Doctor-in-Training: Anatomy Lesson

A first-year medical student encounters her first cadaver: in dissection class.

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I skinned a man. Strange as it sounds, it felt more natural than I expected.

Fresh off winter break, we first-year medical students were slated for our first two days in the anatomy lab: Thursday would be orientation. Friday (gulp), dissecting a human body. The professor ran us through the ground rules—no music, no food, utmost respect for the cadavers. If we want extra study time, he assured us, the lab is open 24 hours a day. I can’t imagine any place I’d less like to be in the dead of night than in a room full of half-dissected bodies.

We stood around in groups of four surrounding the tables where the cadavers lay—still zipped up in green shrouds of some sort of synthetic fabric—and talked with studied nonchalance about which of us want to be surgeons and whether our new Christmas sweaters would forever reek of formaldehyde.

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Inside a manila folder on our dissection table lay a printout containing the sparest biography of each body in the room: first name and cause of death. One of my lab partners opened ours and we scanned down the list to the highlighted row for Table 3. “So it’s a man,” she whispered. He had died of heart failure.

Then the professor told us to unwrap our cadavers. I’m pretty sure he actually said “meet and greet.” Unzipping the body bag, I steeled myself. For what, I wasn’t exactly sure, but legends abound about med students passing out in anatomy lab, and our instructor had warned us that two or three students each year freak out.

The professor walked up and down the rows of lab tables, checking in to see how we were doing. “You okay?” he asked. I nodded. And I was. This body didn’t look all that real. Except for a few black hairs sprouting here and there, the skin was so well-preserved it looked like leather, or maybe parchment. The cadaver was lying face down, and he looked slightly rectangular, as though he had been squared-off in storage. With gloved fingers we poked at the body, tracing the skin. Surveying where we would cut.

Falling asleep that night in my room across the street from the lab, I found myself wondering about the man on my dissection table. Where had he lived? What had his voice sounded like? Was someone still grieving for him?

But in class the following morning, I stayed on task. I picked up the scalpel and dug into the cadaver’s back. My lab partners and I made a longitudinal incision down the midline of the back and several more cuts at right angles. We peeled back the skin with forceps, slicing the fat—the color of egg yolk—at an angle to leave it intact. We slowly cleared away the fat and the fascia, identifying the muscles that emerged below: trapezius, latissimus dorsi, levator scapulae.

I kept bracing myself for the moment when the emotion would hit: some sort of uneasiness that my lab partners and I were doing something forbidden, or just plain wrong. Some sort of grief for the man on the table. But nothing came.

Back in my dorm after the lab, as I got ready to shower away the odor of formaldehyde, that strange-sounding sentence floated across my mind: “I have now skinned a man.” I stared into the bathroom mirror, feeling as though I should look different. Or feel different. Or something. But I didn’t.

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Maybe unconsciously I wasn’t letting myself go to that vulnerable place, knowing that dissecting this body over the next few months will be an essential component of my training. Maybe starting with the back—instead of, say, the face—made it easier to keep some distance. Maybe the desensitization process—the emotional retreat so often blamed for turning idealistic pre-meds into steely-mannered doctors–has already begun. But I don’t think that’s it.

In the lab, I expected to discover some great human bond that exists through our bodies, and to recognize something of myself or my loved ones in the cadaver. But instead I came away feeling that where the man’s humanity lay was in what I couldn’t see or touch or cut. It was in the generosity that prompted him to donate his body to science. It was in the people he loved, who loved him. It was in the songs he hummed in the shower and the clothes he wore and the work he did and his favorite type of breakfast cereal—all the things that, despite all that I have learned about his body, I still don’t know about his soul. All the things that are invisible when I’m looking only at the collection of his bones and muscles on my table.