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Since starting medical school, I have been harboring a not-so-secret resentment towards the simplicity of men’s professional clothing. Button-up shirt and a tie, slacks, dress shoes, white coat and you’re done. Sure, there are variations on a theme and I’m sure there are men out there who put a lot of thought and care into their outfits, but even if you’re just falling on the basics it’s hard to go too wrong.

I don’t know anything about this dude, but I already trust him to save my life or take all my money.

It’s not that I don’t like getting dressed up. We had med school prom last weekend (I know, right?) and picking out a dress and accessories was an enjoyable distraction from academics. But that’s the thing about women’s fashion: it’s fun because it’s complicated. There are choices to be made, and choices mean a certain level of success and failure. Great for a night out when you want to make an impression. A pain in the neck when you’re running on four hours of sleep with an exam hanging over your head.

Let’s start from the ground and work our way up. Flats or heels? And if you go for heels, how high is appropriate and comfortable to walk around in? When and where are open-toes, open heels or sandals acceptable? Socks? Stockings? Tights? Bare legs? Dress, skirt or pants? And how short a skirt is acceptable? How tight a skirt is acceptable? How loose and flowing a skirt is acceptable? How large a belt? Is your skirt see-through? Is your shirt see-through? If it is, as is the case with most women’s clothing, what sort of undershirt should you wear?  Is it too low cut? Should you wear any jewelry? How much make-up?

The answer to any of these questions varies drastically depending on the person you ask. If you get it wrong there can be serious consequences. I’ve already written about the trials of wearing the wrong shoes, but there can also be more subtle types of pitfalls. For example, studies show that wearing exactly the right amount of make-up will help a women be taken seriously in interviews, but too much or too little will leave a negative impression.

There is this fine line between being attractive, but not too attractive. There can be absolutely no sign that you are attempting to look sexy, but it can be equally damaging to be perceived as “mannish” or plain. There are few solid rules to follow; the fabric of a shirt or the shape of the woman wearing it can push either extreme. And because of the subjective nature of these judgements, you may never know when or how you transgressed.

Clothing stores and designers are not helping either. There is no clear delineation between the different tiers of professionalism and fun dress when you walk into a department store. Watch any television show and the going standard for professionals seems to be six-inch stilettos and a carefully calculated cleavage-to-neckline ratio that defies most Newtonian laws of physics.

At least the skirt covers her knees?

I don’t mean to imply that all of the women in our class are walking a razor’s edge every time we’re expected to look professional for a patient. Still, it does take time and energy and attention to detail that I don’t expect the guys in our class experience in the same way. It is also starting to get expensive, not only because women’s clothes tend to be pricy but also because each outfit is distinct enough that repeats are noticeable even to the less observant. I’m sure the boys all change up their clothes regularly, but I’m paying pretty close attention if I even spot a repeat tie pattern.

Of course much of this stems from larger, systemic issues regarding the treatment of women in the workplace and the double standards we set for professional behavior. I could go on for days. In the end, though, I wish we could dispense with the whole mess and just all wear scrubs to work every day. How can you go wrong?

Okay, fair enough.

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Warning: This is another graphic dissection-related post and possibly contains some of the grossest descriptions yet. I also might ruin oranges, cottage cheese and s’mores for you forever. Read at your own risk.

Do you know what you get when you send out an email asking medical students if they would like to give up an afternoon to assist with an optional brain removal dissection? A lab full of medical students wielding bone saws and chisels.

Where do we cut? The top part, right?

(If you’re already rethinking your commitment to reading this post, the back button should be at the upper lefthand corner of your screen.)

We’ve started our unit on the central nervous system, which means I am in full neuro-nerd mode. (Another student called me that earlier today and I like the alliteration so well I decided to keep it.) We’re not actually doing a lot of cutting in our dissections for this unit, but the brains did need to be retrieved from their usual location. The idea was to use all of the brains from our cadavers along with a few supplemental brains* from surgical pathology so that we won’t have to alternate dissection groups like we have been doing with our cadavers.

Here is how to remove a brain:

First you have to remove the skin of the cranium. You do this by making an incision from between the eyes to the back of the head and from one ear to the other and then peeling back the flaps. This was a bit more intimate than I was expecting, given that we had covered the face of our cadaver on the first day of lab and had not uncovered it since. The rest of his body was devoid of skin except for the soles of his feet and the backs of his hands. In many ways our cadaver had ceased to feel like something that had once been a person. Uncovering his face and making that first incision between his eyes was different. I have a hard time attaching an emotion to it–I didn’t find it sad or gross or creepy–but I noticed it.

