Those of a certain age will remember the opening sequence of the TV show Quincy, M.E. in which police in training observe an autopsy, and the trainees all pass out. When I spotted an article about medical students' first experience dissecting a human body, I couldn't help but think about how many would pass out. This article transcends that bit of comedy and looks deeper into the actual process of a gross anatomy class. The class begins with a video in which a future medical cadaver explains her reasons for donating her body, to underline respect for the bodies on which they will learn. It's an experience that cannot be replicated by text, MRIs, or computer modeling. Associate professor for gross anatomy Todd Hoagland remembers his first time.
"It was the first class I'd ever taken where the light bulbs kept going off," he says. "I had been a biology major, but I didn't have a sense of how it all fit together. This was like looking at a car as a whole system, instead of just getting all of the little pieces. It's seeing how the pieces all operate in a person. If you understand the big picture, all of the rest starts falling into place."
It is a fitting place to begin. Students start with the foundations they will use their entire careers — the map and the vocabulary necessary to communicate with anyone in medicine.
But gross anatomy also provides something less scientific. Students share an experience that will bond them long after they have graduated, entered practice and forgotten most of their time in medical school.
"This is an elucidation of death and dying," Hoagland says. "It's a way for students who have never experienced that to confront it."
The story follows a class of students through their dissections: what they do, how they feel about it, what they learn, and how it affects their vviews on death and their medical careers. There are also stories about those who donate their bodies so that others can learn to save lives. And along the way, you'll learn about the history and the technical aspects of medical school cadavers. The gross anatomy class ends with a memorial service for the donors.
From Table 1, Joseph Zilisch approaches the front of the room. Zilisch, dressed in his white lab coat, is more comfortable with a scalpel than a microphone. Still, he has volunteered to give the main student speech to a crowd of 250 that includes not only classmates and professors.
Also seated before him are relatives of the men and women the students dissected.
"By definition, death unites all living things," Zilisch says, "as a common denominator, a sort of debt to be paid for the amazing gift of life."
He tries to put into words the extraordinary closeness and the extraordinary distance they have shared, these students and their silent teachers.