For me, as for centuries of doctors before me, my journey through these crossroads began when I first took a blade in my hand and cut a line across a dead woman’s skin.
~ Dr. Christine Montross, Body of Work
Gross Anatomy. It’s probably the most famous (and by some, the most feared) class of medical school. It’s also the first class of medical school, which adds to its mystery and prestige. As a newly minted MS2 I had the chance last week to return for the first few days of this year’s Gross Anatomy course. Along with several of my fellow MS2s we were there to help the new students decide when and where to cut, how to best differentiate between the different tissue types and structures (Is it a nerve or an artery? Muscle or fascia? These questions are harder than you might think the first time around), and hopefully even offer a little emotional support as many of the MS1s faced their first cadaveric dissection.
Standing at the back of the room it was exciting to watch the new students as they filed in, each donning brightly colored, mismatched scrubs that were currently the cleanest they were ever going to be. Teams of four and five organized themselves around the twenty-nine white-sheeted tables. Emotion was palpable in the room, a mixture of excitement, fear, sadness, awe, eagerness, and others too plentiful to name. I watched as the shrouds were removed and each group “met” their cadaver for the first time. I wondered privately which groups would name their cadaver and which would not. I noticed those students who immediately reached out to touch their cadaver’s skin and those who held back. I heard the collective exhale in the room that was followed by broad smiles, nervous laughter, and even a few tears.
Looking back, it has been exactly a year since I stood with my classmates around our own cadaver. I have clear memories of meeting her, touching her, naming her (Lily), and of working arduously over the course of many weeks to uncover and understand the many secrets her body held. The experience of dissecting is impossible to summarize so I won’t even try, but I will say that it it remains one of the most difficult and enriching experiences of my life to date. A cliché maybe, but a cliché for good reason.
In addition to helping out in the MS1 lab I also had the chance to return to Gross Anatomy as a dissector, working with three of my classmates to prepare a cadaver for the Discover OHSU! Program. On the first day of this dissection, I noticed that my feelings were distinctly different from last year – and I suspect from those unfolding in the first-year laboratory next door. The excitement remained, but it was no longer plagued by a constant anxiety of “what if I accidentally cut X?!” I felt the same deep sense of privilege and gratitude to this person, our donor, for allowing us to learn so intimately from him, but I also now felt a kind of shared pride at being part of the teaching process as well as a benefactor of it. I also felt something else that caught me by surprise – confidence – that was most certainly absent last year. Stepping up to our table I made my initial incision quickly and (relatively) decisively, running from the depression between his collarbones to the pointy part below his breastbone, and then extending the cut to both sides of his torso using the jutting of his ribs as a marker. Being able to picture the planes of tissue and structures that lay beneath my blade gave me the confidence to cut more freely, and I think to relax more fully into the experience.
So. Let me be one of many to extend a warm, gloved-handed welcome to my newest batch of colleagues. I am excited about (and a little jealous of) the course/journey you are embarking on. At the risk of sounding parental, I will say that for me Gross Anatomy was exciting, exhausting, and life changing. So pay attention, and have fun. And then come tell me your stories, because as you can probably tell I love talking about this stuff.