Peeling the skin off the bone of the scalp is like peeling an orange. It comes away with a good solid tug and makes that same soft unsticking sound The deep fascia underneath even looks like the white inner rind. Underneath, the top of the skull looks just like every skull you’ve ever seen, off-white and smooth. The temporalis muscle on each side (the thing that tightens up at your temple when you clench your teeth) is the only non-boney landmark. We reflected them back as well so that we would only be sawing through bone.

The striker saws have small, semi-circular blades. They cut through the bone pretty easily, but they are just unwieldy enough that it’s hard to judge how deep you’re going. The goal is not to saw through the entire bone, but rather a few millimeters deep and then to crack the rest of the way through with a chisel and hammer. Halfway through this process you have to flip your cadaver over to make a complete circle around the head. Then you flip it onto its back and saw across the top like a headband.

The bone saws kick up a lot of bone dust and the friction creates a bit of smoke. It smelled to me like burning marshmallows. (No, I wasn’t hungry during this dissection, I swear! I reasoned it out with another student later: marshmallows and bones are both made of gelatin, after all.)

Some of the cadaver brains weren’t properly embalmed, which brought a whole new meaning to the phrase “my brain is mush.” They were the consistency of cottage cheese and oozed out of the new opening in the skull. Even the anatomy professor was grossed out. Those brains were left in their respective cadavers with several layers of wrapping around them both.

Our brain was well-preserved. The skull cap made a ripping/popping noise as it came free: the sound of the dura mater (the tough, protective coating of the brain) pulling free of the bone. Then we sawed through the occipital bone at the back of the head so that the spinal cord could be severed.

Even then, there was a lot more to be disconnected: the roots of the dura mater, the vessels that carry blood into the brain, all of the cranial nerves (there are twelve pairs.) Then we were done, and the brain came free like it was never all that attached in the first place. What, all that work just for me?

Strange to think that the object I was cradling carefully in two hands (not-dropping a brain on the first day was pretty high on my to-do list) had held all of the thoughts, the memories, most of the personality of the person it once belonged to. It is dead now, fixed and quiet, but I wonder if someday we might be able to look at all of the connections that existed and see something of the thoughts that passed through it once. Or maybe we’ll discover that to be something completely unknowable, something greater than the sum of its parts. It sort of hurts my own brain to contemplate. In a good way.

Ze Brain

*Every time I say the phrase “supplemental brain” I want to make a joke about borrowing one for the next exam. I know, it’s terrible, but I just can’t resist.

Warning: This post concerns my experiences in cadaver dissection. At this point in my medical training, I can casually chat about what went on in lab over dinner and not think anything of it. You, on the other hand, may have slightly conventional standards, and might find it a bit graphic. Please take that under advisement before continuing. 

Ready? Let's go.

Ready? Let’s go.

 

It’s a relief learning you are not the only person who finds skinning and separating out muscles on a cadaver oddly satisfying. It’s not really something you can bring up in polite company, but when a group of med students are sitting around the lunch table waiting nervously for their first practical exam, these sorts of things come up.

We’ve just finished our third week of lab and our cadavers are now largely sans skin. Removing it is a time-consuming process; skin and the fat underlying it are rather firmly fixed to the fascia and muscle below. The technique involves making two incisions to create a corner flap of skin, carefully going deeper layer by layer until you can see the red of the muscle or the silvery stripes of tendons. Then you grasp your flap (careful to not grasp any of the muscle tissue along with it) and pull back hard, like you could peel it right off. Then you scrape gently at the wisps of fascia between the fat and the skin with your scalpel, slowly detaching them and peeling away the skin. The idea is not to go so deep at to cut through the muscle and also to remove enough of the fat and fascia that you can see the muscles and structures below.

When it is going well it is not unlike managing to pull the entire peel of an orange in one piece. Or finally getting the long red piece in Tetris you’ve been waiting for the whole game.

When it isn’t going well, you can’t tell muscle from fascia from tendon from fat and you kind of want to start throwing your tools around the room.

Separating the muscles is similar, although you usually don’t even need a scalpel. You run your fingers or a probe through the fascia surrounding the muscle groups, pulling it apart like spiderwebs.

