What is it like for a medical student to cut open a body for the first time?: originally appeared on Quora: The best answer to any question. Ask a question, get a great answer. Learn from experts and access insider knowledge. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.
I simultaneously felt awe, fear, excitement, humility, cowardice, courage, frailty, strength, embarrassment, curiosity, sorrow, and joy.
This was only my second day of medical school, but there I was, in the basement, with a real human body in front of me, preparing with a group of four others to make the first incision of many into a being that was human but could not feel, could not move, could not see, could not scream.
Lift the tank covers. Elevate the body from the tank. Unzip the body bag. Gingerly remove the towel covering the body. Moment of stunned silence.
I cannot adequately describe the mental/emotional overload. There doesn't exist a word in the English language for it: every neuron was firing frantically, and every emotion was in such high gear. Everything eventually melded into an unworldly sense of... calm? that I'd never quite experienced before.
Ready, set... incision.
The moment that scalpel blade pierced skin, I damn near drowned in a mental storm: how do I detach myself enough to continue cutting what was once a living human being, but remain humanly connected such that I can appropriately appreciate their incredible sacrifice?
Keep cutting. This incision has to be straight. Don't go too deep or else you'll ruin muscle. Just work through the subcutaneous fat. Easy, there. Careful.
I'm not sure I ever resolved that struggle, honestly. Being on the receiving end of such an incomprehensibly generous gift is just... staggering... but also confusing. I've never had an experience constantly make me question my understanding of humanity and personhood.
I never felt nauseous, grossed out, or faint. But then again, I've never been a particularly squeamish person, so maybe I'm the wrong person to ask about this, as I know a good many people were clobbered by the smell of the preservative.
As the days went by, I continued to skin, cut, peel, break, explore. Days became weeks. Weeks became months. We learned various details about our cadaver as we went along. We found signs of surgery. We found bleeds and clots. Etc.
I know most other tanks came up with names for their cadavers, but I never felt comfortable naming ours. Something about arbitrarily making up a name felt off. To this day I still think of her mentally just as "Teacher".
Eight months of dissection later, it was over. A week after completion of our anatomy course, our class held a donor dedication ceremony, where we honored the sacrifice of those who donated their bodies for us to learn from. It was touching to hear my classmates speak about their experiences, and it was heartening to see the high attendance numbers -- I think we really made our anatomy faculty proud of our solidarity in showing humanity/grace.
While I was extremely pressed for time to submit a massive research paper due that same day, I agreed to participate in the ceremony and put together a little speech (copied below). I didn't entirely stick to the script -- I had an unexpected and powerful wave of emotion towards the end, and my focus blurred for a moment as I struggled to recollect my thoughts and hold back tears. I managed to complete the speech, albeit with a bit of hoarseness in my voice, and after I was done speaking and the applause started, I could only describe my emotional state as that of catharsis. I felt... relieved. Released. Grateful that I had been given the opportunity to pay my respects. It wasn't that I felt... sad, per se, truth be told, I don't really know how to describe that particular emotional state either. Perhaps only those who have been through the anatomy experience will ever really understand it? I'm not sure.
Back when I first discovered the beauty of the screwdriver and its magical ability to take things apart and show me the inner workings of whatever poor piece of technology I tackled, my father gave me a piece of advice: "It doesn't mean anything to be able to take something apart if you can't restore it to its original whole."
I must've taken apart just about everything in the house except maybe the kitchen oven and refrigerator (mainly because, well, I didn't have the guts to stand up to my mom when she said no, and even in my foolish youth I had the wisdom not to do anything that might impede the process of food reaching my mouth). But clocks, radios, an old TV, various computers, and every other random gadget I could get my hands on fell to the sharp blade of my flathead. I was convinced I was going to be an engineer who would invent the flying car one day. At least, that's what I told myself as I played with my Legos. This was until I took calculus.
Fast forward 15 years, and I find myself not in a machining shop, but in an anatomy lab. Working not with big power tools, but with a scalpel and some green pokey things. And the environment is just... utterly bizarre. We joke around a lot in anatomy lab. Anyone who isn't in medical school or gone through it simply wouldn't understand. How is it even possible to attempt humor or liveliness whilst surrounded by the presence of the dead? But in many ways we have to, or else it would drive us mad. As if the sleep-deprived hours spent cramming the material before the lab closes for exam preparation weren't enough, if we had to be stone-cold somber the entire time it would be unbearable. So we kid, we jibe, we toss insults back and forth about whose body has the larger penis, and so on.
But even as we complain about the havoc the smell wreaks through our first cranial nerve, even as we dehumanize an entity that is so entirely human, we remain quite aware that these cadavers are our best tool for learning ourselves -- that ironically, we must learn from the dead to treat the living. Every time I mistakenly cut something I felt terrible for ruining an opportunity to learn from my donor. I imagine that maybe they're around in spirit. I imagine that honestly, they're probably kind of horrified at what their physical beings are subjected to. But I also imagine that somewhere amidst that shock they remember why they agreed to donate. Why they agreed to posthumously teach us for months when they could have been peacefully laid to rest for eternity. Why they agreed to an act of kindness that will ultimately impact thousands of fellow men, women and children as each of us graduates and begins a career of healing.
It bugs me that I can't follow my father's advice this time. I will never be able to restore my cadaver to its whole pristine state. And while I hope this only gives us all more motivation to work to restore our future patients to their happy healthy selves, I can't help but wish I were able to thank our donors more tangibly. I imagine that perhaps some of our donors spirits are with us now as we acknowledge and pay tribute to their incredible sacrifice. I hope they understand just how thankful we are to have been given such a privileged blessing. I will never know the identity of the person whose body I dissected, beheaded, and in many ways, due to my inexperience, mangled. I will never know whose sister, aunt, mother, grandmother, daughter I cut apart. I can only hope that my belief in a divine power is not unfounded as I pray He deliver our thanks to these generous souls for bringing us first-years to a closer understanding of God and man.
I now volunteer for our anatomy lab as time allows. I see it as something of a duty to help new students with my experience as much as possible (and it lets me review!), so when I can, I go in and work on prosections -- special dissections of body parts that the students use as models to study/learn from.More questions on Quora:
- Surgery: How do doctors perform surgery with precision without fear amid the live picture of the alive body organs?
- Doctors: When doctors perform surgery to remove cancer, how confident are they that they've removed every cancerous cell?
- Doctors: Do you have to be smart in order to be a doctor? Why or why not?