This piece is the second in my series about my experience in anatomy lab during my first year of medical school. The first piece in this series can be found here.
I wrote both these pieces as a means to reflect on and normalize what I was feeling on the first day of anatomy lab and during a dissection I found to be particularly difficult, emotionally. Now that I’m finished with my first year of medical school, I look back and I’m even more grateful to have had this experience. Death, ironically, will always be a part of life but being in this field we have to work even harder to healthily cope with this reality. While the point of anatomy lab was to teach us about the human body in a tangible way, all the cadavers were the ultimate teachers about both life and death. From them, I learned what a heart, my heart one day and likely the hearts of future patients, looks like when it’s no longer beating. From them, I felt the weight of a cirrhotic liver. From them, I saw what a ‘smoker’s lung’ actually looks like. But from them, I also learned the muscles I use to type this sentence. They are the reason I can feign x-ray vision and imagine my muscles, tendons and bones working together as I hit each key. They are the reason I marvel at all my nieces and nephews as they grow and learn to walk and speak and think. They are the template for every patient I will see in my career as a physician.
It’s been just over a month since we finished anatomy lab and said goodbye to our cadavers. Thank you, great teachers, for your final sacrifice. I hope that you have finally found rest and ‘burst into light.’
When you first start lab, all the cadavers have their hands, feet and faces covered and wrapped up. This is to prevent these parts of the body from drying out but also to depersonalize an emotionally difficult experience, especially at the beginning.
We’re now covering musculoskeletal so we’ve started dissecting the limbs. The last part of the upper limb is one of the things I’ve been dreading most: the hands.
Sarah Kay has this wonderful spoken word piece about hands.
“Hands learn, more than minds do. Hands learn: how to hold other hands, how to grip pencils and mold poetry, how to tickle pianos and dribble a basketball and grip the handles of a bicycle. How to hold old people and touch babies. I love hands like I love people. They are the maps and compasses with which we navigate our way through life. Some people read palms to tell you your future, but I read hands to tell your past. Each scar makes a story worth telling.”
As soon as we uncovered “Dorothy’s” hand, I couldn’t focus on the dissection anymore. I didn’t remember the functions or insertions or origins of the extensor carpi ulnaris. And quite frankly, I didn’t care.
Who held these hands as she she was laying on her deathbed? Who’s still out there missing the feeling of these hands in theirs? Did these hands enjoy painting? Gardening? Holding her grandchildren? Did they hold a cigarette once during a summer abroad in Paris? Did she always have her nails grown long? Did her chin ever rest on her hands as she listened to the love of her life speak?
For me, anatomy lab has always been associated of waves of emotions. Some dissections are easier than others. There’s something about intestines that allows you to separate yourself from the person laying on the table in front of you. Maybe it’s because the sliminess reminds you of something out of an alien scifi film or because you’ve never really thought twice about the path your food takes from your mouth to the toilet. But you can’t forget when it comes to the hands. Because there’s something hauntingly human about them. Because unlike the rest of the cadavers body, the hands look almost normal. This could be my grandmother’s hand or maybe even what my father’s hand will look like in a few decades.
Sure, I may get ‘used’ to being in lab but the reality of what we’re doing always creeps back and I remember. I remember that these are people. They are all people.
Of course we can’t ever forget that. But sometimes, we try really hard not to think about it. Because, often, that’s the only way to get through it.
One of the most difficult parts of the first year of medical school has been the emotional adjustment, especially with anatomy lab. I stumbled upon this book a few months ago: Body of Work by Christine Montross. So far, this text is amazing. It’s as if she’s able to articulate everything I’ve felt these past few months. My favorite quote thus far from the piece is the following, “Now I am a student of medicine, a field with its own great paradoxes. The first of these I encountered in the anatomy class and is still one of the most powerful: you begin to learn to heal the living by dismantling the dead.”
And it truly has been such an emotionally charged paradox.
We dissected the muscles of the posterior forearm. It’s amazing how from the surface you’d think the upper arm, being larger and ‘stronger’ to be more complex but after carefully uncovering the skin and fascia, you realize how wrong you are. I put my fingers under each tendon and feel the function of each muscle.
And there’s honestly only one word I can use to describe it: beautiful.
I can no longer look at my own limbs the same way. We are all walking masterpieces.