Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A few thoughts on anatomy

In my last post providing an overview of med school and classes and such, I promised a separate post just for anatomy because I like it so much. So here we go.

Anatomy more or less dominates our first block of classes. We have three lectures a week, each followed by a marathon session in the dissection lab. There are four students per body, meaning there is plenty of work cut out for everyone. A dedicated brigade of professors (some of whom are reportedly renowned experts in their fields) and TAs roams around to provide assistance to floundering groups or to regale the idle ones with grand stories about exciting discoveries in the field of anatomy. The lab is akin to a bazaar, full of boisterousness and healthy chaos.

Of course that's not how we felt the day before our first class at all. Notorious anatomy horror stories had trickled down from upperclassmen - accidentally perforated bowels, the pernicious odor of formalin, and so on - and none of us was looking forward to the coming weeks. Nearly two months in, my views have changed completely. Anatomy is my favorite class right now.

It is hard to appreciate the full glory of anatomy when you are kneading through peritoneal fat and layers of mesentery within the abdominal cavity in a Herculean effort to locate the celiac trunk. Or when you are making your very first incision along the sternal border of the pectoralis major muscle to expose the rib cage. It all seems too much and much too pointless.

The road to the elusive treasure (the celiac trunk or the heart buried deep within the mediastinum) is paved with muscle, fat, vasculature, and other unassorted gunk, and many a times you feel like giving up, to fling away your shovels and tear up your maps. You want to turn around and go home.

But the rewards at the end are huge and very well compensate for all the hardships. You peel off the pec major, crack each rib one by the one, lift up the rib cage, reflect the pericardium (and clean up any fat), and all of a sudden you are there - the heart. There it sits, all solemn and majestic, flanked by the two phrenic nerves. Your fingers tremble slightly as you gingerly poke it. All of a sudden you realize that this very exact organ has been beating ceaselessly and unfailingly since your birth. Hyperawareness.

It is a transformative experience. On the very first day of lecture, the professor boldly declared, "What you are about to do would most certainly land you in jail were it not done under the auspices of your training. Society has granted you a special privilege. Don't take it lightly." He then read a poem from a son of body donors who reveals his parents did so against his wishes. In the poem, the son urges med students to treat each body with the same respect and dignity accorded to a living patient.

Now you may think this is all sappy and corny. Whether you choose to accept the symbolism and the significance of dissecting human bodies, mangling their organs, the fact remains that this is a unique learning experience, not to be replicated by any other med school class. For the vast majority of us, in fact, this will be the one of the few opportunities to "handle" organs and actually peek inside bodies.

Organs packed compactly, tucked away neatly over each other, intricate vasculature with each vein and artery striving to cover every possible area, layers of muscle thoughtfully overlapping skin and underlying viscera - anatomy never ceases to amaze me.


  1. Fascinating perspective on anatomy. Your blog is fantastic and I will certainly be coming back. I'd like to point out that I stumbled here after reading your glowing review of Pentel RSVP pens on Amazon. Good stuff.

  2. Thank you for the kind words rongo1994! That review was written with my tongue a bit in my cheek (I love the pens very much but I wanted to be a bit grandiose). Hope you check out other stuff on the blog and liked it as well.