This past Monday was a day of closure for me and my classmates. That afternoon we attended a memorial service for our cadavers. It was a beautiful ceremony, and I was glad to have the opportunity to say goodbye, and to reflect on my own journey over the past year.
Anatomy lab is an experience that inspires strong feelings in many first year medical students. Some are excited and feel like anatomy is what drew them to medicine; others are anxious and wonder if they’ll be able to get through it. At first, I was largely a member of the second camp, but I was surprised by how much my feelings evolved over the course of the year.
Our school prepared us well for the feelings we might encounter in the anatomy lab. We all got to write or draw on an index card anything that described what thoughts or emotions we had before entering the lab for the first time. Then, our professor chose many of the cards and presented them as a slideshow. It was reassuring to see that my feelings of apprehension weren’t unique.
Our first day in the lab was dedicated to a surface inspection. Pulling back the coverings over the body was scary, but my group decided to do it fast, like pulling off a bandage, so there was no time to worry much! It was my first time seeing a cadaver. He was oddly smooth, puffy in some places, and flattened in others. He had very short hair (a feature we greatly appreciated when it came time to cut open the skull later in the year).
Albany Medical College is one of a small group of schools to provide personal, identifying information about each cadaver at the beginning of the anatomy course. We learned his name, age, medical history, and cause of death, and we were encouraged to look up his obituary to learn more about him as a person. I did read the obituary, and it helped cement in my mind that he was more than a lab specimen, he was a generous person who gave me an incredible gift.
On my second day in the anatomy lab, my partner and I had to dissect the posterior triangle. It was a challenging first dissection because the area is so small and there are a million important things waiting to be accidentally cut! The dissection took hours, was messy and unfulfilling, and left me with a (figuratively) bad taste in my mouth, and a bad smell permeating my skin and hair. I didn’t like anatomy lab at all and dreaded the next few dissections. But slowly, it got easier. I did a fairly skillful job on the anterior forearm dissection and my opinion improved. In the winter, I started tagging along to other team members’ dissections so I wouldn’t miss cool things (like removing the brain, or dissecting the joints). And by spring, I was dissecting the infratemporal fossa and was surprised to find that my hand was particularly steady… Turns out, it was because I had my pinky firmly planted in my cadaver’s ear! Talk about getting comfortable!
And now, the year of anatomy has come to a close with the memorial service. I helped read some of the names at the service, and it was good to feel like I was giving our donors a proper send off. Anatomy lab had its difficult moments, but it was a memorable experience I’m very grateful to have had.