Nerves and arteries are more frustrating. They are usually bound up in a lot of fascia, but delicate enough that you want to avoid ripping through with your hands or slicing through with the scalpel. They also often look enough like bits of fascia (especially the smaller nerves) that you might not even notice them at first.

Going to lab has utterly revolutionized our schedule as medical students. Instead of spending four hours in a classroom listening to an array of lectures, we spend three or four hours on our feet, actively working through a lab. In some ways it’s a break for our brains; the concentration required to decide if you’re in a muscle or still on the plane above it is completely different than that required to memorize innervations or artery bifurcations. Most of the lab is physical work with breaks to try to identify structures. The time flies by and there is absolutely no risk of falling asleep.

We’re also divided into two groups per cadaver. One day my group might dissect the abdomen, the next day the other group will examine our work and dissect the front of the thigh. Which means a whole day off, at least once a week. After the non-stop slog of Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. classes in the fall, this is like a dream come true.

That isn’t to say anatomy is a walk in the park. Some things in medical school are difficult simply by virtue of the fact that they require decades of experience to really master. Reading x-rays for example, or recognizing histology slides. I can memorize the nerve innervation for every muscle in the lower extremity, but learning to distinguish artery from nerve at a glance is an art. Sometimes even the professors aren’t quite sure what they’re looking at. This is the part of medicine that takes the most practice and is the hardest to explain how to do. It is also the part of medicine that feels the most like being a doctor.

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Okay, so this isn’t a blood draw needle, but you get the idea.

I’m thinking of creating a version of the Who Said It game called “Medical Students or Burgeoning Serial Killers?” Here are some approximate quotes I’ve collected over the past several months.

  1. “I’ll just keep all of the blood vials in this basket here until I can figure out how to dispose of them.”
  2. “Skinning a human cadaver is harder than I expected.”
  3. “We should get some pig’s feet to practice on. It’s more like human flesh.”
  4. “He gets all the supplies by telling the clinic staff we’re planning to practice blood draws.”

Okay, since I don’t actually know any serial killers in training (I hope),  the game is pretty one-sided for now.

For a bit more context (lest you think perhaps a quick call to the FBI might be in order), this week marked our foray into cadaver dissection, and also the third so-called phlebotomy party.

The phlebotomy parties came about around Thanksgiving after a primary care conference where students were able to practice skills like suturing and blood draws. I wasn’t there, but from what I heard, many of the blood draws were not terribly successful.

I don’t know about my fellow students, but practical skills in medicine make me nervous. I know that I can memorize pages of information and answer multiple choice questions with reasonable accuracy, but none of that guarantees I will be any good at basic medical skills like lumbar punctures or taking blood pressures. The latter I can practice whenever, at least. Mostly of my family and friends have been subjected to me brandishing my stethoscope and sphygmomanometer. But the stuff involving needles? At best you might get to practice them on a dummy, which is really not going to prepare you for a terrified patient, angry at being used as a training tool.

Blood draws, at least, are fairly straightforward. So with a few donations from a local clinic, one of my small-group classmates with some phlebotomy training gathered together everything we might need and had six of us over for dinner and bloodletting. After all, if you’re going to mess up poking someone with a needle, it might as well be someone who is planning to stick you right back.

The first stick is, in a word, terrifying. There was this moment before I slid the needle in that I was thinking to myself, “I can’t do this. How could I ever think that I could do this?” Then bam, a minute later I was triumphantly holding a full vial of blood, my heart pounding in my chest and a general feeling of “Holy crap, I can’t believe I just did that.” Then I turned around and offered my own arm up for some first-time needle sticking.

Our first session was such a success that the host has had two more since. They are well-attended and it is a relief to watch everyone go through the same spectrum of emotions each time: terror, followed by determination, and then elation at their eventual success. We can do this! It’s for real.

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Uh…now what do we do with it?

A friend of mine pointed out that as physicians we probably won’t be taking a lot of blood. That is more the purview of nurses and techs, even if we will eventually learn the skill. Still, it is a relief just to know that I can handle the basics. For the first time I was able get past the literal barrier of the skin, into the parts of a living person that we generally never see. I don’t expect this will make me less terrified or apologetic when I finally do have to practice on a stranger for the first time. But at least now I don’t have to wonder if I am even capable.

And, even if it’s only the barest of comforts, at least I can say, “I’m new to this, but I’ve done it successfully a few times before.”