In my first week of medical school, I actually didn't know what to expect. I remember being an 18yr old thinking I want to be a doctor, but I never thought about the actual process of it. So when I was brought into a room full of cadavers, I was very surprised to say the least. Some might think it was stupid of me not to realise as a doctor we would work with dead bodies, but I truly never even thought of it. I, to be honest, forgot about the dead and had only focussed on one day helping the living.
The dissection room had the immense intoxication smell of hydrogen peroxide. You could smell it as you walked up the staircase to the room. We, medical students, were told that morning to eat a good breakfast and wear lose clothing…apparently people fainted. There was a rumour that the dissection room was used as tool to fish out the weak students from the potential. Those that fainted were apparently asked to leave medical school. I took everything literally, and so made sure I had eaten a full English breakfast, something I actually regretted as soon as the peroxide hit my nostrils.
When entering the room, there were metal looking coffins with a rotator on the side, and underneath there were more of these metal looking coffins. I couldn't see a body yet…phewI There were bizarre and strangely shaped instruments all over the room, some hanging on the ceiling. There were skeletons in each corner, and anatomy pictures stuck to every wall. It felt eerie. It felt as though I had entered one of those horror films, where you know there are zombies around but are waiting for them to pop out. I heard a shudder, and looked to my side. There was another fellow student who was clearly feeling the same as I did. I looked at the sea of other young medical student faces, they were either scared or had a grin on their faces obviously pretending not to be petrified.
We were inducted to the classroom, and were told clearly the protocol for coming into the room: no cameras, wash hands, leave belongings, wear labcoat, goggles, gloves on, don't touch without permission, confidentiality…. The list went on and on but was always the same every week. Once ready in the full gear, the lab coat too big on me with some old washed blood markings on the sleeves that quite honestly made me want to throw up. We were split into groups of about 10 and these were to be our dissection groups for the next two years.
We met our dissection instructor- now this woman inspired me so much that I actually remained friends with her post medical school, but I did not know this at 18 years old looking at her with my eyes, stinging, afraid of what was going to be happening in the dissection room. Our instructor, whom I shall call Dr Jess for now, went through some of the basic anatomy of the skin and chest wall. She then slowly started turning the metal rod on the side of the metal coffin which I had forgotten was in front of us. As she turned, the metal lid started slowly opening. It felt as though she was opening pandoras box. I really did fear what we would see inside. Would be it like the films? Would there be blood everywhere? Would flies emerge out attacking our faces? Would a hand grab me like in the Addams Family?
When the lid was finally open, there was a large sheet with a shape of a body clearly underneath. I took a deep breath in, and Dr Jess pulled the sheet back slowly. There in front of us, was a very peaceful deceased female. She looked asleep. She was pale, as though made of clay. She could have been a sculpture. She didn't look anything like in the films. There was something tranquil abou
t her. I looked at her face, full of wrinkles and kindness at the same time. Her eyes were closed.
Nobody spoke. Maybe the other students also had their own imaginations being calmed down by the reality of what they were looking at. Or perhaps others were just soaking in this experience. Who knows. Dr Jess after a moment started showing us the patients chest, explaining the anatomy of the mediastinum. After a few minutes, Dr Jess then brought out a scalpel. This was the first scalpel I had ever seen and touched. Dr Jess taught us how to put the scalpel together and take it apart again. Then Dr Jess looked at us all and asked who would want to make the first cut. Suddenly my fear disappeared and my inner need to be a doctor soared through and I almost screamed ME! However, quickly my social concern of appearing to keen or cut throat worried me as after all I would be spending six years with these students so perhaps I should try to share. As I went through this dialogue in my head, most of the group were fighting to get the first cut. I then looked back at the cadaver…our patient. I realised how incredible this woman was to donate herself to us, to benefit us, to teach us. How brave and wonderful she was to do that, so today I can learn. I looked around the room. So many others have done this also. So many remarkable human beings have left a part of themselves in the world to help the next generation. I think this realisation hit the students all at the same time. Thank you to all that donate their organs and bodies, and thank you to our patient.