Friday, March 12, 2010

Once Again, Anatomy Lab is the Coolest

(Or "Just Go Ahead and Stop Reading If You're Queasy")

So, we've finally made it to the "Head and Neck" unit of our anatomy course.  A couple of weeks ago, we wrapped up the "Lower Limb" section and moved up to the head.  By the end of lab that day, I'd scalped a person, removed the skin from the face, and examined facial muscles, nerves, and vessels.  Again, it's pretty damned amazing how our bodies are put together.  You'd be awed by what simply surrounds the eye and allows you to blink or squint.

This week, however, entailed cleaning up the dissection table and moving everything we'd previously dissected to the collection bin, and yielded a work station with only a head and neck and a few tools.
For the record, it isn't the easiest thing (either psychologically or physically) to use a hacksaw to remove a head and neck from the thorax.  To add to that, I'll  say that if you're the one holding the head while members of your dissection team clean the workstation, your forearms will get a little sore and fatigued after about fifteen minutes.  For the next few days, this soreness will be a macabre reminder that you have racked up experiences that few others have.

The part of the semester is the beginning of the point where Gross Anatomy and Neuroscience converge.  As we ready for our brain dissections, we harvested the brains from a few of the cadavers.  During lunch hour, several of us hustled to the lab and removed a few.  All I can say is that this was an unbelievably amazing experience. 

One starts by putting a rubber band around the skull as a guide, making a scalpel cut through the soft tissue down to the bone, and using a cast saw to make a cut around the circumference. If you've been to the dentist and had a filling, you probably remember the smell that goes along with having a tooth drilled; it is the same odor that accompanies sawing through a skull.  During spin class several hours later, I discovered that it is, quite literally, a scent that stays with you; all I could smell was the familiar burning bone smell.  No amount of blowing my nose or flushing it made it go away. It was, for a day or so, part of me.

After the saw cut is complete, you pry off the skull cap which is a hell of a lot harder than you'd think.  The dura that covers the brain and spinal cord is far more resilient than I imagined.  After pulling and prying and cutting and praying and pleading, the cap just sort of pulls off and you're staring at the top of the brain.  Then, you take an especially long scalpel, make several cuts including some relatively blind ones at the brainstem, and sort of roll the brain out of the skull and into your hands.

And shortly thereafter, you realize that, in your hands, in your very own hands, you are holding a human brain: the epicenter of motion, of bodily control, of emotion, of knowledge, of memory.  And, you realize that words fail to capture what an awesome and emotional experience it is to have just done what you've done, to hold what you're holding, to be so intimately connected with a perfect stranger who made you the recipient of the gift of their body.  Time stops and you go inward to your own history and your own unwritten future.  Could you be so selfless?  Could you be such a teacher?  Where do we go when this machine shuts down?  In the blink of an eye, you're back in the present and you turn to a fellow awe-struck student and carefully, tenderly place the brain in their hands.

1 comment:

Frances Larson said...

Hi, I have a book coming out later this year and I'd like to quote your blog post in a chapter I've written about human dissection and the complicated emotions students experience in the anatomy lab. It would be great to hear from you and I can tell you more about it. all the best, Frances