We were all pretty nervous leading up to Anatomy.
We sheepishly admitted to each other that we were squeamish or prone to fainting. We talked about whether or not we would want to do much of the cutting and dissecting, or instead would rather stand back and observe while others did the work.
I got a little emotional and sick to my stomach the first time I saw the bodies in the cadaver lab. I couldn’t even see the faces (the bodies were still covered by a sheet) but my mind wandered to cutting open this human — this person that once lived and breathed and was just like my own grandmother — and I had to take a deep breath.
Anatomy is a rite of passage. It’s a necessary and foundational course for medical students, but also one that comes with formaldehyde smells, bone saws, and mountains upon mountains of memorization. I was simultaneously excited and dreading it.
I didn’t dissect that first day. The other group that I share a body with made the first cut into this woman’s back and exposed her muscles for us to see. They were so casual about it when I went up to the lab later on for peer teaching, which was strange to me. Think about the enormity of what you just did!
“You get used to it very quickly,” they told me.
And sure enough, here I am two weeks away from course completion, and dissection is just a normal thing I do. Each day we have a project; we have an area of the body we have to cut into and discover — separating muscles, carefully tearing away fascia to find vessels and nerves, and closely examining relationships.
It can get a little smelly and messy, but never a day goes by that someone isn’t completely in awe and shocked at what they’ve seen. The body is fascinating. It’s so intricate and complicated (painstakingly so when it comes to studying for tests) and nothing could teach you that the way that dissection does. Not pictures or 3D images or tirelessly reading text books. You must dissect.
It’s easy to get desensitized.
We must get desensitized. I used to feel guilty for that — how easy it eventually became for me to cut through a human body — but now I realize how necessary it is. If I went into each day of anatomy the way I felt at the beginning I would be paralyzed. I would be too scared to learn.
It may sound irreverent, but you have to get your hands dirty. Only then can you truly appreciate how beautifully complex a person is. How incomprehensibly wondrous it is that our bodies function day in and day out, without giving it a thought. How tough yet fragile we are at the same time.
Friday afternoon SLU held a memorial service for the families and friends of those that chose to donate their bodies to our Gift Body Program in the past year. Organized by the medical students, it included other programs that use the bodies such as Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, Physician Assistants and Masters in Anatomy.
The importance of the ceremony didn’t hit us until it began. St. Francis Xavier Church, an enormous and beautiful space, was standing room only. It started filling up over an hour before the ceremony began, while I was still getting in some last music rehearsals with my fellow musicians. There were so many people there to honor the bodies…the souls that I work on each day.
The program is held each year, and this year we were celebrating the lives of over 400 generous people that donated their bodies so that we could learn. When you donate your body it is almost immediately taken to begin the preservation process, so standard wakes and funerals aren’t usually held. Many family members never get closure and don’t understand the decision. They don’t like that their loved one is being used for dissection.
The inter-faith memorial service shared prayers from seven different religions and reflections from students on what learning from these bodies has meant from them. “My first patient,” is a common sentiment heard. “My first patient, except that I have no knowledge to share with that patient. They are the ones teaching me. We are so grateful.”
We gathered a huge bouquet of dahlias, the flower my classmates chose this year, and took them to SLU’s plot at a local cemetery where all of the cremated remains are buried twice a year. Families and students alike are always able to visit that gravesite.
After the service, students mingled with families at the reception. It was so soothing to talk to these families about their loved ones. I spoke to two sisters who were there remembering their mother. Their father, too, had donated his body five years prior and at the time they didn’t understand. Now, after attending two of these services, one of the sisters said she had chosen told do the same.
A friend and I expressed our deepest gratitude and shared how important and special it was for us to get to learn in such an intimate way from their loved ones. We asked questions and got to know not only the sisters, but also a little bit about their generous, selfless parents
I’m not sure who got more out of the service – the families or the students. We students left with a wonderful reminder that, while it’s easy to get bogged down in tests and grades, we are so privileged to be in medical school. We are so blessed to learn to be healers. We have the potential to touch so many lives. What an amazing opportunity.
And now I’m off to study some more, this time feeling more blessed then burdened with staying in to study on a Friday night.