Lessons from the Cadaver Lab

Lessons from the Cadaver Lab

J. Michael Connors MD challenges us through a comparison of our anatomy dissection experience and the building of healthcare.

A rite of passage for every medical student is their entry for the first time into the cadaver lab. I had no expectations because I had absolutely no clue what I was walking into or would see behind those closed doors. I remember us all gathering in the hallway in anticipation on day one. The doors opened, and my life in medicine began.

I reflect upon my months in the lab and have vivid memories from dissecting, discovering, smelling, identifying, and exploring human anatomy. It’s one thing to see a picture or write about it, it’s completely different when you experience it. In many ways, one cannot capture the entire experience in words as it has to be lived through all your senses.

The core of the anatomy class is to dissect the human body in a way that you can begin to identify how everything is connected and placed in every human body. You will be tested on not only finding the structures but on what they are, what they do, and how they impact adjacent structures. It’s a ton of work, memorization, and attention to tedious detail. The detail of the human body is incredible and sometimes incredibly hard to uncover.

I won’t try to upset you with graphic descriptions or detail the process of exploring tendons, nerves, organs, etc… instead, I thought I would touch on how this experience has impacted me throughout my career. In some ways, the cadavers taught me a whole lot more about medicine other than just the anatomical structures. After one gets over the initial rush of emotion, followed by the overwhelming smell of the lab, my first realization was that we had 50 human bodies in front of us. These bodies were not simulators or 3D printed; they were freaking real. These bodies were those of real people… brothers, sisters, mothers, grandfathers, cousins, etc… One could not help but think of questions like how did they die, why are they here, did they have careers and families, etc… What was each of their stories?


“In some ways, the cadavers taught me a whole lot more about medicine other than just the anatomical structures.”


Day one, we were then cutting them open and removing skin, fat, etc.. to begin to expose the back muscles… Day one, I realized what it meant to detach from your patient. If this patient was my learning lab for the next 90 days, I quickly realized I couldn’t think about all these details. I needed to detach from these thoughts and focus on the anatomy and medicine I was here to learn. Like in the real world, this “detaching” is much easier said than done. The balance between trying to understand a patient and treat a patient is really where the art of medicine lies. It’s a challenge that doesn’t go away even today as we discuss cultural, racial, and social determinants. In the lab, there were no religious or political sections, etc… Just people who sacrificed to be here so we could learn.


The balance between trying to understand a patient and treat a patient is really where the art of medicine lies. Click To Tweet


The next lesson was that the cadaver lab was amazingly free of any biases other than a diverse group of 3-4 students around 40-50 bodies. The bodies were all very different on day one. We had tall, skinny, fat, short, black, white, etc… they ranged in age from 60s to 90s would be my guess, and some did have old scars and a few tattoos. Day one they looked very different and were easily differentiated. It was fascinating to see how different each body was in appearance. Amazingly, as one learns to practice, you work very hard to identify and find these unique qualities in every patient. How do they see the world? How do they see me? How do they see themselves? In the cadaver lab, it was much simpler. We could just describe them and focus on our job..

As the days and weeks passed, however, they all became remarkably similar. The unique external features did not bear out as we delved deeper into our work. As a matter of fact, every body was pretty much the exact same. The same structures, nerves, etc. were all found in the same place on every body, regardless of differences in skin color, size, and so on. Below the skin surface, every cadaver was the same.

Of course, there were cadavers with male and female reproductive organs, but outside of these differences, the anatomy was identical. I continue to find this fact amazing and somewhat magical. We can all look so different, but “under the hood,” we really are all the same, at least anatomically. This fact alone so often causes me to pause and reflect as I watch the world of medicine change so dramatically. We have become so biased, fragmented, and disconnected that we seem to have detached too far from ourselves and our patients. What if we started from the recognition that we are all incredibly similar? We are built with the same engine and parts.


“Below the skin surface, every cadaver was the same.”


Would these lessons help us? What if we lived in awe of the human body? What if we used all our senses to explore? What if we simply respected everyone in the same way, just for being one of us? What if we realized that, below our “descriptive” features, we are all the same? Past the color of our skin, political parties, religious beliefs, and socioeconomic influences, we all really start from the same basic anatomical foundation.

And what if, in medicine, we were able to focus on those who don’t have the same start? Who don’t have the same anatomy or foundation, and begin to build our healthcare from that premise? Would we build it differently? Would we see each other differently? Would we treat each other differently?

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This learning experience is powered by CMEfy - a platform that brings relevant CMEs to busy clinicians, at the right place and right time. Using short learning nudges, clinicians can reflect and unlock AMA PRA Category 1 Credit.

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