What It's Like to Take Anatomy Lab

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A medical student answers questions about what it was like to take anatomy lab in medical school.

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Jocelyn Carnicle

Undergraduate: University of Texas at San Antonio
Major: microbiology/immunology
Medical School: Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso Paul L. Foster School of Medicine, 2021

When did you first begin classes in the anatomy lab? How often are you there?

My school does it a little less traditionally. Instead of doing all of anatomy in the first 8 weeks of medical school, we have anatomy labs relevant to what we are learning throughout our first two years. For example, if we are in the GI unit and learning about nausea and vomiting that week, we will have an anatomy lab session that week to learn about foregut structures like the stomach, duodenum, spleen and pancreas.  We typically return to the anatomy lab about twice a month, sometimes more often if we are in heavier anatomy based units like musculoskeletal medicine. Each session in the anatomy lab lasts about 4 hours.

What do you hear, see, and notice in the lab?

The very first time entering the anatomy lab is unforgettable, and a memory still clearly etched in my mind. Hushed whispers and everyone making small talk nervously outside before walking in. Looking at the ‘tank group’ lists on the doors and finding the partners who will be standing next to me at a metal tank for the next two years.

The first thing that I noticed as I walked in was the unforgettable smell of formaldehyde and the bright lights reflecting off the metal tanks. Formaldehyde is not a disgusting smell of decay, just a very distinct preservative smell that tends to linger and stick to your nose after being in the lab. (Showering and then smelling coffee grounds is a good recipe to ‘unstick’ that smell when you leave the gross anatomy lab.)

After walking in, our tank group gathered around tank 6, preparing to meet “our” body. We looked around the room anxiously until finally our eyes notice the papers hanging from the tank. It listed the donor’s first name, his occupation, and cause of death. He died of lung cancer at 74 years old after working as a physician assistant.

Now, after an entire year of anatomy we know the inner workings of how our donor’s body works, like the route of where each of his nerves supply and interconnect with one another, how he had his gallbladder removed, and we even knew that he had a massive liver when he passed away. But we don’t know who he was as a person.

What kind of assignments did you get?

We start our anatomy lab sessions with a short readiness quiz; this is to make sure you have prepared for what you are going to be looking at that day. Once the lab actually starts, we divide into our 4-6 student tank groups. We have a clipboard of questions to answer together as a group every lab. These questions typically include innervations and the functions of each structure to guide our time in the lab, even though the questions are not graded. Additionally, our anatomy professors and TAs walk around the room to help us.

After we have completed the gross anatomy lab portion, we go into the room next door to go over clinically relevant work cases with our tank group. We are allowed to work together to answer anatomy questions about the cases, which really helps solidify what we are learning and how it may present in a clinical setting. After everything is over we are sent the tag list of what we saw that day along with the answers to the questions we went through in gross lab. Nothing else is mandatory but it’s always a good idea to look at the question answers and to also check out the anatomy lab website to do the practice post lab questions to help retain the large amount of information covered in each anatomy lab.

Do you have any advice for someone nervous about working in the lab?

We are all nervous on that first day of anatomy lab. We are nervous about the way we may react to seeing a cadaver for the first time, we are nervous that we didn’t prepare appropriately, and we are nervous we may become desensitized to death. Anatomical dissection elicits a number of diverse experiences and emotions for those who have the opportunity to take part. Embrace the process. Mistakes are bound to happen and that is okay. Find pride in that you are participating in the very tradition that has trained thousands of physicians before you and never forget the generosity of the gift you received. Know someone out there donated their body to science because they believed in you and believed that your knowledge of medicine would make a difference to society.

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