Nervus Intermedius-How Gross Anatomy Almost Made A Cadaver Of Me-Part 1

I never considered it cheating. I thought of it as being resourceful, showing initiative. When I began medical school, the world of medical education was in the process of tremendous upheaval. A completely new model was replacing the old system. No longer would students study in turn anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology etc. The new program would be integrative: the cardiovascular system would be studied in all its facets at once—its anatomy, its physiology, and the rest. It was based on some wild new idea that people learned better when information was presented within a conceptual framework with some meaning attached to it, rather than having truckloads of disembodied facts rammed down their throats.

Unfortunately for my classmates and me, my school was having none of it. “It worked for us, it will work for you.” They, meaning the stodgy administration and imperious preclinical faculty, resisted like wounded beasts and finally conceded only after an ultimatum: revamp the curriculum or face a withdrawal of federal funding. It took effect at the matriculation of the class behind us, so we were doomed to slog through the same fetid swamp of information as our soul-crushed forebears.

Knowing this bit of political history, it was interesting to begin classes and actually meet these recalcitrant dinosaurs in the flesh — to look into the eyes of these venerable PhDs who sought to wrest us from the grip of modernity.

Medical school began with the most universally feared course in the curriculum: gross anatomy. It was yearlong and not passing meant retaking the entire year. The professors were, for the most part, grizzled ectomorphs who looked to have cut their teeth on the same corpses as Leonardo Da Vinci. The single youngish professor became an object of pity for me as I contemplated the drudgery of his life in an academic field effectively unchanged for centuries. They were apparently involved in research, but it is hard to imagine what they could possibly have been investigating. It was gross anatomy, what’s new? “Counting the fingers: a multivariate statistical approach.” Or, perhaps, “The feet: further evidence that they are to be found at the end of the legs.”

Each student was issued a bone box. This was a small black trunk with a handle containing an entire human skeleton. I sat for hours in my apartment turning the bones over and over, trying to learn the dozens of named ridges, projections, and bumps each bone contained. It somehow managed not to seem creepy having bones all over my apartment. Or, I should say, not to me.

My first visitor was Sarah, a friend from high school. “How do you sleep with these in your house? I mean, if you get up to pee and you’re half-asleep, and you pass an arm on your dining table? I mean a person, was a person, and…” I held forth to her on becoming inured to such things from sheer exposure – the professional distance – the systematic denial of human spirit in student and subject alike. She wasn’t buying. “I could never, I mean never have these in my space. Never.” I tried to explain that in the scheme of my current life, some dried out bones barely registered a blip on the disturbometer.

Continued Tomorrow

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