Life, Death, and Humanity, Part I

Our tour guides walked briskly past it on the first day of orientation, but I’m sure all of us took a moment to peek in the gross anatomy lab. I remember seeing four large, square rooms, bright fluorescent lights set into the acoustic tile ceiling like any other classroom. There were large stainless steel sinks against the far walls, with light boxes hung along the side walls. The linoleum-tiled floor of each room was mostly occupied by large, stainless steel dissecting tables, each one surrounded by a handful of stools. The tables were bare and clean, their brushed surfaces dully reflecting the lights above. Being unoccupied as such, the lab looked and felt rather unremarkable. The tour moved on and we didn’t give the labs much more thought. That was on a Tuesday, almost exactly one year ago.

I was walking down the same hallway with a friend on the following Thursday, and we noticed the doors to the labs were propped open. The rooms were equipped the same as they were on Tuesday, except for one thing — each table was fully draped by a large denim cloth, with the unmistakable silhouette of a human — the peak of the scalp, the slight undulation from abdomen to waist, the valley separating the legs from each other — filling out each one from underneath. The difference was stark and somewhat unsettling. The rooms somehow felt quieter, our footsteps duller and less reverberated. I remember smelling the preserving fluid for the first time, the faint burn in my nostrils combined with something that I could only describe as chemical. It was an incredibly solemn place to stand, and I didn’t quite know how to feel. We saw the lab coordinator making his way through another room, so we quickly waved and left.

We were back in there the following Monday, all of us, having changed into scrubs in the locker-lined hallway and found our way to our assigned tables. The labs were cold, of course, and there was a lot of uneasy, friendly chatter as we shook hands and waited for directions. There was a brief convocation (hey, it’s a Jesuit school) followed by a few Powerpoint slides. We were to start by dissecting the superficial (outermost) layers of the back, which meant that our cadavers were currently face-down. The presetation wrapped up, and we were free to start.

Most people know that medical school involves cadavers, and when it comes up in conversation, most people have a notion of how they’d feel about dissecting a human body. Some simply shudder, eyes closed, and come up with phrases like, “I could never do that.” I’ve also seen people lean forward excitedly, saying something more akin to, “that would be amazing!” I had always been firmly in the latter camp, but a certain amount of anxiety did start to build in the moments before we started that day. The butterflies in my gut reminded me that I was about to do something that, while fascinating and definitively medical, was also somewhat macabre and even taboo in some pockets of the world. But that’s all it was, just butterflies. I can’t remember if my hands were steady — I suspect they had a slight tremble — but they grasped the edge of the covering fabric and pulled it back. Underneath the denim was a layer of thick plastic, in order to keep the cadaver moist; under that, a muslin cloth wrapped around the body to retain the preserving fluid against the skin. The hands, feet, and head head were wrapped in their own layers of muslin and plastic, keeping those regions in good shape until we got to them later in the course. But the majority of the body, from the neck down to the legs, was now exposed.

I remember my somewhat anticlimactic reaction at the moment the sheets were pulled back. My eyes widened for just an instant, accompanied by a brief flash of surprise and perhaps fear. But after that, the butterflies faded away, and I felt normal, which was itself rather bizarre to me. I mean, I was standing, with three of my classmates, in front of a dead body. And I was about to cut into that body.

The thing is, like most medical school classes, gross anatomy is very fast-paced. The lab sessions are usually long enough to complete the day’s objectives, but there isn’t much time to look up structures or read through the instructions for the first time. One needs to enter the lab prepared, work efficiently on the cadaver, review along the way, and clean up. There really isn’t enough time to reflect or to dread; you just have to do. And do we did, with a surprising lack of hesitation. Really, after the first cut, the rest became almost mechanical.

It was only outside the lab that we had an opportunity to think about what we were doing. And while I’d love to go into this level of detail on all of them, I’d probably be writing about Gross Anatomy for the rest of the year. Instead, I’m going to hit on some of the highlights from my time in the lab, and do my best to keep the grisly details to a minimum. There are some things I just have to write down, lest I forget them in the hustle of the coming year.

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