After our first two days in the anatomy lab, I realize that I will never be the same. I have crossed a threshold, one that feels more like a monstrous cliff rather than a fine line. I have joined that group of people, physicians, nurses, physical therapists, naturopaths, and all the other health care providers, who have gone through that hands on initiation of medical school science: the cutting of a dead human.
It was only two minutes into the first lab and I was already able to separate myself from the notion that I was going to dissect this sweet old man. It could have been because we immediately turned him on his back, obscuring his face, that clear reminder of his humanity, in order to start on the back muscles. It could have also been because he did not feel at all like the bodies I have been rubbing for the last nine years in my profession as a massage therapist; his pale skin was cold, hard, and felt like what I imagine elephant skin feels like. But maybe I was able to detach myself because I had to in order to complete the tasks at hand, to learn the muscles, nerves and blood supply of the back.
Once the skin was removed, a task that took a very very long time, I was completely and utterly fascinated and absorbed. To actually see the muscles that I have been massaging for nine years was incredible. We started with the most superficial muscles, and retracted them back, to discover the intermediate and deeper muscles. It was so instructive for me to see the relationship between all the muscles, instead of learning them in isolation as we did in massage school. The tendons were truly beautiful, with a fine pearly opalescent sheen, as if a master painter brushed on layers of paint to illustrate the nuances of light. The individual fibers of the tendons lined up perfectly, one after another, doing their job of anchoring the muscles to bone so flawlessly.
I left the lab that first day feeling ecstatic. I had done it! I had successfully dissected the back muscles, enjoyed it, and was not feeling the anticipated uneasiness or discomfort. The reality of dissection however soon hit home; unlike undergraduate science work, where you have one lab session per week, our anatomy lab will be every single day for the next 11 weeks. The next day we were all there once again, to complete the next dissection: opening up the spine in order to study the spinal cord.
This lab was truly brutal, both physically and emotionally. The bones of the spine, and I imagine of the whole body, are incredibly strong, and quite resistive to any attempt to break them. The amount of force we needed to take off the back of the spine in order to reveal the cord was astounding. I could not pick up the chisel and hammer, nor could I use the saw. At one point, I looked up and around at the 30 lab stations, saw the focused concentration of students trying to open up the spine, heard both the pounding of mallets as well as the buzz of saws, smelled the odor of bone mixed in with the formalin preservatives, and felt like I was in the middle of a horror movie. I sat back and watched my lab mates do the dirty work (thank you). Gone was the fascination that I experienced with the upper back muscles; this work was so destructive, and yet I knew, necessary in order to learn about the spine and spinal cord.
After an hour and a half of pounding, we finally lifted off the bone, to unveil the most amazing anatomy that I have seen thus far: the spinal cord. It was so……so……beyond words actually. That structure, in the very center of our bodies, responsible for all of our sensation, all of our movement, all of the communication that goes on between our brain and the rest of our bodies,
is an indelible image in my mind. One that I will easily recall when taking the practical exam, when answering multiple choice questions on the written exam, but most importantly, one that I will use when listening to a patient talk about their symptoms. I can now close my eyes when I run my hands over someone’s back and spine, and see what is under the surface; see the relationships between the different tissues and structures, see the nerves leaving the spaces between the vertebrae, see the nerves traveling to their final destination of muscle and skin. So despite this day’s brutality, I am grateful, once again, to the man that has allowed me to put my anatomical medical knowledge into 3 dimensions. Thank you again, Mr. Old Man.