The smell was unbearable at first. It hit me like a wave when I first entered the cadaver lab and slightly burned the insides of my nostrils. Seeing the cadaver for the first time was captivating. His head was masked by a plastic bag and his body was fully intact, with the only sign of disease on the nearby paper with the donor’s first name and cause of death.
The first incision in the cadaver was surprising. While I expected his body to feel like a colder version of my own, his skin took on a unique texture. His joints were stiff and his muscles were tense. As a first year medical student, cadaver lab was an exciting, challenging, sometimes gruesome time when we would use both our brains and our hands.
We moved from the abdomen to the chest to the arms and legs, with five of us taking turns with the scalpels, scissors, and forceps. Because we shared the body with second year students who previously dissected his head, it was covered with a bag for months as we explored the coils of his intestines, removed his heart and studied the delicate valves, and carefully isolated his arteries traveling deep through the leg. With each lab completed, we grew more comfortable with our cadaver. With each anatomical structure learned, we grew a stronger appreciation for his donation. We would return once or twice each month throughout the year, with our cadaver being one constant in an ever changing curriculum. In time, we grew used to the smell, the look, and the feel of the cadaver.
In our second year, we became acquainted with a new cadaver. Though similar to the last, we came to intricately know another body with its own unique shape. When it came time for the head dissection and we slipped the plastic bag off the cadaver’s head, he appeared more human than he had before. I was struck by the moment, recognizing this experience as sharply distinct from my others in medical school. There was something somber, fascinating, and humbling about it all.
To some, teaching anatomy in a cadaver lab is an antiquated, inefficient way to educate students. To others, it is an essential rite of passage introducing medical students to the human body. To me, it has been both.
Learning anatomy while dissecting can be a challenge. After meticulously searching the cadaver for nerves, arteries, and veins, many of us leave the anatomy lab retaining just a small proportion of what was covered. Rather, most of our anatomy knowledge comes from books, flashcards, and web applications that we study before and after the cadaver labs. Medical schools have recognized this learning discrepancy and have shifted to fewer hours in the anatomy lab over time. Additionally, the pressure to continually fit more material into medical school curriculums has been partially relieved by more efficient uses of cadaver prosections (dissection of a cadaver or part of a cadaver by an experienced anatomist) and mobile technologies. However, by reducing time in the lab, we reduce a formative part of the medical school experience.
The cadaver lab has exposed me to the privilege of physicians. Patients open their lives for us to discover, revealing information about themselves that we may be the only ones to know. They allow us to open their bodies for surgery, trusting that we enter with the intention to heal. After death, they again permit us to open their bodies for exploration and education. These bodies signify a belief in the ability of medicine to heal and the ability of medical students to learn. Through cadaver lab, I have developed a sense of awe for the complexities of the human body and respect for the impact disease can have beneath the skin. I have confronted death and mortality while considering the meaning of my pursuits in medicine. That is one experience technology cannot replace.
About Arianna Yanes
Arianna Yanes is a second year medical student at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. While studying psychology as an undergrad at Northwestern, Arianna became fascinated with the complexities of human beings in the way they interact with each other and the world. She was drawn to medicine for similar complexities of the human body and experience that must be understood to treat each individual patient. During a medical journalism internship, Arianna became passionate about communicating medical news and making health information accessible and digestible. She hopes to incorporate writing and communications into her future career as a physician. She enjoys writing about the unique experience of studying medicine and the triumphs and challenges that come along with it.