Today being my first day of official medical school classes, I figure it’s pretty much required that I post about the Anatomy Lab experience. In short, it wasn’t as disturbing or frightening as I thought, but only because, well, cadavers don’t look like real people.
I think our whole class was anxious to start anatomy–people starting donning scrubs before class (we have an hour lecture and then a three-hour dissection about what we’ve just covered in lecture). We arrived in the anatomy lab, and no matter how well ventilated the place is, you’re always hit by the smell. It’s a mixture of latex, cleaning product, and embalming fluid (in Stanford’s case, it’s a mix of formaldehyde and alcohols that are used as the preserving agent). Some of the bodies were, to my amazement, preserved for 18 months before they became our cadavers.
I was very impressed with the lead professor’s handling of the experience. He talked to us about professionalism and that, while humor and light-heartedness is very often part of the atmosphere in the lab, we should remember the gift that these men and women have given to us. Once we all entered the lab, we also had a moment of silence out of respect and gratitude to the cadavers we were about to learn from.
We began with basic safety precautions–how to handle a scalpel and scalpel blades, how to dissect properly, etc. And then, we began. My group of four all looked at each other, unsure who wanted to make the first incision, and we unzipped the royal blue canvas bag, peeling back the sheet covering our cadaver. I was amazed at how pale and certainly unlifelike the man’s skin was, as well as the hair on his chest. We found the jugular notch (sternum notch), and I was surprised at how hard his body had become; even the side of his abdomen was wrinkled and had the exact same folds as a brown paper bag. Besides the hair, I think it was much easier for me to use the visual cues and assume that this *wasn’t* a person I was dissecting. I know it’s not the attitude I want to hold for the entirety of the class, but for the first day at least, it made the act of desecrating and mutilating a human body seem less severe and inhuman.
I hate to even mention it, but at one point, the dissection began to feel… fun, if only of the sense of wonder and amazement at the man’s body–finding a couple small arteries and nerves, and several enlarged lymph nodes. It’s a weird sensation enjoying something that, in any other context, would be completely immoral and vicious. It got to the point where it wasn’t a human’s adipose tissue and connective tissue we were cutting away with our scalpel, but just a maze of layers that we were investigating, searching carefully for a small branching nerve tube.
At the end of lab, we cleaned our dissection area, and went to clean ourselves. But apparently the mixture of latex and preserving agent sits on your skin for days. I scrubbed 3 times and still smell. I know the head and neck, hands, and genitalia will probably be much more trying days, but I was surprised at how normal I felt. My life didn’t change, I haven’t stopped eating meat, I doubt I’ll have any intrusive images in my dreams; I’m told the experience is different for everyone, and it’s just as normal to feel _normal_ as it is to be uncomfortable with the process.