Introduction to gross.

Note: I don’t know if everybody wants to read about the dissection of cadavers, which will, I imagine, be the main topic of my posts about Anatomy. So, I will attempt to preface all such posts with a warning such as this one: this post discusses human dissection. Human dissection is not always pretty. Once I figure out cut tags, I will do them/add them to this page. Until then, you have been warned.

Gross lab (Gross and Developmental Anatomy lab, so “gross” as in “comprehensive,” though I’m sure professors everywhere giggled when they came up with the name) is the class which newly minted medical students seem to either be super excited about or absolutely dreading, because you either “get to” or “have to” cut up dead people. I was neutral of course (see: title of blog), and mostly curious as to how it would go. I’d seen the labs and the cadavers (though they were all covered with plastic sheaths), and the smell was mostly formaldehyde, reminiscent of fetal pigs but multipled about a thousand times for both weight and sheer number. At our school, the large room has maybe thirty cadavers in it, and the small room has about fifteen. It really is an overwhelming number of dead people for two rooms.

Anyway, back to the first day of lecture. Beforehand we all avidly discussed whether or not we were supposed to change into our scrubs for lecture. We knew we were supposed to wear our scrubs into lab — you know, so that dead person residue didn’t get on our street clothes. Just the ones we’d bought especially for that purpose. Eventually it was a mass, 150-person decision to change. After crowding the four bathrooms we knew about, we all filed in on time, wearing the green or blue scrubs we’d bought at orientation and having not an idea of what to expect. Well, I didn’t, at least. Other people had, of course, pre-studied. Whether by chance or by subconscious design, I don’t really associate with those people.

Our professor looked at us and grinned, “You all look very powerful in your blue and green.”

The first lecture was extremely basic, on the names of the different planes of the body and anatomical jargon. I tried to capture the information in my mind at the moment and I failed. Little did I know that after merely being in the lab for three hours a day, three days a week, I’d have no problem figuring out the lingo. (It would be the names of the muscles, nerves, and blood vessels that would cause trouble.)

After the lecture, our professor informed us we’d be seeing a video on the dissection we would be doing for the day. He dimmed the lights and started the movie.

The room in the video was dark, and the camera focused on our professor’s hands as he casually announced, “Today, we will be skinning the upper back.” Just like opening a can of soup or something. He cut into the flesh without flinching, finding the appropriate level of skin and then pulling it back and gently applying his scalpel to the mesh-like web that was attaching it to the muscle beneath. It looked … simple. Detached, from the close-up view the camera was affording us. It was easy to forget it was a human under his blade.

When my three lab partners and I assembled in front of the body, however, it was a different story.

We introduced ourselves, met each other’s eyes nervously, donned gloves and took our time figuring out how to put on scalpel blades. Then we pulled off the sheet.

The man was face-down, thankfully, but his back felt disturbingly real, far more real than the movie we’d just watched. For whatever reason, a human body with its skin off is far more easy to handle than a human body with its skin on. With no skin, the owner of the body is clearly not alive. With skin, the man could be sleeping. Gray, and clearly cold to the touch, but still. He’s still a whole person, or at least a whole body.

I glanced at the enthusaistic table next to us, who throughout the semester would be happily carving into their cadaver at a far faster pace than us. The first day was no different — it looked like they were sawing into the skin with no problem.

“Well,” I managed aloud, “I guess we should begin.”

And thus the first day of anatomy lab, too, shall pass.



  1. narcan said,

    October 10, 2006 at 8:51 pm

    Hi! I don’t even know your name. But I just wanted to let you know, that I enjoy reading your blog. I just passed the nursing boards this June. I’m currently working at the hospital near our place. Sometimes, when there’s just more than enough stress during a shift, I think to myself, “What have I gotten into?” And i just want to drop on the floor and cry. But then again, when a patient smiles and says he/she feels a lot better and thanks us for all that we’ve done for them… it makes even the most busy/crappy days seem brighter. More fulfilling. I’m happy for you, that you finally decided to get into medical school. If you’re there, then you’re there for a reason. Yes, we all have those days… good and bad, but it’s all part of the package. Just as long as something good comes out of it, then there’s no need to worry. Here’s to you, Doc! πŸ˜‰

    Medical school is yet a dream for me still.. hehehe.. πŸ™‚

  2. ShoujoKakumei said,

    February 15, 2007 at 11:01 pm

    Wow. The first day of gross lab is something I’m heavily anticipating when(if!) I get into med school. I say anticipating because I’m not sure if I’m dreading it or not. o_o

    I’m an undergrad psych major, wanting to get into psychiatry and psychopharmacology and that sort of thing, not exactly medical fields that require cutting people up much in practice, so I guess I’m a bit ambivalent on the subject, and reading other people’s first experiences in gross lab is very interesting to me. πŸ™‚

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