Somehow, through all the years of being a “pre-med” in the system, I never realized quite what anatomy lab entailed in medical school. Sure, I thought—we’re learning and memorizing human anatomical structures. I walked out of our anatomy lab orientation thinking—okay, alright, we’re learning from a cadaver. What a simple word cadaver is.
Having few friends in medical school and no family member in the medical profession, I am almost embarrassed to say that I never quite understood or conceptualized what working with a cadaver would be like. Maybe I should have read more medical school forums or watched more Grey’s Anatomy, but somehow I honestly never quite put together the fact that I would be dissecting a once-living human the way I dissected a frog in middle school. Let alone that fact that I would be doing this in my first year– no first month– of medical school.
Despite my utter lack of knowledge that this was what anatomy lab was, once I went to our first orientation and attended the first prosection and skimmed the iBook for the very first time— I was silently excited for it. I thought, Finally! After all these years of studying human biology, I’m doing real-doctor-things, I’m going beyond just memorizing the names of structures! What had not sunk in quite yet was that there was, very literally, a face to the name.
I didn’t leave my first anatomy lab dissection with nausea or overwhelming emotions or shock. I left solemnly with a lingering, grave sense of respect for the man who had donated his body—something despite my commitment to the medical field, I could not fathom doing after what I did that day. I also left in awe of the sheer complexity of our human biology, fascinated by seeing under the skin for the very first time, but also nervous about dissecting the rest of the body, not to mention still confused about the difference between the medial and lateral pectoral nerves.
Several labs in, I starting noticing something else. I began visualizing my living body the way I had seen the human body in anatomy lab, imagining my blood coursing through the aortic arch and the vagus nerve controlling my heart down to my intestinal tract. Being around people in other professions at the gym and at the supermarket, I started feeling different; The thought occurred to me that they might never get to see what lies beneath our exterior and the fact that I knew, and I had seen, felt like a privilege.
I realized I felt this distinctive sense of responsibility to learning those anatomical structures—he donated his body for that purpose! This sense of responsibility to learning medical science is perhaps the most overwhelming feeling I have felt in my short time at Alpert. Consistently, I hear a voice in the back of my head that whispers You need to know this! How can you not understand what a B-cell does? You’ll have the trust of patients in your hands someday. I’ve always been motivated to study, but never like this. It’s an honor, and a privilege, and I never anticipated that a few weeks of medical school would reshape the way I looked at the world and my own education.
Of course, now I go to anatomy lab too-prepared, having read the iBook, watched videos of the dissection, and three-dimensionally visualized the structures on the Complete Anatomy app (which of course is all a blur by exam time), but those strong feelings of respect for the donor, fascination with our well-oiled machines, and sense of sincere responsibility to learn are still what I walk out of lab with every time.
Moniyka Sachar is an MD’21. Prior to medical school she worked at the Brown Daily Herald as an undergraduate at Brown.