Just Another Day at the Office: Part 1


Before you can do stuff like this you have to survive medical school.
That all starts in the Gross lab.

I had to crawl up on a chair to get the angle just right. Two of my co-conspirators held everything steady. I took a deep breath, hefted a standard Stanley hand saw, and proceeded to saw a woman’s head in half—right down the middle. The cut tracked perfectly along the bridge of her nose.

About halfway through the process, I stopped to savor the moment. It’s not just every day you are called upon to saw somebody’s head in two. This was one of those experiences about which I might someday write. So here we are.

Gross Anatomy is the common foundation for all physicians.

Back Story

Whether they admit it or not, everybody gets just a little bit green on the first day of Gross Anatomy. This is where every physician starts out. Everybody from the humblest doc-in-a-box to the most rarefied neurosurgeon launches from the gross lab. It is indeed a surreal experience.

In my case, it began in a room that contained twenty-five identical stainless-steel vats. There were exactly one hundred of us in the class, so we were divided into groups of four students to a cadaver. On your first day, you walk into the lab and everything is tidy, orderly and sealed.

Each vat has a folding pressed steel cover and the cleverest lifting apparatus. Located within the vat is a perforated plate upon which the departed resides. This thing rides up and down at the will of a modest cable system. There is a lever that activates the cables to lift the plate and its remarkable cargo up and out of the formalin bath contained within the vat. Mechanical advantage keeps this from being a particularly onerous chore.

In the morning you raise your buddy up and out of the formalin preservative. In the evening you dunk them back. Leave them out too long and things tend to dry out.

I was ill-prepared for the smell. It’s not rancid or rotten. The reek of formalin in such vast quantities just seems somehow to conjure an image of living in a battery factory. It also is not terribly quick to come off. When finally I completed my Gross Anatomy ordeal I took my lab coat and just threw it away. We had planned a party wherein we might ceremonially burn them all, but who has time for that? We were all trying to survive the first year of medical school.

A Most Remarkable Connection

Gross Anatomy is broken down by anatomical region. You start with the superficial muscles of the back. Nobody has a clue at that point, and there’s just so much damage you can do to the superficial muscles of the back. However, on day one all the cadavers are on their backs. Your first collective chore is to flip them over. That means all four of you have to touch it. That’s by design.

But back to sawing a lady’s head in half. The head and neck come late in the course after you’ve found your sea legs, as it were. By then you have developed an attachment to this person. I had never met her before, yet I knew things about her she didn’t know herself. We named her Berniece.

Our cadaver was a blessedly petite woman who had been a smoker and died of heart disease. She had wasted at the end, and that made things so much easier. Other groups had massive gelatinous subjects with dozens of pounds of excess adipose tissue that had to be laboriously removed, frequently with spoons. All those billions of McDonalds hamburgers have to go someplace.

Berniece drew her name from “Weekend at Bernie’s” — a popular if vapid comedy about two young men who use their boss’s recently demised corpse to secure a fun weekend of hedonism at his beachfront summer home. I later accidentally saw Berniece’s real name on a sheet of paper in the course director’s office and immediately wished I hadn’t. It’s better if there’s some distance there.

We gave them all names. Most were old, but not all. One curvaceous young woman had died of an aggressive form of cancer in her thirties and had breast implants. One unnaturally endowed gentleman we called Son of Kong. Trust me, that was not disrespectful. We were in awe of that guy. As in life, they each had their own unique personalities.

There’s more, much more. Enough for at least one more column. Tune in next week for the exciting conclusion. When last we spoke, I was sawing a woman’s head in half. Just hold that thought.

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