“Today, I held a human brain.”
That was how I started the conversation. Not with hello. Not with any of the standard greetings with which I am well acquainted. It was as though the experience of which I spoke rendered me mannerless. And she responded: “how did you feel about it?” This particular friend has an habit of responding to statements with either (1) “oh, how was that?” or (2) “how did you feel about that?” For some reason, I could never predict when she would ask either of those questions; I never had an eloquent response prepared.
“Oh.”I sat cross-legged on the floor of my apartment; I had a copy of Netter’s Atlas opened to the colorful sketches of the brain. There was really no comparison between the color-coded brain in the atlas and the brain I was able to study in the anatomy lab. “I…I don’t know. There was the initial shock factor which was soon followed by awe and humility. In that moment, I was holding the cadaver-donor’s personhood. In a way, it felt really personal.” In previous posts, I made half-promises to: (1) comment on my experience in anatomy, (2) address resources I used to survive the course, as well as (3) resources for the shelf exam. I think I may cover all of those aspects in upcoming posts but as I am on vacation / in a pensive mood, this post will serve primarily as a reflection.
I had this fear that I would pass out in the first anatomy lab. As a way to avoid such embarrassment, I steeled myself: I constantly told myself not to feel; to remain detached; to treat the cadaver-donor as a learning instrument rather than a partner in my educational venture. Over a period of ten weeks, my lab tank studied the back, upper and lower limb, thorax, abdomen, and pelvis of our cadaver-donor. She was elderly, extremely frail, and her lower body was riddled with bed sores. I admit that the first time I held the scalpel, I was unnerved. I was struck by the grisly fact that she did not seem quite dead. When I looked at her face, for the first time, I was struck with the painful realization that this was someone’s mother / grandmother / sister / daughter / partner. It made me…uncomfortable.
You see: I have a reasonable (unreasonable?) fear of senescence. I distinctly remember not enjoying field trips to the nursing home in order to sing / play recorder for the nursing home residents. I remember cringing on the bus — this was in elementary school — when one of my classmates said: “one day that is going to be us? What if our families don’t visit us, and all we have to look forward to is little kids with recorders?” Let’s be honest for a second: mortality is sort of terrifying. I don’t really like to think about my mortality (does anyone?) and I made every effort to interact as little with the physical reminders (the cadavers) of human mortality. I tried not to cut. I tried to spend as little time in the anatomy lab. I tried to spend minimal time alone in the lab.
I tried hard to not feel…anything.
Before we began the dissection of the upper limb, our TA mentioned that we should massage the hand of the cadaver-donor so that the hand was more pliable and thereby easier to dissect. Due to my aversion of dissection, I offered to fill this role. It is probably unsurprising that I was unable to deny the personhood of the cadaver when our fingers were interlocked. It is probably unsurprising that I was uncomfortable (is that the key word of this blog post?) at first. It may come as a surprise that I came to enjoy my role of masseuse. It may come as a surprise that I grew more comfortable with the cadavers and my own mortality over the course of ten weeks. I came to understand the human body as a beautiful network of flesh, tissues, and vessels.The first time I held the cadaver-donor’s lungs was a remarkable moment for me. I was speechless when I first held the heart. As I mentioned earlier, I was humbled when I held the cadaver-donor’s brain.
There is debate, I hear, over whether gross anatomy lab should remain a fixture of medical education. I have little to say on that matter, but what I can say is that it was a privilege to learn from my cadaver-donor. For me, my time in the anatomy lab was emotionally charged and highly personal. I echo what many other medical students state: (1) I learned how to work, long-term, with a team that I did not necessarily choose and (2) I was forced outside of my comfort zone. I value my time in the anatomy lab and I think that what I learned, beyond the high-yield / testable information, was invaluable. And to my gracious cadaver-donor: my eternal thanks. My knowledge is greatly enriched, and it is to you that this is owed.