Reflecting on the anatomy theatre …

First-year medical student creative writing assignments on anatomy:


Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 23.27.42I assumed when undertaking the anatomy dissection course that the strangest part would not be the dissection but the fact that we would be working on actual human specimens. I thought there was a strange sense of morbidity attached to educating someone who’s job it would eventually be to enhance and often prolong human life with bodies medicine may have failed. However upon beginning the course I have realised that this is not the case. The most unusual aspect in my point of view is the casual manner with which we all approach Anatomy, the relaxed and easygoing conversion that flows through the dissection theatre is natural yet one would think it out of place.

The donor bodies are often referred to as our silent teachers however they are never greeted with silence, be it the hum of chatter or the clank of our metal tools noise swells the dissection theatre to fill what would only be an eerie silence making the overall experience for students comfortable and and a place where learning comes easier.

Flicking through netters, there are thousands of images but none stand out. The memory however of holding a human heart is hard to forget. Its size, bigger than a human fist, the rough lumpy fat globules that cover the outer layers which contrast with the smooth almost silky lining of the inner vessels, and the dull red colour of its vessels is something that will stick in a student’s mind forever. It is undoubtedly an invaluable experience which enhances our ability as students to fully understand what it is we are learning.


Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 23.31.15“In order to learn the most important lessons of life, one must each day surmount a fear.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Leonardo Da Vinci once said; “Our Life is made by the death of others”. In order for my life as a medical student to begin, someone on this earth had to die. I wondered, as I queued up behind another white coat, where my “person” was when I was born, when I made my First Communion,  when I found out Santa wasn’t real? I pictured what their life was like as a mother, a father, a golf enthusiast who dreamed of attending the Ryder Cup someday. Flickers of an imagined life ran through my head as we filed into the dissection room. For some reason I wasn’t afraid or nervous. Seeing the white sheet only brought back memories. I had already been in this situation before. My uncle was under the same infamous white sheet when I had to identify him with my dad in the morgue after his car crash. Having experienced that, I was prepared for anything. Nothing phased me to be perfectly honest, the smell, the eerie silence, death. Certainly I wasn’t prepared for the dissecting itself, but the initial exposure was just a silent reminder of what I had witnessed before.

What affected me more than the dead body itself was the idea that this was someone’s wife or mother, best friend or neighbour. The thought of the family and the huge void left behind was something that struck a chord deep within me. I felt a sudden surge of emotion stir inside me – for I had been the one left behind before, and I could somehow empathise with this woman’s family, wherever they were.

We were immediately flung into the deep end and the only way we could tread water was by picking up the scalpel and cutting. At the start I felt protective of this woman, I was afraid for her but I didn’t know why. I knew it had to be done and that she wanted us to do it, but I still felt like I was intruding on something – on her life, her personality, who she was. However, as the weeks went on, she began to resemble less of a person and I suddenly began to understand what the American novelist Chuck Palahniuk meant when he said “We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever; the goal is to create something that will.” By donating her body and allowing us to dissect it and learn from it I believe my “person” has left something behind that will live on forever – it’ll live on through me and my medical career.


Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 13.41.02Under-the-blankets-with-flashlights Friday Nights.

“Hey Tommy, can you tell me a scary story?

– Yeah, let me tell you about this place. It’s all white: the walls, the tables, the machines. Everything is white. And then there are these windows through which a genie-blue light emanates: no park or busy street down below to look at. It’s almost as though you were trapped underwater. No one knows why they’re like that – keep people in or keep others out? There are also a lot of books, strewn around, all yellow, grey and ripped. The ground is speckled blue and you know the only reason they chose it was because of how easy it would be to clean up if an accident ever occurred. And then, there are the ghosts.

– Ghosts?!

– No, no. They’re not the ones who scare people. They’re the ones who are actually afraid.

– What? Why?

– Because their bodies are covered by stiff, wrinkled and crackly plastic sheets. The few moments when it does get lifted, they’re staring straight up at white, sterile monster-machines that look like Doc Ock, with prying arms bent at awkward angles around their core. Their only companions are smirking skeletons who have long since grown accustomed to the chilling air that wraps around their bones and the dull humming in the background. They know they shouldn’t be afraid, they know they’re here for a good reason, but when they turn their heads and see the grey veterinarian tables next to them, they can’t help but retreat as deeply as possible into their skin.


Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 13.44.44‘Life in the Dead’
Only now, during this still, somber quiet do I feel the eerie presence of ‘the 12’
Only now do I feel the hollow eyes of the spooky skeleton, glaring at me,
What was once a stimulating sculpture is now but a clumsy collection of shapes.
For only now does it all feel so crude
This room full of sarcophagi, their impersonal bumps and crevices,
The insensitive obituaries “Bill, 85, COPD”
The pristine machinery, barely used;
Or the scalpels, laying ominously beneath their test dummies.
“Who in their right mind would lay themselves to rest here?”
However, this feeling of omnipotent uneasiness is precisely what focuses my mind,
It is in this unusual graveyard that I learn the most,
It is here that I reap the benefits of these selfless sacrifices to knowledge,
Perhaps I have not yet tasted enough of the drink of life, to know that death is not so sour, that this discomfort is not justified.
For only now do I realise that all this gives life to ‘the 12’
Life that inspires curiosity
Life that elicits epiphany
Life that empowers others to feed the weary its fabulous essence
Even when it seems furthest away…

Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 14.02.44The Irony of George

George lies in the name of science
in a room with strangers
whom he never met or never will  know
He feels neither pain nor pleasure, just very low

They come in the name of science
They see him and they nod
But every ticking second turns glitter from gloom
And they forget George was his name.

Once, he gave trust in the name of science
And in white coats they played God
They assured and yet they failed
Yet now George was at their aid


Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 14.05.38The place was brighter, cleaner than I initially expected it to be; a synergy of a morgue, surgical theatre, classroom and a cinema all rolled into one room. Sitting there staring, reflecting, the white sheet remains motionless, like fallen snow it weaves only the bear contours of what lies beneath and of what once stood of a beautiful landscape. In that time I wondered about my first anatomy experience and what it means to grow, learn, achieve, and finally become a cadaver. Having just come from an all night TV marathon of ‘The Walking Dead’, the first time I entered that room I was very anxious but acutely prepared to see a body devoid of its humanity and excited about the panorama of discovery that will be viewed in this room over the coming year. I wondered why he donated his body? What were his motives? Was the end painful for him?

As the sheet was removed, I stood transfixed; absorbing every detail -my first patient’s skin was white, smooth and very cold, a marvelous marble statue to a lost hero. He was thin with signs of bruising along his arm – the result of countless hospital injections. At that point I wondered what his life was like, did he marry, did he have children? Our first task was to dissect the muscles of his chest and shoulders. This was it, I still couldn’t believe we were going to cut open a human being. Who is this guy? What did he like to laugh about? What did he cry about? As the scalpel surgically makes a trailing pathway through the skin down his chest, I am careful not to cut too deep in fear of damaging the vista beneath. His skin is slowly peeled away and I look and see what it means to be a cadaver, a person that was once a man. Muscles, heart, lungs liver, kidneys, stomach – they were all present. Dreams, goals, hopes, aspirations, love – they had passed on. What lies here now are merely the tools used to sustain life’s elements, a parting gift sculpted by the chisels of time and donated to education.


Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 14.16.50Before the words lecture, tutorial or even welcome had been spoken, we were rushed to the anatomy lab. My first thoughts of the room were that it was too quiet, too impeccable, too new. It’s funny looking back, because at the time, I also thought that my new classmates, in the dissection room with me that day, were too quiet, too impeccable.

Apprehension was the primary feeling amongst us. We were all eager to make a good first impression in front of our new classmates, our future friends. Fear wasn’t allowed. We were in med school now- looking at these donor bodies was soon going to be an everyday occurrence. Everyone tried to look brave. Nobody wanted to be ‘that girl’ or ‘that guy’- the one who fainted when he or she entered the anatomy lab for the first time.

It was my first time seeing a dead body, except that of my grandmother’s. That was different though. She was dressed in her Sunday best, her hair done and her makeup on. She wasn’t frightening. In this vast, unfamiliar, and chemical smelling room lay 12 dead bodies, unclothed, with only their towels and plastic coverings protecting us from the fear of failure. What if I couldn’t handle seeing what lay underneath? What if I found doing the dissections too gruesome? What if I failed at the only thing I had ever wanted to do?

Only four months later and I look at the anatomy lab through new eyes. It is no longer daunting. It is where new friends were made. It is where we laugh and chat. It is where we study what we ached to learn, what we came here to learn. The 12 donor bodies are no longer just dead bodies. They have identities and they have meaning. They are men and women that gave their bodies, so that we could go on to become exceptional doctors. It is no longer too quiet, too impeccable or too new. To my distaste however, it’s still as bad smelling as ever.


