I went to Medical School in 1987. It was an incredible experience, crammed full of learning from inspirational Professors at the peak of their careers. My stand-out memory is the first day of Gross Anatomy. Faced with dozens of cadavers in shrouds, fresh-faced students in crisp, clean white coats, and that smell – I couldn’t wait to get started. Such a privilege.
Each precious body had been donated to medical research, to help train doctors, nurses and physiotherapists. We stood next to our allocated body, four students in a group, and recited a modified Hippocratic Oath. We were to dissect the body over the academic year, 565 hours of dissection, in detail, covering all organ systems, blood vessels, nerves and the brain. Our bible for the year was Man’s Anatomy by Tobias and Arnold, in three volumes. Professor Tobias and Professor Arnold were the big beasts of Anatomy. We were in awe of them. They were known affectionately as PVT and JCA (behind their backs of course)!
Getting started was a hand-trembling affair, guided by this illustration. Skin preserved in embalming fluid is very tough. But once you’re in, you’re in – and the delights of the human body were ours to explore. Over the weeks and months, we committed to memory all the arteries, veins, nerves and bones (oh, my poor parents had that box of bones in their living room); using mnemonics to remember the long lists. For example, Peter And Paul Masturbated So Much Their Balls Shrank refers to the branches of one of the thoracic arteries (I wish I could remember which one)! I can remember, though, that this one refers to the twelve cranial nerves: Oh Oh Oh To Touch And Feel A Girl’s Vagina Very Happily (or something very like it). The point is, we were drunk on anatomy for that year. We were walking encyclopaedia of lists of body parts, our text books were marked in wax pencil (I still have one I used in 1987), and nobody would share the lift with us because the smell permeated our clothes and hair. We knew it and we didn’t care. We were doing something that not many people ever get to do. It would shape our lives in the future. Some would go on to be world class surgeons, some physicians, sports scientists, pharmacists. I decided on a career in research.
Who knows how a career will turn out. I didn’t even do Science at school. I was expected to study Languages at University. I’m grateful to a Biology teacher for showing me something different, and changing my life. She asked me to help her clear out the cupboard in the lab. What we didn’t find in there. And lurking at the back, in a dark jar, was the most gorgeous pig foetus. We changed the preserving fluid, to reveal the tiny, perfect animal; when was he put in there, kept for me to find? I was hooked.
And so, standing in the dissection hall, several years later, in the basement at Medical School, I knew I was in the right place. I grasped the scalpel with both hands and made the first cut. Nine months later, the Technician was standing over the cadaver we had been working on. It approaching the final Lesson – the brain. He used a tiny, whirring saw to remove the cranium. He revealed a clean, shiny brain in situ. In order to complete the study, we had to remove the brain, with all the cranial nerves in tact. I had the smallest hands and I put them on either side of the brain, inside the skull. I tugged gently and felt around the base of the brain, to free the nerves from their restraints. A little more tugging, and I had the brain in my hands. We prepared the dissection and made 1cm slices through the brain, sectioning it in cross-section. I have never forgotten that moment. And neither will countless other medical students. That brain, sectioned, preserved and displayed can still be seen in the Anatomy Museum at Wits Medical School.
Gross anatomy? I don’t think so. Stunning, wondrous anatomy, is more like it.