Reflections on Gross Anatomy — by Jeffrey M. Cohen
From the very first gross anatomy lab, I could tell the dissections were going to be fascinating. That day, as we dissected the back, I immediately understood the educational value of working in the lab. In all of the anatomy atlases, the trapezius muscle is depicted as a huge, thick muscle in the back. When we dissected the trapezius muscle, however, we discovered that it was just a thin sheet of tissue. That was the first of many moments of clarity that could only be achieved through first-hand experience.
From day one, I felt privileged and honored that someone donated her body to the Anatomical Gifts Program for my education. This is one of the most selfless gifts I can imagine. Over the course of the twenty labs, I got to know my donor in ways that the people she was closest to during her life never knew her. Despite the fact that I never met her while she was alive, I became quite connected to her over time. Her closest friends and relatives had never physically touched her heart or seen and felt the muscles that moved her eyes and generated the sound of her voice during conversation, but I had. Doing things like performing a pneumonectomy on my donor gave me a greater appreciation for the elegance of the human body and for functions that are easy to ignore when talking to a person. Throughout the anatomy course, I grappled with my need to somehow thank my donor. How could I possibly achieve that? I think that working through this struggle in my mind made me more appreciative of the gross anatomy lab experience.
I also feel that working with my donor throughout the course made me more humane. I reminded myself of how fortunate I was to be able to have such a powerful learning experience on a daily basis. I felt grateful for the privilege of being in the gross anatomy lab and for the sacrifice my donor made on my behalf. Each day in lab, my group was always cognizant of behaving respectfully and ensuring that the body was well taken care of before leaving.
I came to realize that my donor’s gift was not just a gift to me and my peers; she had made a contribution to the wellbeing of all of our future patients. I will never forget the first time I witnessed the intricacies of anatomical structures in lab. Beyond teaching me human anatomy, my donor taught me a lot about myself. I realized that I truly enjoy working with my hands and that I learn well in settings like the gross anatomy lab. My donor will live on in the hearts and minds of her family and friends, and her legacy will continue in my career in medicine and in the care that I provide for all of my patients.
On the last day of lab, my group and I presented our donor to a pathologist. He reviewed numerous structures with us and discussed the observations we had made over the course of our time with our donor. He explained that she had probably had cancer. Since no tumors could be found, the pathologist concluded that she had probably had either leukemia or lymphoma. He also told us that the cancer hadn’t directly caused her death but that she had apparently died of a viral pneumonia, as evidenced by the appearance of her left lung. Hearing the probable cause of death from the pathologist was relieving. Throughout my time with my donor, I had consistently wondered about her cause of death. Observing the difference in her lungs and listening to the pathologist logically explain the reasoning behind his prediction was comforting and provided some semblance of closure.
I will always remember gross anatomy lab as a wonderful and revolutionary chapter in my life and education. Over the course of the several weeks we spent in lab, the human body gradually became demystified. Now, I feel quite comfortable with the human body and have gained a respect for the physical structures, large and small, that I will need to consider as I care for patients throughout my career.
As I completed the last lab and was preparing to leave, I became quite emotional. I did not want this experience to come to a close, and I felt sad to be parting ways with my donor. I had a hard time saying goodbye, and it was difficult to make myself walk out of the lab that morning. At that moment, the full impact of gross anatomy hit me. I realized how much I had developed and learned, as a medical student and also as a person.