Ambivalence

Akshay Shanker

Lewis Katz School of Medicine Class of 2020

The first day of Anatomy was a strange mixture of two worlds—of nervousness and expedience, of caring but ultimately not. I remember being stressed not only about the assignment we had to do that day, but about the experience of being in a room with dozens of people who had perished in the near past. I changed out of my normal clothes, put on my blue scrubs, walked through the sea of formaldehyde, and started to wear gloves and a gown as if I was a surgeon scrubbing into a routine procedure. Inside though, I had no idea what to expect. In clear and concise language, our dissection guide told us that “the trapezius and rhomboid muscles should be separated from their origins on the vertebral spinous processes and reflected laterally toward their insertions to expose the thoracolumbar fascia.”

Scalpels and scissors in hand, we begin delving into the layers of our donor’s back as if nothing significant had happened. After all, we were medical students now; we had a goal to accomplish and a lab to get through. Despite how many times I told myself it was, it just didn’t feel real…perhaps I have not had enough experience with anybody terminally ill in my family to realize that, for all intents and purposes, the person laying on our table could easily be them. There was a 22-year-old two rooms over; his hands may have grasped the same iPhone or his feet may have walked in the same shoes.

It is both a privilege and a form of professional development to act maturely around such a surreal subject. Many of us had come straight from undergraduate colleges, our last real commitments involving cramming for papers and enjoying drinks with friends. Suddenly, a few weeks into medical school, I was holding a brain at 9 A.M on a Thursday, using my thoughts to conceptualize the fact that I was holding an entire lifetime’s worth of desires, tribulations, childhood memories, and experiences within my palms. We become eerily aware of physiological variances within our donor’s body, not realizing how these processes may act in our own as we progress through medical training as well.

“…for the most part, I didn’t feel anything.”

But before acting as if I became some philosopher throughout the course of this class, I will be honest and say that for the most part, I didn’t feel anything. At times, I had short feelings of revulsion, but those were more than compensated by the many instances where I found myself feeling numb during things as serious as bisecting a skull.

 

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