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My First Dissection at Medical School

What was my experience of my first dissection like? What should you expect? How should you prepare yourself?

September 2022
Chandan Sekhon
Cambridge University - 1st Year Medical Student

I started medical school in 2020, so I was in the “COVID year group”, meaning my time allocated in the dissection room was limited. Shortly before my first dissection session, I received a notification from the track-and-trace scheme to isolate, meaning I would not be able to attend. I did not want to miss this experience – I was so excited to try a dissection on real human cadavers for the first time! So, I emailed the faculty to see if I could swap my slot with someone else. Upon reaching out to my peers, one (amazing) person agreed to swap with me, so I would have my dissection the week after.

The idea of walking into a room full of cadavers was so surreal to me, but made me even more impatient to enter the dissection room! After walking in, I was overwhelmed by the smell of formaldehyde embalming all the bodies. At the time face mask wearing was still strongly encouraged and therefore we were required to wear both a face mask and a visor over this. I am a glasses wearer so immediately after putting these on the steam from my breath began to fog up my glasses - I could hardly see anything! Thankfully, after a bit of reshuffling of the coverings on my face, my glasses cleared and I could see.

I was to be the fourth person to dissect the donor I was allocated to, so three of my peers had already gone before me. When I lifted the sheet to see my donor and the upper arm (which was the part of the body I had to dissect), I was shocked to see the floor through the arm! The students who had gone before me had somehow cut through the entire arm, with the muscles no longer intact and the nerves and vessels cut too. I was so shocked as I genuinely had nothing to dissect! After calling for some help, the staff were able to give me something to do as they tried to find something that wasn’t obliterated.

Needless to say, it was an interesting experience, and what I learned was that although some individuals appear to know everything perhaps this is not always the case! Knowing not everyone was a born surgeon was comforting as it made me realise that we are all in the same boat. Upon returning to the original donor I had been allocated to in the next session (not the donor of the individual who I swapped with), I was relieved to see the arm being nicely dissected by my peers previously, giving me a good platform to carry on.

After almost two years of attending dissections, the biggest piece of advice I can give is to make sure you know the anatomy of the regions you are dissecting that week – trust me when I say there is nothing worse than going to a session and knowing nothing about what is in front of you. Asking for help is the best way to learn, as demonstrators can help you out with your tasks, explain all the different structures and provide guidance on how to approach the dissection. Most of all though, please have fun! A lot of universities don’t offer dissections so if yours does, please enjoy it – it is a great practical way to learn anatomy. But, it is so important to mention if it is all a bit too much and you struggle with the dissection or need a time-out, please do excuse yourself. If you don’t want to carry on, you don’t have to force yourself to continue. Not everyone enjoys dissections and there is no guarantee you will too. The bright lights, smell, concept of a cadaver, general anxiousness etc., can be a lot to handle. That is not a reflection of you as a clinician at all – I knew of many students who did not want to participate as they did not enjoy the dissection experience. That is completely fine – just take part in the parts that you are comfortable with :).

Another nice touch is that most universities offering dissections tell you a bit about the donor with some allowing you to attend a burial ceremony/remembrance ceremony to honour the individual. I found this to be one of the best parts of the dissection experience as it helped me learn more about my donor and who they were. So, if you can, I would definitely take the time to learn more about your donor, as it can be a truly humanising experience.

Have fun and happy dissecting!

Author: Chandan Sekhon

Editor: Allegra Wisking

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