October 11, 2009

gray's anatomy for real

What is up with the cadaver dissection in medical school?

Since the last time I wrote (which now I realize is a while ago) I have started our anatomy/histology/imaging/doctoring skills block - which is to say that I am dissecting a cadaver daily as well as practicing doctoring skills (right now skeletal screening exam, apparently sometime soon, prostate screening exam!), learning how to read radiology tests (at a pre-novice level), and understand what slides of cells are telling me about the health of tissue.

I have been wanting to write about our cadaver dissection but am still not sure how I feel about it. I had such mixed feelings going into it and I'm not sure if they've changed all that much since starting. Dissecting a cadaver seems like the keystone experience for medical school - it teaches you to objectify the human body into parts, it forces you to confront your own mortality, and teaches you things you could never learn about the human body in a live being.

The cadaver I've been assigned to for the first month (of 3) died at the age of 54 from pancreatic cancer. He's only a year older than my own father and doesn't look sickly or anything. Oh, except that he's dead. I think that his young age has made it more strange for me - because he doesn't look old and shriveled and like maybe he lived a long life and this truly is resting. He looks like any man I could see talking with his buddies on the side of his son's football game, drinking a beer and having a hot dog.

Except that he's dead.

And I'm dissecting his body.

And the thing is - it's probably the coolest thing I've ever done. This past week, we dissected the entire arm - so I can tell you what all those veins and nerves are in your hands - what muscle you use to open a refrigerator or hold a lover's hand; I know why only your pinky and your ring finger go numb when you hit your funny bone; I know the name of your funny bone. This means that over half of the time, I'm in complete awe of the awesomeness that is the human body. For example, our circulatory system has set up a split in your brachial artery (big artery that supplies blood to most of your arm) around your elbow - on both sides - so that you can bend your elbow (to hold a baby, to do a biceps curl) and still get blood flow to your hands.

Perhaps my mixed feelings can be represented by a moment that happened a few weeks ago when we were removing a part of our cadavers spine:

For those of you who have not ever chiseled a spine (and I hope that's all of you) - your spine is really hard. my group had to take two minute turns because it was harder than constructing my bed. As I passed on the chisel and hammer to the next person, I realized I was standing next to our cadaver and rubbing his (still skin-encased, so somewhat normal looking) arm, trying to be soothing - as I watched my lab partners chisel his spine. It was the strangest moment and I'm still not sure what to take from it.

We've been able to talk a lot about how we're feeling about all of it - and what I keep coming up with is that the best way I can honor this incredible gift is to learn as much as I possibly can from this experience.

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