Nervus Intermedius-How Gross Anatomy Almost Made A Cadaver Of Me-Part 4

Yes, the written exams were children’s puzzles — comparatively stress-free accountings of our scholastic progress. What really filled our hearts with dread, what kept us up late picking through the stinking organs of our cadavers was the practical exam.

You arrive at the anatomy lab as close to the appointed time as possible so as to avoid soaking up too much of the frantic, hyperverbal, fidgety stress energy of the early arrivals. The doors open. The rules are explained. You have one minute at each of the fifty stations after which, a bell will ring and you must move on. Each station has a specimen with a series of small flags pinned to structures of interest. Answer the questions associated with each flag. Touch nothing.

This last bit was clearly included to discourage some students’ nasty little habit of sabotaging exams for others in order to improve their own place on the grading curve.

Our knowing the anatomy was just a jumping off point for the noble sadists who were our faculty. You see a flag and recognize the structure, relief washes over you until you realize you must answer a convoluted question about that structure. Ding! You move on lest the super intense, bespectacled classmate coming in behind you encourages you forward with a forearm shiver.

Next station: muscles of the anterior thigh. But so much has been stripped away it takes most of the time allotted just to get your bearings. Ding! On and on. Joints disjointed, tiny bits of disembodied tissue without a clue to its origins, things confusingly twisted out of position.

It really wasn’t about learning anatomy. It was about performing under the most stressful conditions that could be mustered, about bridling one’s fear, but also just about meanness. Like the family abusers who were themselves abused, the cycle was propagated. And it would be our job to punish the next generation for having the temerity to think they could master the material. Oh, and if you fail any practical exam, you fail the course even though your overall average might be adequate. Sorry. Ding!

And, what’s more, I had a handicap. A learning disability really, though in academic matters it rarely surfaced. I have no sense of direction. As a child, I would become lost in my own elementary school building, trying to retrace my steps and feeling ever more frantic as I kept passing the same damned fire extinguisher and obviously making no progress. Or I’d be running happily with a group of older kids until they turned the block and disappeared leaving me unable to recall how we had reached that corner or how to return.

Over time, I taught myself how to use landmarks and to meticulously log the details of important routes. Even today, if I cross a street and enter a store, when I exit, if I forget that I crossed the street, it will feel very natural for me to walk in the wrong direction.

In time, I realized that the problem was generally a weakness of spatial orientation. In organic chemistry, as an undergrad, I struggled to imagine a complex three-dimensional molecule in my head in order to create its mirror image. With time I could manage it. And I had time. It was college. Sitting comfortably at my desk I would practice working the molecule over and around in my mind. It was akin to learning your neighborhood, where taking on human anatomy was trying to memorize a three-dimensional world atlas, then recreating it amidst the bells and frantic med student murmuring of the anatomy practical.

It was the end of the year. Several of our colleagues had already succumbed and would be taking the entire course again. Their pathetic specters hung low over the dissecting tables as we made preparations for the final exam. It was to include all the new material as well as stations reviewing the vast entirety of what we had learned. I had passed the last practical by a single question. I had no wiggle room.

Continued Tomorrow

Published in: on December 10, 2006 at 12:33 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Spatial orientation – now there’s something that you don’t come across that often. How are you on depth perception, tracking and the like?
    I have no ‘internal compass’ but I think that’s common enough.

  2. All perceptual abilities are normal. It has to do with orientation and manipulating space in my mind. Thanks for stopping by. Dr. Nostrum

  3. Glad you’re normal – I’m seriously considering installing GPS [in my brain]

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