“That’s a real one,” I said to the group of four nursing students as they pulled a vertebral column (backbone) out of their bone box. “What do you mean real?” one asked. I laughed. “Real. As in it used to be in someone’s body.” I watched as two of them lost all color and leaned away from it while the other two grabbed for it, their eyes wide and mouths open. “Really?” “Yes, really!” I explained how you could tell the real bones from the plastic ones. “The real ones are a lot lighter and more porous – you’ll see holes in them. And they’ll be a rougher when you touch them.”
“Is ours real?” said a student at another table. “Yup,” I said. Some were happy they had real bones in their boxes, some thrilled to find they didn’t. Wait til we dissect sheep brains, I thought to myself.
I wisely don’t tell them what we’re doing ahead of time. As I’m going through my plan for that days lab, I just casually say, “After we finish going over all the structures on the brain models, we’ll be dissecting sheep brains. There are gloves in the middle of each table. The trays are over there.” I point to the sink. Most students at this point are stunned. I hear the whispers. “Is she serious?” they ask each other. I continue, enjoying every minute of watching some of their faces turn from disbelief to sheer joy and excitement. “Take a tray per lab table, and one instrument from each box. Then, get a brain from the plastic container over there,” I say, pointing to the bucket sitting next to the sink. “Be very careful – they’re slippery. I don’t want any brains on the floor.” I just keep going as if people look at brains every day. A more vocal student will usually stop me at this point saying, “Hold up Miss Gallo. You mean we’re going to cut open a brain today?” “Yup,” I respond. Most are thrilled, or at least interested. A few want nothing to do with it, to which I respond, “If you’re going to be a nurse, you’re going to see a lot more disgusting things than this.”
Though I finished teaching A&P six weeks ago, these memories came back to me since I just finished reading the book “The Anatomist” by Bill Hayes. It’s basically the story of how the book Gray’s Anatomy came to be. In doing his research, he attends gross anatomy classes at UCSF and that, for me, was the most interesting part of the book. Especially since he spends one semester with physical therapy students.
It wasn’t so much that it brought back memories of my own time in a cadaver lab, but that I wanted to be there again. I was a little jealous that he was in a lab dissecting human bodies and I wasn’t. No – it was more than that. He talked about the instructors and I wanted to be them. I can’t tell you how many times, in teaching A&P to my nursing students, I wished I could show them something on a cadaver.
I had a chance to get back into a cadaver lab on Friday. I had dinner with my former anatomy professor. In the days prior to our meeting I thought the first thing I wanted to do was go see the cadavers, but for some unknown reason I didn’t ask. So I didn’t get to see them. I realize for most people that seeing dead bodies would not be on the top of your list of things to do before you eat dinner…but that’s beside the point.
The good news is the opportunity is not lost. My anatomy professor teaches the course over the summer now and it would be very easy for me to go out there for a day, or a few days, or a week and help him out. I assisted him when I was in school, and he has offered that he would welcome my assistance again. So who knows? This summer, I might just take that opportunity. And then I won’t be jealous of that author anymore.