fbpx

The Lessons of Gross Anatomy Linger

Robert Saul, MD explains why the experience of learning human anatomy from a cadaver is an awesome one.

July 24, 2022

I recently received a notice for a 50-year reunion for college graduation.

What that signaled to me was a 50-year anniversary from the start of medical school.

Wow, a half of a century ago I started on my journey to become a physician!

That prompts two quick questions –

1) would I do it all over again?

2) Has it been worth it?

And the reply to both is a swift YES, but today I want to discuss briefly my initial journey and the awesome responsibility that medical students carry early in their careers.

 

For some admittedly selfish and some honestly altruistic reasons, I decided that I wanted to become a doctor, but I made the decision midway through college.

I spent the last two years of college glued to science books to get the necessary background credits and then crossed my fingers for the application process.  Getting into medical school was very difficult in the early 1970s.

I was initially waitlisted, and it looked like I would need to work in a medical setting for a year and then reapply.

The night before classes started (yes, about 12 hours before), I came out of a patient’s room in the local hospital to find the pre-med advisor from my college (Colorado College).

I had literally just changed a bedpan and was shocked to see him.

He said the Dean of Admissions (University of Colorado School of Medicine) had been trying to get in touch all night—there was a spot available in the morning if I still wanted it.

Well, I took it and have never regretted it since.

 

But then I needed to earn this honor.

Everyone enters medical school with their own unique circumstances, and then they are put through a relatively rigid curriculum to make sure that they capable to retain a mind-boggling amount of information and to use it in a distinctly humane manner.

 

Everyone enters medical school with their own unique circumstances, and then they are put through a relatively rigid curriculum to make sure that they capable to retain a mind-boggling amount of information and to use it in a distinctly… Click To Tweet

 

One of the first trials is a distinctive one to medicine—gross anatomy.

Gross is an unfortunate term given its often pejorative use. It is meant to distinguish the study of anatomy that is grossly visible versus anatomy that is only seen by the microscope (microanatomy). My medical school delayed the gross anatomy class until the second semester of the first year knowing that gross anatomy was potentially emotionally jarring for freshly minted medical students.

 

The experience of learning human anatomy from a cadaver is an awesome one.

When I say awesome, I mean it carries an awesome responsibility to be given the opportunity to learn the anatomical structures of the human body on someone who made this donation to help teach doctors-in-training.

The donor made the conscious decision that their body could provide a useful service beyond their lifetime. It was then our privilege to use this body in a respectful way and maintain our proper composure.

 

A cadaver donor makes the conscious decision that their body could provide a useful service beyond their lifetime. It is then our privilege to use this body in a respectful way and maintain our proper composure. Click To Tweet

 

If I am honest, it was difficult to maintain our proper composure at all times.

There were cadavers all around in varying states of dissection.

The smell of formaldehyde was at times overpowering and always lingered in our clothes after leaving the gross anatomy lab.

The overwhelming amount of knowledge needed to master the anatomy class was daunting and stress-producing.

Nervous laughter often broke out regarding the ability (or frequently the inability) to correctly identify certain structures.

 

I am sure that it seems very morbid to talk about such a topic.

Yet, now in retrospect 50 years later, I have an even greater respect for the donor that our group learned gross anatomy on.

She did make a significant difference.

Our cadaver (“Maude”) became our friend, our joint venture and at times our haunting reminder of the trials and tribulations of medical school.

My respect for her sacrifice has only grown through the years. She taught me so many anatomy lessons then, and those lessons have certainly lingered and morphed into life lessons over my career.

I suspect that she just thought that she was allowing us to learn anatomy.  We learned so much more about ourselves and others.

 

My respect for her (my cavader's) sacrifice has only grown through the years. She taught me so many anatomy lessons then, and those lessons have certainly lingered and morphed into life lessons over my career. Click To Tweet

 

I recently read an article by another physician about his gross anatomy experience.1

He shared similar thoughts about the humbling experience of being given the awesome responsibility of having a cadaver to learn human anatomy.

His descriptions demonstrate the great respect and eventual love that medical students have for their cadaver.  Yes, I dare say love.

His related experiences were so full of the empathy (em – within; pathos – suffering) for the donor and their family.

This is precisely the type of empathy that we seek as physicians-in-training and beyond in our careers and lives.

 

As I reflect on this experience, I am struck with comparisons to the movie, Saving Private Ryan.

