Nervus Intermedius-How Gross Anatomy Almost Made A Cadaver Of Me-Part 3

After taking Sarah on a tour of the special dissection room, with its heads on the half-shell and mangled limbs of various sorts, we went back to my apartment to make dinner. Sarah had really come around. In that short time, she had managed to develop a thin coating against the horror of dead human flesh. She was hungry. That was a very good sign, though I would wonder years later if our time together contributed to her turn to veganism. As I washed up for dinner, I could hear Sarah in the kitchen. “Could you give the pasta sauce a stir?” I yelled out to her. “Sure,” she said. “Where’s the femur?”

By far the most formidable and imposing of the professors was a tall, weathered Englishwoman named Dr. Phyllis Markham, who sounded uncannily like Julia Child. She would wander the hangar-sized dissecting lab pointing to the vagus nerve in one cadaver, the descending colon in another, her voice undulating through a range of octaves and drifting harmfully through the formaldehyde-thick air. As she approached a table, you could just about hear every orifice, down to the pores of their goose-fleshed skin, closing up like little clams as the students dropped their scalpels and forceps and stood rapt before this august inquisitor, hoping not to be the one asked to expound for example on the course of the facial nerve.

I for one used these moments to spend time in a place I referred to as Julia’s Kitchen. I hoped my vacant stare would render me invisible, and as the anatomy professor gestured toward a puddle of peritoneal fat, what I heard her say was, “look at the beautiful marbling of this roast.”

Dr. Markham was perhaps pointing at clots of thymus, but in her warm, fragrant kitchen, Dr. Julia was pointing to “these lovely chanterelles, just perfect for a wonderful Champignons en Poisson.”

Dr. Markham was unnervingly cheery. It was disturbing to observe someone so happy and content in their gruesome work. It seemed to me that she viewed the world as the Big Anatomy Lab. People were all still-living cadavers, just potential fodder waiting to enlighten and torture the next generation of med students. Even for me it was becoming difficult, when I encountered moribund patients, not to imagine them laid out on our slab, their sinews dull and grey. But I jettisoned these thoughts from my mind like you would an image of your grandparents copulating. Dr. Markham seemed to embrace it all. She was a machine.

Anatomy was so hard, such an unbelievable crush of information. It was also part of an ancient hazing ritual. We were young academic overachievers. We were used to being faced by enormous quantities of material, and given enough time and effort as undergrads it could always be mastered. Here it was impossible. No matter how you studied and went over your cadaver, and imagined every angle of every bone, and every muscle that inserted on it, and nerve that curved around it, and blood vessels branching here, and lymph nodes snuggled there, exam questions would be asked that threw you.

“In an unusual variant of the course of the oculomotor nerve, it passes below rather than above the superior cerebellar artery. Which of the following ten structures would it therefore not pass on its journey to and through the cavernous sinus?” The eyes glazed, the heart raced as one contemplated doing this all over again the next year. Precious time frittered away as visions of weeping parents and homelessness began to dull an already enfeebled mind. And that was the easy part.

Continued Tomorrow

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