Last Sunday I walked down the aisle of an airplane with my backpack draped over my shoulder and Frank Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy under my arm. There was no point in packing the book, as I was simply in transition from studying at the airport gate to studying on the plane. That’s one requirement when traveling on the weekends during medical school – you have to get some productive studying in while in transit. I was returning from a trip to Chicago, where I had the opportunity to celebrate my grandfather’s 85th birthday, and was now heading back to Portland. As I crossed the first class cabin and waited for the inevitably slow line of people to stow their baggage and take their seats, a man of about 50 looked up from his iPad, “Hey, you must be a first year medical student,” he said pointing at my Netter book. “I took that year twice.” I confirmed his suggestion with a nod and a smile, and then replied. ‘You must know Netter well then.’ He returned a knowing grin.
I took my seat and set up my tiny airplane desk – laptop on top of Netter with my notebook sort of awkwardly on my lap. Certainly not ideal, but it works. Halfway into the flight, a flight attendant stopped at my seat. “Netter, huh? What kind of school are you in?” I told him I’m in medical school at OHSU and he told me he’s a massage therapist, and they used Netter’s Atlas too. Then he offered me a free drink, which I sadly declined due to being so deeply entrenched in the abdominal organs.
My grandfather is a retired physician himself. During our first phone call after I first started school, he asked about my anatomy class, “Are you using Netter?” ‘Yeah. I am,’ I replied happily, realizing we learned from the same books. When I saw him last weekend, we compared acronyms for the carpal bones of the wrist. ‘Some Lunatics Try Poisons That They Can’t Handle.’ Scaphoid, Lunate, Triquetrum, Pisiform, Trapezium, Trapezoid, Capitate, Hamate.
If you’re reading this and you’re not in health care, you probably have little idea what I’m talking about. Most people don’t know who Dr. Frank Netter is, or that we have more than one bone in our wrist. But for those of us in healthcare, the study of human anatomy is the foundation for everything we do, and Netter is the man who represents the way the human body should look. In other words, he’s drawn every structure at every angle. He’s stripped his representations of the body down to every layer, so that there is a picture for everything. It’s really quite remarkable. Of course, when you enter cadaver lab and look for those neat and tidy Netter structures, you don’t find them. You find a whole lot of fascia and adipose tissue, but mostly confusion and maybe an artery or nerve if you’re lucky.
Learning human anatomy from Netter’s picturesque drawings and then trying to recognize the structures on actual donor bodies is a process nearly every living healthcare professional has undergone. One man born in 1906 in Manhattan decided to draw out some human structures, and now pretty much every expert in the field learns from those drawings. In some respect, that’s the dream for all of us in medical school – that we’ll have some sort of profound impact. Netter had a universal impact on the way the field is taught, but having impact in research or on individual patients would be equally rewarding for most of us.
When I’m staring at Netter drawings late at night (actually I don’t study very late at all, but you get what I’m saying), sometimes I can feel very alone. It feels like I’m the only person who would ever have to learn the treacherous branches of the trigeminal nerve. But when people stop me on airplanes to talk Netter and my own grandfather asks me about the carpal bones, I’m reminded of the ubiquity of this process within the field of medicine. My grandfather learned the same bones and studied using the same pictures that I do. Dentists, physician assistants, physical therapists, and of course physicians all studied from the same books that I’m studying from. Thinking about that makes me happy to be looking at Netter – to be given the opportunity to become an expert on the human body. I feel a kinship to everyone who has learned the body before me, and excited for everyone to follow me in the future. Perhaps most importantly, I know the intricacies of your body. That’s right, yours. So that someday when I’m a clinician, hopefully I’ll be able to recount my anatomy, orient myself properly, and figure out exactly what’s going on.