My medical school classes are arranged in blocks, rather than traditional semesters. Our first block was heavily focused on cell and molecular biology, prepping us with chemistry, structure, and biology to understand life and cellular processes at the molecular level. In our second block, we took a million steps back to see a bigger picture, concentrating on the musculoskeletal system to understand how our skeleton, muscles, cartilage, tendons, ligaments, and joints bind together to support life. This second block, anatomy, is when we met our cadavers; the bodies that have taught us so much already, and will continue to teach us all throughout our first year of medical school.
First of all, for those of you that don’t know, though many people would find it nauseating to cut open dead bodies, the term “gross” actually means “to the naked eye.” Thus, gross anatomy is what we can see without a microscope. Gross Anatomy Lab is difficult for many people, including myself. In addition to the challenge of understanding the extremely complex human body, you must also get past the fact that you are dissecting a real person. It is important to remember that the bodies being dissected were a gift from the body donors who once occupied them. They willed their bodies to be donated to medical students, so that we can learn how to be doctors.
Medicine, and medical education, has changed so much over time, but no teaching tool has replaced the gift of a human body. It is an amazing opportunity, to learn about the human body in such detail. Sure, X-rays, MRIs and CT scans allow us to see inside flesh and bone to the sources of injury and disease, $100,000 mannequins help us practice surgical procedures, and computer programs can show us a map of the entire nervous system; but you can not reproduce the experience of true dissection.
No model can duplicate the force it takes to guide a scalpel through fat and fascia, the intricate path of nerves down the arm, or the texture of a cancer-ridden brain in your hands. No mannequin can capture the diversity of the human body; the variance in muscle size, blood vessel connections, or nerve routes. And no textbook can prepare a student for the real bones, organs, blood vessels, and nerves they will encounter in their future patients. These are things you must learn from real human bodies, which is why our body donors are our most powerful teachers.