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Every year, fresh faces entering medical school partake in the centuries-old rite of passage of dissecting human flesh. It is a tradition that, to some, marks the beginning of their life in healthcare, and to others, the point from which medical desensitization starts to take hold.

On her first day of gross anatomy, Shara Yurkiewicz, a first-year medical student, couldn’t help but wonder who the man that laid in front of her was, as she picked up a scalpel for the very first time. Judging by his strong tan arms, metal knee replacements and a copious amounts of visceral fat–she wondered if he was a construction worker, a park ranger, or maybe a fisherman. The medical students were instructed to start the dissection from the cadaver’s back since that is the most impersonal part of the body. But first, what lay ahead of them was the formidable task of turning over the cadaver onto its stomach. Shara recalls struggling to lift it, pushing hard, and she lifted “literally dead weight”, which she recalls as “filled with gallons of embalming fluid”. She felt slightly sick. This physical manipulation of the cadaver turned out to be a much more disturbing task for Shara than the actual dissection.

Dissection of the Head, Face and Neck. From ‘Illustrations of Dissections in a Series of Original Colored Plates representing the Dissection of the Human Body’ (1882).

Image Source: VintageMedStock

During her six weeks of careful study of the cadaver, Shara learned to see, feel, touch, and understand the structures that lay before her in that expanse consisting entirely of shades of brown, yellow, gray, or red that was inside the body.

Was there a moment when she felt entirely disgusted? Yes. But, there was also a time when she felt deeply humbled by the enormity of life, as she held the cadaver’s heart in her hands.

This was the experience of Shara Yurkiewicz, one student among thousands who partake in this tradition year after year. Gross anatomy has been a cornerstone in the lives of many budding physicians for centuries. Although sometimes deeply disturbing, it is often viewed as a right of passage for first-year med students.

Feature Image Source: NCSSM

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