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Anatomy lab

Students recall fear and fascination on first day

In honor of those who gave so much of themselves for the betterment of others. Your memory will live on not only in those who loved you, but also in those who received your precious gift.

- Engraved on a bench donated by the Class of 2006 that now sits in the Memorial

An overcast day a week before the Thanksgiving holiday found 48 second-year students gathered in a circle at Forest Lawn Cemetery. At the foot of a hill, in a low-lying glen, the students remembered and thanked those who had donated their bodies to medical science.

The generosity of those donors had shaped the students’ first year of medical school — sometimes in dramatic ways — in the confines of the anatomy lab. Often regarded as the first patient a medical student encounters, the cadaver is invaluable in helping medical students develop a ‘visual picture’ of the body’s three-dimensional structure and ultimately understand its functions.

Anatomy lab

As they stood facing one another across their circle, the students reminded each other of the first day they walked into the anatomy lab. They recalled their fascination — even infatuation — with learning, but also the fear that came with tackling something they’d never done before.

One student remarked that in the lab, they found greater opportunities for learning than ever before, but with that came greater responsibility. His classmates wondered if those who chose to donate their bodies had any idea of the detail and intensity with which they would be studied. “They entrusted us with this gift. They are amazing people to choose to do that.”

For different students, different parts of the body presented particular challenges. For some, the foot reminded them — again — that the cadaver had once been a living being. For another it was the perfectly painted pink fingernails she found when they began the dissection of the hand.

Though she did not know the cadaver’s given name, she called her Julia because “it’s such a pretty name.” But she knew from her study of Julia’s organ systems that the elderly lady had not been in good enough health to have painted her nails so carefully herself. Instead, the manicure was evidence that someone had loved her, and taken thoughtful care of her. Just as the student and her family do for her grandmother now, when they take her out for a manicure.

Though their days in the anatomy lab concluded more than 11 months ago, the students say that they still remember lessons learned there. Another course, Foundations of Clinical Medicine, takes the students into the community to preceptors’ primary care offices. There, one student meets patients who complain of problems with their rotator cuff. Because of the hours spent in the anatomy lab, “I can picture the rotator cuff, I know what it looks like and how it is supposed to work.”

The students work in teams through the 80 hours of scheduled time in the M1 lab. And most students double that time commitment by going back to the lab in the evenings or early in the morning. That time spent together forges strong bonds among team members and study partners.

Those relationships get their start on the very first day in the lab — a day that, for some, proves to be the hardest of the entire course. Remembering their difficulties in confronting the cadavers for the first time, students thanked their classmates for coming alongside them and encouraging them.

With temperatures hovering around 40 degrees, surrounded by tall oaks and standing in the crisp leaves that had recently fallen, the students voiced what a privilege it had been to study in the anatomy lab and — on a broader scale — to pursue their medical degree. “Not many people get to do this.”

Cadavers used in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology are obtained through the State Anatomical Program, which is administered through the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. The vast majority of these are donated by individuals and families with a deep interest in furthering the causes of science and medical education. For contact information on body donation, visit http://www.anatomy.vcu.edu/contact/index.html or www.vdh.state.va.us/medexam/donate.htm.