August 4th is technically still summer in Chicago, but my reality says summer ended on Monday. Ooft, that sounded a tad depressing. What I’m trying to say is that med school classes started again and I have officially returned to campus as an M2. Gone are the days of wandering along the lakeshore and reading romance novels (8 books in July, although I promise some were non-fiction — I lead an odd life for a women in her mid/almost late 20’s) and I’m now back to the grind of powerpoint slides, ridiculous numbers of flashcards, and a substantial increase in my daily caffeine intake.
Yea, I guess the explanation didn’t really help to make things sound less melancholy, but in all honesty, I was ready to go back. Well, on Monday I was ready to go back…now, well… I’m just kidding (mostly). It’s nice to get back into the routine of lectures, clinic, and extracurriculars. It’s exciting to be introduced to all of this new information (although a little less exciting to realize how soon my first exam is). It’s great to reconnect with friends and classmates and hear some of the amazing stories and experiences that filled their summers. In summary: Life is good and I’m already exhausted. I’m so glad I like coffee.
This year, things are a tad different. First off, I’m way less clueless about what I’m getting myself into and am about to experience. I know what’s expected of me and (generally) how to achieve it. In some ways it’s nice to be a second year student; but it’s also a bit more intimidating since there’s a whole class of 140+ first year students who think you know things (which may or may not be accurate). This year is also a little different in the way our curriculum is structured compared to prior years, in that our first organ system module is “Head and Neck. A two and a half week block where you’re supposed to figure out and understand the muscles/vasculature/nerves of the face and neck, the physiology and pathophysiology of the eyes and ears, and then a bunch of random odds and ends that could be considered neurology but you need to know to understand everything else. Putting it mildly, it’s intense. Needless to say, I spent a good portion of today silently envying Ingrid’s to do list.
Yet, I think the intensity of this module is about more than just the sheer amount of information coming at us on a daily basis. After all, I’m relatively used to that… it’s always a little different since the topics themselves change, but all in all, I expect feeling constantly behind and invariably busy. That’s a type of intensity that’s assumed. I think the challenging part of this module in particular is the actual subject matter, or maybe it’s the process by which we, as med students, learn it.
You see, the head and neck module has a substantial amount of associated anatomy. I mean, how could it not? A smile doesn’t happen because of a single muscle, it’s the result of an absurd number of well coordinated neuronal impulses sent to very particular muscles innervated by seemingly more specific nerves. While we aren’t necessarily interested in “the anatomy of a smile,” the anatomy and structure of the face and skull is pretty important.
I’m guessing you’ve figured out where I’m going with this, which is definitely more than I can say about my current thought process of how I’m going to put this experience into words. Each med school does anatomy lab a tad differently, some schools do prosections, where a cadaver is already expertly dissected for you. Other schools do anatomy lab right when you start school your first year for quite a few weeks straight and then your done. My school splits up anatomy lab based on what we’re learning, so while I’ve done dissections before, it has always been on a cadaver that was already half dissected. We also were only looking and learning within the abdominal cavity and then later on, at the extremities.
This year, it’s different.
This year we started from the beginning, making the first cut into the skin of a cadaver. A cadaver who still looks very much like the person they were in life. A person that has all of their body parts where they belong, untouched, never before seen by another being. A person with a face that proclaims their identity to friends, family, strangers in the street, and now me — a medical student who, along with my classmates, will spend 17 scheduled hours (and likely many unscheduled hours) taking it apart piece by piece.
Yea, it’s intense.
There’s so much happening and it can feel like a lot to manage and process through. Heck, it is a lot to manage and process through. One breath is filled with appreciation for the individual who donated their body for me to learn from, knowing they would continue to teach and play an important role in science, medicine, and healthcare even after they have passed. Another breath reminds me anatomy lab is an important part of my training, some even consider it a rite of passage, that can (and perhaps should) be approached the same way I approach all the material I need to learn for school. Maybe it should even be compartmentalized into the part of my brain reserved for aspects of medicine that are by all rights, “unnatural” and “wrong” by any reasonable human moral code. But then again – the arch of an eyebrow, the painted nails of a woman, the mustache of an elderly gentleman so quickly remind me that this is not like everything else.
It’s strange and there are certainly moments when its hard. A feeling that comes over you as you glance around the lab, seeing elevated faces of the cadavers in the lab that you have to mentally remind yourself to breathe and send a thank you to the man upstairs that you’re already sitting down. But seconds later, you notice your classmates, all in gowns and gloves, peering intently at the complex musculature of the neck or dissecting out the nerves of the eye, working respectfully and diligently to learn as much as possible from the gift lying in front of them that make it manageable.
You know, I don’t think I’ve really figured out exactly how to process and “deal with” everything this experience encompasses. I’m not sure if it’s possible to both fully compartmentalize what’s happening and be true to who I am in the recognition of a cadaver as both an individual in life and now a teacher in death. But I am learning, and I’m pretty sure that’s the whole point.
Anatomy lab is rarely (if ever) easy, I guess kind of like med school.
Maybe even life as a whole.
You do what you can, you absorb, you process, you reflect, and you appreciate.
You appreciate the opportunity. You appreciate the gift.
And you learn as much as you possibly can.