Now that things have started to realign for my health education, I find myself internally cataloging some of the more defining experiences I had in medical school. Since nursing school (or even physician assistant school for that matter) is not as detailed as medical school, I will be fortunate enough to carry with me a bit of a deeper insight to the training I will receive. One such insight includes my time in Anatomy Lab, a course that is often taken to be one evocative of the med-school experience.
It is my understanding that nursing school does not typically include a cadaver dissection lab — this was certainly the case at TCOM, which did not even require physician assistants to participate. If I had to characterize the experience however, I will say that it is an extremely illuminating and valuable one; it is simply amazing to see how intricately the body is put together and just how small some of the organs are (especially those that expand such as the stomach or the uterus). It is incredible, and a little frightening, to see how thick the aorta is or how delicate the tendons are. It is fascinating to feel how light the lungs are to hold. No matter how much textbook anatomy one has studied, actually slicing a human open and cutting their organs free is a transformative experience — one understands the human body on a whole new level. It is an experience that we partake in so the majority of the world does not ever have to find out what a man’s organs feel like when retired.
That being said, as valuable as the contributions of our body-donors were, the entire experience makes me shudder to think about donating my body in a similar way. Certainly a valuable experience is shared by doing so, but it is not a dignified means of rest… at all. Don’t get me wrong — disrespecting the body is highly frowned upon (unlike during the 70s when playing with cadaver body parts would not be out of the ordinary), but there is only so much dignity to be kept intact while a group of six inexperienced medical students hacks the flesh apart. I distinctly recall when one of the cadavers’ legs became moldy — the anatomy teacher simply hacked off the entire leg at the thigh and placed it into the disposal bin (i.e. a garbage can with a special “HUMAN WASTE” label on it). The leg was too long for the bin so you could see a foot and its ankle poking above the rim. Had I not been desensitized at that point, I would have thought I was in a horror movie.
Speaking of desensitization, I should note that everyone deals with the effects of seeing a dead, mutilated body differently until finally becoming numb to the fact. Some schools encourage students to give their cadavers names (as the original name is withheld for privacy reasons) in order to humanize them. Some students, I have heard, have intermittent disorienting nightmares for the first couple weeks. Some students quietly try to imagine their cadaver as a living human while others block the thought from their mind, instead opting to treat the body as a mannequin. Regardless of how students deal with their thoughts and feelings, the undertone of “respect” is always, theoretically, present. Anything less would be inhuman, a trait foreign doctors are often criticized for.
But there was no experience as humanly connective and transformative as the day we finally opened up the braincase. The sights and smells of that day have been burned into my memory. I distinctly recall feeling exceptionally gross that day as we used the electric bone saws to cut out the skullcap; the singed bone-dust from forty cadavers permeated the air and mixed with various fluids to form a sort of bone-paste on the various surfaces in the room. Once we finally cut the rim around the skullcap, we were still having a bit of difficulty in pulling it free. One of our professors was this sweet tiny lady who decided to try and loosen it for us. As she gently positioned the head over the edge of the table, she pulled with all her might and accidentally popped the entire cap off. Immediately there was a cascade of cerebrospinal fluid falling to the floor. It was… not a very dignified image for anyone involved, living or dead.
Once the brain was actually isolated and removed however, it was an indescribable experience.
See, it is one thing to see a human brain in a museum or a tank, but it is a completely different feeling to actually excise it from a body. Given that the brain contributes most of the head’s mass, seeing the empty shell of the head on the table and instead holding the weighty organ alone in your hands feels almost… sinful. In your hands, you hold the body’s CPU. In your hands, you hold the person’s personality, memories, and being — an entire life condensed into a damp little ball. Somehow without it, the body appears even more lifeless than before. A machine without its operator.
Of all the organs we had isolated and removed from the body, the brain felt the most forbidden. The day we had that lab, numerous students appeared to have been similarly moved and posted Facebook statuses describing their feelings as they cradled the organ. Once again, it was an experience that many will go through life without, but it was somehow a profoundly intimate one.
At the end of the year, after we had dissected the cadavers until there was nothing left to dissect, our student government held a “respect ceremony” for the living family members of the cadavers. It was touching and I made it a point to attend (whereas some saw it as a “waste of time” — a testament to how medical students can lose their humanity), but I also noted how many of the families did not have a very good idea about what we actually did with the bodies. They had an idea of course, but I would never want them to actually know the extent of the bodies being sliced apart. Who could possibly bear to know that the body of their loved one casually had their leg lopped off because mold was growing on it? All they truly understood was that they had contributed to science, and they certainly did so in helping educate us. I found this disparity to be a somewhat pitiable distinction and inwardly recounted just how sacred the relationship of a caregiver with their patient could be.
There is a reason why I still pursue the path of healthcare even after leaving medical school. I recognize how… human… the role of a caregiver is; the bond treads upon the borders of life and death, connecting people as fellow humans. Other healthcare professions besides physicians may not require exposure to cadavers, but I feel that my experiences in Anatomy Lab will help me serve as a more fervent nurse while clutching tightly to my humanity.
To all of the faceless donors who helped us experience this, thank you.