The Graveyard

Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 14.18.24The graveyard is like no other, neither gloomy nor spooky. The smell. The environment. The sight. Everything is different. The grave is bright. Everything is white. From the floor and the wall, to labcoats and gloves, even the cover sheets for the cadavers. Everything is white. Maybe, so the students could stay bright, but not to feel fright. It is a grave, where the medic students have to learn, from the outermost skin of the body to the innermost complex organs, from the largest femur to the tiny little sesamoid bone. It is a grave that the medic students should fall in love with. Even the grave is full with creepy skeletons staring at them but yet they still come often. Even the striking smell of formaldehyde destroys their nose but it will eventually become addictive instead. And the corpse, will always wait faithfully on their grave for the students to come, giving every bit that they could so the students could one day be a doctor. So yeah, this is the graveyard, totally like no other.


Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 14.38.55

Cold spills out like an open hotel door
Every fake skeleton’s missing a limb
Near open boxes full of people’s bones
The closest to strangers they’ve ever been

Every skeleton is missing something
By crusty old copies of Netter’s map
This is the closest to strangers we’ll be
The dentist smell just seems inadequate

Thick yellowed books like unanswered letters
Spotlights on elbows that never inflame
The dentist smell with no sense of judgement
And no shade of white plastic is the same

Spotlights on hinge joints make do for the sky
By open boxes spilling people’s bones
Where no shade of white plastic is the same
And cold falls out of the old hotel door


The Dissection Room

The white walls, the bright lights, the stainless steel surfaces, one may confuse this room for a hospital ward; however no patient is going to be discharged from here. Then bang; it hits you, the poignant aroma of decaying flesh combined with a concoction of chemicals; stomach turning, nauseating, almost overpowering, however, to the experienced anatomist it is somewhat familiar.

In each bay, beneath the white plastic tarps, they lie, stiff, cold, lifeless, preserved in time, positioned as they lay during embalming. They lie as though asleep; however will never awaken; for they are now in an eternal slumber.

Accompanying each cadaver is a brief description outlining their name, their age, and their cause of death, but one can only wonder; how they might have lived?, where had they be from?, what had they been like?. However we choose to disregard such details, as thinking of them may make the task at hand somewhat more difficult.

Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 18.36.26Although we can try overlooking the facts, we cannot however ignore the valuable contribution that these individuals are making to our training, we should feel privileged that they have given us an opportunity to attain a greater insight into the inner workings of the human body, knowledge that will hopefully stay to us for our entirety of our medical careers. For it is said that “knowledge is power” and to truly be an expert in something; one must first fully understand it and how it works. Just like an experienced horologist needs to comprehend the inner workings of a clock, we need to fully understand of the inner workings of the human body and appreciate how it ticks.

However I can’t but wonder; if these individuals had been fully aware of the fate that lay in store for the bodies. Had they envisioned, that on a weekly basis, five to ten overly enthusiastic students using an array of weaponry to cut fascia, sever muscles and break bone. Like a bunch of excited children on Christmas morning, ripping through the wrapping on their presents to discover what wonders lay inside, all in the name of exploration, all in the name of medicine.

But one may ask “is this really medicine?”, “is the purpose of medicine not to treat, to heal, to help?” Is the practice of dissection not a bit abstract from the grand scheme of modern medicine?, was their sacrifice truly worth it? only time will tell.

Probably the greatest testament to their gift will be how we apply this knowledge to help others.


What’s disconcerting in a dissection theatre isn’t necessarily the jury of twelve cadavers or the startlingly clean smell and feel of the place. Rather, it’s a mishmash of the two.

The moment you enter, the smell of formaldehyde is almost overwhelming but it fades so quickly you almost forget you ever noticed it at all. Until, in a lonely of intense concentration, it comes rushing back on the tail of the new smell, of sweat and evaporating fat.

When working at a table, it’s so easy to see yourself as a butcher, fixated on and meticulously carving up the slab of flesh in front of you.

Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 23.47.47It’s so surreal, therefore, when it all comes crashing back to sentimentality.

“Did Pamela have any children?” I wondered of my last donor. “What kind of life did she have?” “What does death feel like?” The banal and the profound aspects of life mesh and grind with the visceral reality of what was once alive before you and the sense of shame for momentarily forgetting these questions takes over – for me, at least.

That’s not to imply I’m above all the laughter surrounding the table. The humour in the theatre is shockingly bleak: “Death hilarious”, to quote Cormac McCarthy. Apparently it’s a coping mechanism, for dealing with the arguably traumatic scenes we see but whatever it is, the strangled laughs at a poorly cracked pun about the donor giving us a leg up or such hint at an emotional charge to the proceedings that we, as somewhat arrogant youths would try to deny.



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