Quick and dirty guide to medical school: Anatomy

March 24, 2007 at 1:16 am (1st and 2nd year)

For many first-year medical students, anatomy is the daunting right of passage that introduces them to the medical profession.  Courses such as biochemistry and genetics require lots of outside studying, but only anatomy brings with it the cadaver lab.  I remember wearing the scrubs and going into the lab for the first time.  The nervousness of the first cut.  The smell of the formaldehyde.  The chill in the room from a thermostat that was set in the 60’s.  For many students, the stench alone is overwhelming.  At many schools, the anatomy lab is in the basement of the building where the smell lingers long after the course is over.  At my university, the lab is on the top floor.  We have a negative pressure machine that sucks out the bad air and brings in fresh air.  It’s kind of like Tai chi: out with the bad air, in with the good.  While the lab doesn’t quite smell like Calvin Klein, it doesn’t burn my nostrils whenever I walk in.

Whenever I give tours to applicants who are interviewing, I’m always asked about the student:body ratio.  To this day, I do not understand why the student:body ratio is so important.  I’ve never met someone who says, “I picked the University of Virginia because it has such a small ratio.”  I advise applicants to go to the school with the largest student:body ratio.  Lab consists of a lot of cutting and scraping fascia.  You want as many students as possible so that you’ll have to spend less time in the lab.  Much of that time could be better spent studying.

I personally disliked anatomy.  The course involves tons of memorization with little effort to correlate material with disease.  I would rather see schools move away from cadaver labs and employ radiographs for teaching anatomy.  No physician—not even a surgeon—will have to know the type of anatomy that is taught in medical school.  Further, much of that information will be lost as soon as the final exam is over.  With radiographs, however, we can ensure that the material is more useful.  Every doctor—including primary care docs—need to know how to interpret X-rays and MRI’s.  By using radiographs, students could set aside more time to studying anatomy, and less time to cutting on dead bodies.

Lots of people have difficulty wrapping their heads around anatomy.  I’m certainly not the person who should be giving out advice on studying for the subject.  I can say that there are numerous resources available online that can give you reviews and practice quizzes.  But even with these websites, you’re going to have to spend a lot of time repeatedly going over the material.

There is a trend at some medical schools to adopt a closing ceremony at the end of the course.  Since you’ve just violated a cadaver in the worst way, schools figure that you need to be reminded that you’ve been working on people—someone’s father or daughter or sister.  Whenever someone dies, the family goes through a grieving process.  Since the anatomy course lasts a year, the family won’t get the ashes of the cremated loved one back until a year or more after his or her death.  At that later time, the family will have to re-live the grieving process again.  At some universities—not mine—the families are invited to the closing ceremony so that students can thank the bodies for giving themselves up to become teachers.

In summary: you’ll get over the nervousness rather quickly, study hard to pass the tests, and know that you’ll always crave chicken whenever you get out of lab.

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