One thing that most people fixate on when they hear that I am a medical student is the fact that I participate in gross anatomy lab. I find it funny that the term for anatomical structures visible to the eye, without the aid of a microscope, is "gross structures." This seems so apt for how people view the gross anatomy lab...a place where I, and the rest of medical students throughout much of medical history, go to dissect a real human body. This, before anything else about my burgeoning medical career, is what I am asked about most frequently, and indeed, with the most fascination and disgust.
"They are real human bodies?"
"You do that?"
"Is it creepy?"
"Do you like it?"
The first two questions are easy to answer...yes. Real, dead human bodies. Lying on tables, embalmed, shorn of all clothing and the hair on their heads. At least twice a week, I walk into a room full of body bags, unzip the bag belonging to what I reverently and affectionately refer to as "my" body, and get to work. This is a rite of passage for doctors-to-be...our first "patient," the first human being who has placed their body into our hands...also our greatest teacher, an individual who has made a completely altruistic gift of their body so that I, and my fellow medical students, can know everything we can about the human body in order to aid those who are still living.
The second two questions are more difficult to answer...sometimes yes, sometimes no, sometimes I truly have no answer at all. It is a little creepy, a little disgusting. There is no denying that. And yet, somehow, it is not nearly as bad as you, or indeed I, would imagine. I think it is because the people whose bodies are lying in the room made a conscious, educated decision while they were living to give their bodies expressly to MUSC, expressly for our education. This makes the "grossness" of the dead body much less disturbing, and it reminds us all of the real person we should be honoring in our studies. It implores us to respect the bodies and to recognize the true beauty and majesty of the forms we uncover throughout our year in the gross anatomy lab...the efficiency of the nervous system, the complexity of the blood vessel networks, the organization of the muscles in just the correct way to do the job for which they were designed. And this discovery of the beauty of the human body, in all of its intricacy and purpose, is what I really do like about anatomy lab. I like what I find. I like knowing these structures and recognizing the clinical implications of them not functioning properly in a living person...in my future patients.
But this is far too much to explain in the casual questioning of various friends, family, and acquaintances. And so when I am asked these questions, I try to do them justice, but I also recognize that these hidden struggles and gifts of gross anatomy lab have now separated me in some way from the rest of society. What I have done, what I have seen, what I have discovered is not easily understood through explanation. It must be experienced. And that is why after these hundreds of years of human dissection in the medical field, gross anatomy lab continues. These lessons are meant to be learned. This experience is intrinsically tied to the transition from patient to physician.