The Last Dissection

Yesterday, we completed our final gross anatomy practical exam. Words cannot express the relief and happiness I felt as I moved to the very last question station and wrote in my answer. The room erupted in cheers and hugs. We had made it.

The exam was not just the end to the toughest course of our lives, but the conclusion of our MS1 year.  It is a rite of passage undertaken by countless medical students before us. Our link to the history of medicine. The first of many major milestones to come.

From the first time we ventured down to the basement and saw the cold steel gurneys, smelling the distinctive smell of anatomy, we would never be the same again. Thinking back to my first dissection, I have come a long way from the apprehensive, nervous student who stayed up all night thinking about the unknown the next day brought. As I changed into my scrubs for the first time and saw myself in the mirror—outwardly resembling a physician– I felt like a fraud. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing—neither did anyone else.

From the first cut, to the tireless hours of studying, spending Saturday mornings in the lab with our cadavers, to every vessel, muscle and nerve that we traced and committed to memory, to the dissection skills we ultimately gained—good enough to perform delicate hand and face microsurgeries, revealing the complicated network of nerves below, to the ease we felt in a room full of cold steel gurneys and the unexpected feelings of camaraderie, competence and yes, strangely a pang of hunger after every 4 hour dissection*.

There is no doubt that gross anatomy changed us.

In medical school they teach us that ‘First, do no harm’. It is fitting that our first patient is a cadaver. Over the last 9 months our patient confided in us their deepest secrets– we knew what surgeries they have had, any “work” done, and what their diet and lifestyle was really like. As is always the case in the uneven doctor-patient relationship, our patient put their trust in us, knowing that we would take good care of them, demonstrating the respect and dignity all patients are entitled to.  Above all, our patient taught us countless lessons. Because of them we understand the human body. I will never forget my first patient. They gave to me the greatest gift a human can bestow—knowledge.

After the exam as we gathered for a small vigil to honor those who so generously donated, I looked around and for a moment I saw a glimpse of what was to come. I saw not medical students standing in their scrubs, but future colleagues, who in just three short years will be responsible not only for first doing no harm—but for healing our patients. Anatomy had transformed us- shaping us by our communal experience to resemble the physicians we will one day soon become. For a brief moment, I stopped feeling like a fraud.

*The veracity of this statement needs to be checked, but apparently formaldehyde induces appetite.

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