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Dissecting Anatomy Lab: Epilogue

Editor’s note: We are featuring a series of essays by Kate Crofton on anatomy lab. Her essays are based on 27 interviews with medical students, faculty, clinicians and donors.

This is the fifth and final installment in the series. Read the fourth installment here.

I am a different person after completing anatomy lab, and so are my classmates.

I no longer feel alone the way that I did the first few weeks of dissections, because now I recognize that my peers were sectioned off at their tables also worried that they were losing their sensitivity, that they weren’t good enough to belong, and they didn’t know how to cut into a person. I wish that I had known what my classmates were thinking and feeling during the anatomy course. Several themes emerged throughout my interviews with medical students:

First, finding a community where you can have honest conversations and be vulnerable is paramount. The anatomy lab is a bizarre space, and there is an omnipresent imposition of silence, both internal and external, to not discuss it with people outside of the learning community. Students reflected to me about trying to talk about anatomy with their family or friends, who just couldn’t completely understand or relate to the experience. Some of the best people to talk about the experience with were lab mates, anatomy faculty and medical professionals who had been through anatomy labs themselves.

Second, getting involved hands-on is often emotionally easier than just watching, both for students and professors. In the observer role, you see the dissection taking place at multiple tables, and you are free to think about how unsettling it is. This is often not productive when you are trying to learn the structures. If you make your hands busy, then you can focus in on the area that you need to study.

Finally, reflection is essential, and disengagement from the process is counter productive. Students reported that they reflected through the following means: visiting the lab to simply be present for a few minutes without studying; journaling; writing periodic letters to their donors; exercising with classmates; and talking about the emotional toll of difficult dissections.

I hope that these lessons, learned through brute force for me, might be of use to future students of gross anatomy.

Steeped in the stew of a mid-summer hot spell, I am finished conducting interviews and think that I have answers to most of my questions. Beyond connecting to my classmates, I also I understand why our professors are captivated by anatomy and why they love to teach. I recognize what motivates many people to donate their bodies to medical education. I know that as the donors are transformed from dead bodies to embalmed specimens, they are handled with absolute kindness. But I am missing something. I still don’t really know a donor, at least not in their own words.

On the second to last day of July, I speak to a woman who has been introduced to me through a classmate. She is not an anatomist or a clinician, but she and her husband both carry yellow anatomical donor preregistration cards in their wallets wherever they go. What follows is the portrait of a woman who lives with her husband in a log cabin on a lake. She might resemble your aunt or your neighbor. Her name has been changed for the sake of privacy, but let’s call her Linda. I give another go at my list of questions.

Linda’s mother emigrated to Ellis Island from Scotland and later died when her daughter, our protagonist, was only twenty-eight days old. Linda was raised by her sister and grew up in a family of pastors. When she met her husband, he wasn’t a church-goer at all. She was relieved when he went to Bible school, because then she could “really think about being serious with him.” She became a teacher and birthed two boys. She is now a proud grandma.

I ask what she likes to eat for dinner, and she replies that she’s on a diet, using Weight Watchers. I press, and she tells me that she likes to eat fish. Her husband hunts and fishes on the lake, reeling in salmon and brown trout to put on the table, a dream come true for him.

She’s not a traveler, “I like to be home” she says, and so does her husband. “Where are you happiest?” I ask. Linda loves to read. Her husband built a special soundproof room in their home so that she can read in silence. I ask her what books she enjoys, and she won’t answer until I tell her what books I like. I respond that I love anything by Tracy Kidder; some of her favorites are Kathy Herman, Francine Rivers, John Grisham — “read all of him,” Lucinda Riley and Leila Meacham.

Linda has had a hysterectomy and her husband has undergone two shoulder operations, as well as hip surgery. She has a pain in her right side below the waistline that stops her from working in her garden some days. She’s gone to the hospital a few times worried that she was having a heart attack. Maybe the students will discover the source of her pain when they study her.

Why do Linda and her husband want to donate? A few years back they attended a funeral together. The line to pay their respects stretched long out the door, and it was a sweltering day. To pass the time, Linda asked her husband what he wanted done for him when he died, and he replied, “I just don’t want people standing in that line.” They went home and started researching their options, ultimately deciding on anatomical donation, a choice that their children support. Linda explains her motivation: “When our body is dead and gone, that’s not us. We have a spirit that goes to Heaven, and that’s what we want to dwell on. This way you’ve given a gift to someone else.”

I ask Linda what she knows about what will happen to her body once it’s in the hands of the Anatomical Gift Program. “When you’re alive, you don’t want to think about it,” she replies, matter-of-factly. “Are you embarrassed about people seeing all of your body?” I inquire. “Embarrassed — no!” she is quick to answer, “Everybody has the same things. We are not going to be there. We won’t even feel it.”

She makes an analogy to deer hunting. Linda used to hunt, but now she prefers to stay in from the cold. “It’s like when we go hunting and have shot a deer. That deer is so beautiful, but once you take their life, there is nothing there. No feeling, no nothing. They’re alike, and that’s what you are going to find, too.”

I thank her, and she leaves to work in her garden. If she stays outside long enough, maybe she will see a silhouette in the distance against the backdrop of the lake. I imagine that it skirts closer, a blurry shape coming into focus. Head bowed down, it’s feasting on sweet young grass and dandelion heads. It approaches, nabs a mouthful of Linda’s sweet corn and bounds off again, white tail bobbing all the while. Linda turns her attention back to tending her plants. Her story plays on.

Image credit: Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine in the public domain.

Kate Crofton Kate Crofton (5 Posts)

Contributing Writer

University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry

Kate Crofton is a fourth year medical student at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in Rochester, New York, class of 2021. In 2016, she graduated from Carleton College with a Bachelor of Arts in biology. In her free time, she enjoys writing poetry, reading narrative nonfiction, and baking sourdough. After graduating medical school, Kate intends to pursue a career in OB/GYN.