Nautilus

You Can’t Dissect a Virtual Cadaver

Last year, my first in medical school at Columbia University, I used a bone saw to slice through the top half of a cadaver’s skull, revealing a gray brain lined with purple blood vessels. This was Clinical Gross Anatomy, the first-year course that has fascinated or devastated (or both) every medical student. You never forget the day you open the skull.

Cutting into the brain, unlike the muscles of a forearm or the arteries running down a thigh, feels personal. As a cloud of aerosolized bone dust particles darkened overhead, reinforced by the thickening smell of singed bone, I wondered how much of my donor’s body I was inhaling. How much of that dust would be engulfed by the immune cells in my respiratory system? And how much of the dust would linger in my airways until my grave?

The physical body is messier, but it’s also easier to manipulate. Perception is lost without that physicality.

It was the culmination of months of learning to be comfortable with the body in front of us, a process that accumulated in small pauses between tasks, before digging in with tweezers and a scalpel. How does it feel to hold someone’s lifeless hands for the first time? How do you respectfully flip the body over to crack open the spine? We were required to face these emotions head on, perhaps out of fear

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