A Meditation on the Anatomy Lab
On my left, the ragged, meaty stump of a severed neck stands upright like an abandoned signpost. A classmate examines it carefully. She is petite. She stands on a stool to obtain a better angle for observation. She cranes her neck, twisting the very muscles she is studying back and forth, back and forth.
To my right, a peer brandishes a hacksaw, ready to bisect a man’s face so it falls open like a cleanly sliced hardboiled egg. At the table next to me, a friend steadies a bone saw upon his cadaver’s skull. He kisses blade to occipital bone—gentle—furrowing his brow as bone dust leaps like a celebration.
I’m snapped out of my reverie by the approach of our lab guide. She bounds cheerily, excited by our progress. “Looks great!” and then, “any problems?” I look at our cadaver. His head lolls forward, spilling into a wide-open chest cavity, nose resting delicately on his own exposed liver, spinal cord flayed open, skull cracked and sawed apart. The skin of his face has been peeled away by our scalpels, brain removed and sliced. His neck is a tangle of flayed muscle fiber, viscera separated from backbone, shrunken eyes glaring sideways, both in shame and accusation. He is desecrated. Flung apart by curious fingers and obedient steel blades.
“Just having some issues finding the demarcation of the pharyngeal muscles,” is the answer my lab partner gives. She raises her voice to be to be heard above the constant thwack-thwack- thwack of mallet and chisel, the whirring of bone cutters, the deadened zip of hacksaws flying through skull. Added to the cacophony is the occasional rip of viscera and connective tissue as it is torn off the muscles it has sweetly embraced for decades. The noise swells with the excited chatter of my peers. Formaldehyde grips our nostrils, coats our skin like a thick paint.
I am reminded of how the white coat can normalize an exceptional amount of violence. It is heavy in the air yet it does not always weigh on our minds. Perhaps the most poignant moment of anatomy lab is the moment we expose the cranial nerves. They look as if they were painted with the thinnest of brushes, tattooed like fine meshwork in clean white ink. Beautifully spun. Delicate. Tiny tendrils of white matter that spill across the brainstem. Cutting the cranial nerves, more so than any other act exerted upon this body, feels most acutely that I am destroying the legacy of this man. The nuances of his being are falling away beneath indifferent, deadened steel. We learn that these fibers carry instructions to shrug shoulders, lift soft palate, curl tongue, smile, laugh. Such thin threads, impregnated and fat with the implications of life.
And then the destruction. One lick of the scalpel edge, and there. Severed. Curiosity is a beautiful thing but sometimes in anatomy lab, it feels ugly. The only way I can accept this man’s sacrifice is by destroying the gift he proffers. We dig for discovery, and then discard. Hold, but do not keep. We appreciate the anatomical structures, but do not give thanks. We accept his donation by pillaging it. It is an intimate exchange despite, or perhaps because of, the brutality of our damage.
I cannot help but to feel disrespectful every time I enter the anatomy lab. We proceed with every session as if we are entitled to these bodies, just by virtue of being medical students. I think about how little we are reminded of our privilege. I think about how, without our white coats, this activity is a felony. I think about how the person on this table loved and was loved, and how we flay his body in the name of academic exercise. The sight of medical students huddled around carved open bodies continues to conjure the image of consumption. Of an intellectual cannibalism. Our curiosity often feels careless.
We do not practice surgical techniques or indeed engage with any part of healing. We are instructed to rip, tear, probe, and slice muscle and mesentery, with no threat of consequence. We invade with little caution or fear. We cut, look, learn in the hopes that this knowledge will help others, but at this stage of our medical journey, our discovery is purely for our own benefit.
Anatomy lab is a strange source of personal profit.
Note: this piece was originally published in In-Training, a magazine for medical students.