As the army captain, Captain Miller (portrayed by Tom Hanks), is dying on the bridge, he leans over to Private Ryan (portrayed by Matt Damon) and whispers in a dying gasp — “earn this”.

I must admit it took me awhile to really understand the full magnitude of this request at his death.  He means that multiple lives were lost in an effort to find Private Ryan and to bring him home to his family (that had already lost their other sons in the war).  He means that Private Ryan needs to honor his fallen comrades with a life of service toward others.  He also means “earn this” in a much broader sense.

We all have a responsibility to each other.

 

Now what’s my point here?

It is my awesome responsibility to “earn this” opportunity to take gross anatomy, to respect this life of the donor and to use the educational experience in her honor and memory.

Though now clinically retired, I am forever indebted to the profession of medicine and how I have hopefully helped others and how so many others (colleagues and patients) have helped me. And I am particularly indebted to the early donor for my anatomy experience.

Though not alive, her contribution to our medical school class was certainly a “living” reminder of the good that we all can do.

Fifty years later, her contribution continues, and I thank her.

 

  1. Mathur M: Reflections: Cor Cordis. THE PHAROS Spring 2022, 31-32.

All opinions published on SomeDocs-Mag are the author’s and do not reflect the official position of SoMeDocs, its staff, editors. SoMeDocs is a magazine built with the safety of free expression and diverse perspectives in mind. For more information, or to submit your own opinion, please see our submission guidelines or email opmed@doximity.com. Do you have a compelling personal story you’d like to see published on SoMeDocs? Find out what we’re looking for here and submit your writing, or send us a pitch.

All opinions published on SomeDocs-Mag are the author’s and do not reflect the official position of SoMeDocs, its staff, editors. SoMeDocs is a magazine built with the safety of free expression and diverse perspectives in mind. Do you have a compelling personal story you’d like to see published on SoMeDocs? Submit your own article now here.

Share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

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.

Of Interest

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Get updates and learn from the best

The Unhappy Physician

The Unhappy Physician

Daniel Paull MD explains why he thinks that despite what the public thinks, most physicians are unhappy.

Social Dissections

[SERIES] Social Dissections

Join us in a visual and audio show, where we host light conversations with some of today’s standout healthcare experts.

David Norris, MD, MBA

Negotiate as a Physician and Win

Catch this 8-part series, hosted by physician & business consultant David Norris, MD, MBA & produced by Dana Corriel, MD. Learn to be a stronger negotiator with these important tactics.

Brand Your Social Media Content in a Day

Doctors Exploring Social Media

Raw and real social media-related questions, discussed in a video collection, hosted by Dana Corriel, MD, over a casual – but fun! – virtual setting.

Olga Calof, MD

Olga Calof, MD

My philosophy of care is to personally connect with patients, so we can work together to understand their disease, how it should be treated, and how to modify lifestyle choices to live the best life possible.

Judith Hong, MD

Judith Hong, MD

A board-certified dermatologist who loves and teaches mindful art classes, dance, and Reiki.

Deborah Gutman, MD, MPH

Deborah Gutman, MD, MPH

I coach and mentor pre-health and medical students with a growth mindset for successful applications to medical school and residency.

Want More?

Be a part of our healthcare revolution. Don't miss a thing SoMeDocs publishes!

Disclaimer: SoMeDocs assumes no responsibility for the accuracy, claims, or content of the individual experts' profiles, contributions and courses. Details within posts cannot be verified. This site does not represent medical advice and you should always consult with your private physician before taking on anything you read online. See SoMeDocs' Terms of Use for more information.

follow us

© 2024 SoMeDocs. All Rights Reserved.

Soak up our content & grow

Earn CME

Drop your email address below and we’ll email you the link for earning CME (through CMEfy). Please check your spam folder if you do not receive our email. We’ll also add you to our Sunday newsletter, so you can earn more CME’s reading our content!

Support A Platform that Celebrates Real Doctors

For just $10 a month, you can help keep this openly accessible site available to all & help us sponsor in more doctors.

Interested in subscribing
to our unique content?

Interested in subscribing to our unique content?

I acknowledge that this site is not to be used for medical advice.

Play Video
Our Founder Answers Your BURNING Question

SoMeDocs

“Why should I become a member of SoMeDocs if I already have my own space online?”

Site SoMeDocs Logo, square

WANT TO STAY IN THE LOOP?

DON'T MISS A SINGLE CONTENT PIECE.