The first day of Gross Anatomy. This morning I put the hundredth mile on my second tank of gas. I put on old clothes. I had already made a trip to my locker at the Gross Lab building, so my coat and goggles and gloves awaited me. I packed my computer (et cetera) for morning classes, and left.
We had a late arrival and a short lecture before lunch. I had packed lunch and dinner because I planned to stay into the evening in the library to study. My lunch was a ham and cheese sandwich, which I ate as I reviewed the lab material (and copied ebooks off of one of my classmates’ USB keys). I felt all sick and solid inside, but tried to act normal and eat. It was a good thing the ham was the sliced-super-thin kind: it didn’t look much like muscle. And I tried to eat sort of fast, so that I could be finished (and have things into my duodenum) before the dissection.
Everyone I spoke to was excited. Some were excited but a little apprehensive, like I am before TAC finals. Some were excited and impatient—“I just wanna cut” was one man’s phrase. I found that repulsive, even though that’s how I was before cat dissections in college. (For the record, I never said, anything like “I just wanna cut.”)
I was only afraid, but I kept saying “excited” when people asked me. I wonder whether others were afraid.
We went into the lab. I felt like we were going to gas chambers: all lined up in a hallway, going in grouplets of six or nine into the Lab’s anteroom. (The anteroom , I believe is a precaution to protect the identity of those who donate their bodies. You must go through the first door into the anteroom, then wait for the first door to close before opening the door to the Lab. As a result, the suspense of the First Entry was hiked up to ridiculously high levels.) We must scan an ID to open the door, even during Lab hours. (After hours, we must scan it just to get into the building.)
I had seen the lab once, during interviews. It did not seem real then—just another room we were touring. All the tanks were closed (as they were when we walked in), and I didn’t give a thought to what was inside. Now, my brain was full of those thoughts. In each tank—a metal coffin on wheels surmounted by a computer stand—was a body. And I knew that they would look like the cats I’d dissected: stiff, strange, skeletal. Like death.
My tankmates raised our cadaver. (you depress levers at the head and foot of each tank to raise the body off the floor of the coffin and up to an operating-table height.) The body was covered in a thin white towel—thin enough so that they body could clearly be seen, especially the bonier prominences: long feet, knobby knees, the iliac crests, the ribs, shoulders, and the face. I was standing at the left shoulder of the body, and saw where the towel did not quite cover the left arm. It was a white arm with many dark freckles and fair, course hair. I knew it to be the arm of an older person. And I knew that our cadaver was a male from the outline beneath the towel. (Because the first dissection is the anterior chest, I was hoping that I would not be assigned to a female’s body.)
We had orientation for a long while, then the lab began. I wanted to busy myself fetching a computer for us to use, but I couldn’t delay the inevitable. Because I was at the head of the tank, I helped pull the towel off of the body to the waist. (The head, hands, and feet) were still wrapped in gauze; for this, I was very grateful.)
The smell invaded me. I felt ill and weak. I felt that it would be wonderful to lose consciousness, wake up, and find out that I would never have to do this again: you’re not in medical school, you’re here in the novitiate—what funny dreams you have! Nothing went away. I did not want to touch the body, but because of some funny streak in me I think I was the second to palpate the jugular notch and sternal angle. But throughout the entire lab, I was distracted and silent. I could tell that my tankmates gathered that I was timid and shy by nature, because their suggestions and tones were trying to gently tease me out. (“Here, you try; right there. Hey, that’s great. There you go!”)
The lab was mercifully short, because there weren’t many structures to identify, and one my tankmates has done human anatomy with cadaver dissection before. I went to wash my hands and could not wash them enough. I must have washed for a full minute (at least.) and after I left the lab and hung my coat in my locker, I went to the ladies’ room and washed my hands again.
I put a scrub top over my T-shirt and went to Mass. I slumped in the back of the church because I felt unclean. My mind was full of bodies and death, and those two ideas feature rather prominently in the Mass. This did not help me. After Mass, I sat, crumpled in my pew, and cried.
Two girls were sitting about ten pews in front of me, talking and laughing quietly. How interesting our lives are! When we are in heaven the three of us will look at this day and say that though our days were so different and our emotions so various, we were both sharing those minutes with Christ, all alone with His Heart.
After that, the day wound down. I went to the medical sciences library. I had no appetite at all, but realized that my packed dinner had gotten too warm to rerefrigerate at home. So I ate it in the café (which is undergoing construction or something—there’s some lovely exposed drywall where they ripped out the counters and food prep area entirely). The previous weekend, I’d made up dinners for the whole week and I’d brought one of these.
I am stupid. I knew that we would have our first Gross Anatomy lab. I knew that we would dissect the pectoral region. What did I pack? Chicken breast.
It was dry and bland and awful, and it made me sick and solid inside again. I didn’t even have a knife.
I dragged myself upstairs to study, and sunk into one of the big, poofy lounge chairs in the silent study area. What relief after standing for four hours in lab! I studied until ten and forgot all about it. I went home; Vespers was comforting; and I fell into bed.