Saturday, June 23, 2012

I love the smell of formaldehyde in the morning . . .

Anatomy Lab.  The quintessential medical school class, right? I swear whenever I imagined what medical school was like the only thing I envisioned was anatomy lecture and being in cadaver lab.  I pictured myself meticulously taking notes, color coding them, filling pages and pages with drawings, diagrams and splashes of color.  My imagination took me through a journey in which an atlas served as my exact guide and I could go vessel by vessel, nerve by nerve along its course, at the end being satisfied by the specimen that I had so exactingly dissected.  I couldn’t wait to feel like a real medical student.

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9 months later: I absolutely have come to hate some aspects of anatomy.  I hate the endless hours (I’m not exaggerating) you spend pouring over a body cleaning out fascia.  I spent a year in anatomy lab and I still don’t think I know what the hell superficial fascia is.  You know what is the worst? When you spent 2 hours carefully scraping something clean then the professor comes over and rips through it like an old cobweb.  Then you want to cry.  You know what is even worse? When it’s your turn to teach your group and you have no effing idea what is going on because your cadaver refuses to cooperate.  By the time exam time rolls around the things you dissected at the beginning have started to look more like decaying old wood than any semblance of a body.  “Oh hey look, this is the cephalic vein! Oh sorry, IT’S A FRAGMENT OF MUSCLE, NBD”

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Rewind 8 months and 29 days (ie first day of lab). I walked into the anatomy lab locker room and was overwhelmed by the most bizarre smell I had ever encountered but shrugged it off and changed into my scrubs.  To this day I am still a little confused as to why we insist on wearing scrubs to lab, there is no rule that you can’t just wear an old pair of jammie jamz (pajamas) or some comfy sweat pants and t-shirt you never want to wear again.  For some reason I think we lump this all into our requisite wardrobial rite of passage which includes but is not limited to: scrubs, white coat, those funny shower caps for your shoes, respirators (face masks) and stethoscopes (I have no business owning one but you better believe it was one of the first things I bought. LITTMAN BABY!).  In any case I changed and feeling very important slid by ID card through the scanner outside the lab and let myself in feeling like a BAMF.

So my group and I congregate around our table and slowly lurched open the large metal hinged doors that cover the body and latched them as they swung under the table.  We hesitatingly unzipped the bag and uncovered our cadaver.  This was happening simultaneously all over the room and you know what I found to be the most shocking thing? Not the dead body in front of me or the numerous other strewn about the room but the fact that not a single one of us flinched.  This is one occasion (of a handful) when you come to realize that people who go to medical school aren’t normal. There is some kind of morbid curiosity that drives us.  But a random sample of 100 people in the same situation I can guarantee 70 – 80% of them are going to have some kind of adverse reaction ranging from mild to moderate to severe.  Med students are basically freaks of nature.
You BFF in anatomy lab

Something that you will come to have a love-hate relationship with over the course of your first year will likely be Grant’s Dissector (sometimes called Tank”s).  Essentially the only anatomy lab manual you ever need.  So here we all are standing around with our copy of Grant’s and they tell us to take out our dissection kits and start. 

That was it.

And with that I began my first year of anatomy.  Here’s a scalpel, here’s a lab manual, here’s a cadaver. GO!
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For all the complaining and late nights and stress and a perpetually impending sense of doom associated with it in retrospect I wish I could do anatomy all over again. Why after all the b****ing? Because anatomy really is everything I dreamed it was, but it wasn’t the romanticized notion I pictured.  It wasn’t easy.  It was frustrating.  Every artery and vein and nerve didn’t always magically appear when I looked for it, sometimes they downright didn’t exist.  Sometimes instead of an abdominal aortic bifurcation you find a giant aortic aneurysm, but that’s life, right? 

I can’t believe I took for granted that incredible gift that those donor’s gave to us.  As medical students we are given an opportunity to look where very few people do, inside ourselves.  Every single cadaver that you will dissect or see or study from was at some point someone’s someone.  A mom, a dad, a brother, a sister, a grandmother, an aunt, a friend, a neighbor.  The only piece of advice I would want to pass on is to encourage some time for self reflection and I guess this doesn’t apply only to medical students but especially so because we are afforded such a tremendous opportunity and sometimes we get so caught up in what we’re doing we forget that we’re in the middle of something so much bigger than ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong though, sometimes anatomy will make you want to punch yourself in the face (then your nociceptors and c-fibers will go bananas ;) )

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