The saw. The bones. The chisel. None of it was sitting right with me. Suddenly, like a climax to my weird sounding nightmarish-dream, my group member pushed me aside as he braced himself at the end of the table. With another member pulling, I heard them say, “1-2-3” and then they yanked as hard as they could. I heard a loud crackled pop and then others in the room let out a collective disturbed sigh. I opened my eyes and saw that the skull cap had come off. All I could see now was the brain.

Once the brain was visible I stopped seeing the donor, or the technique that I had just witnessed, and could do nothing but marvel at this feat of nature. As our professor cut the cranial nerves one by one, explaining to us the routes they travel, I felt like I was looking at a brain suspended in space. Snip by snip the nerves were cut and the brain came out after. I held it in my hand. It was heavy. It was a human brain. I couldn’t believe it.

Some people say that the “Juice is worth the squeeze,” and in this case I could not agree more. Though I had trouble with the actual removal process, there really is nothing like getting to see and hold and learn from an actual human brain. I might not have liked getting there, but what I got was well worth my cringing and moral dilemmas. If I end up still being interested in Neurology or Psychiatry in the future, this will be the first brain I will have seen and the one that will eternally be imprinted in my memories.

Just another reason I am forever grateful to my donor.

Jessica Gold is a medical student.

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