“What’s really behind that door?”. Students gather outside the anatomy laboratory with mixed emotions; apprehension, excitement, worry, curiosity, and with varied expectations of what it will be like. Will it smell, will the bodies be covered, will they look human, will they be whole or dissected, will they have hair, will I feel unwell or emotional?
Rite of Passage in Medical Education
For many students, entering the anatomy laboratory for the first time is entering the unknown, something they have probably heard about, this so-called rite of passage in medical education. We have emphasised to our students the importance of anatomical knowledge and understanding as the foundations to their practicing in their chosen field of healthcare, but we must also realise that this journey of discovery in the anatomy lab will be daunting for many and in some cases confronting. For many students it will be the first time they have encountered death or thought about the realities of dying. Such experiences are challenging at the best of times, but particularly difficult for those students in their most formative of years and who have chosen to enter healthcare professions with the passion to save, preserve or improve life. I am therefore always conscious to make sure we prepare and support all our students through this phase of their learning and use approaches that combine the excitement and wonderment of seeing, feeling and understanding three-dimensional structure with the essential need for respect and professionalism.
Their Most Unusual and Effective Teacher
As an anatomy professor, I have had the privilege of taking hundreds of students through their first dissection experiences and introducing them to their most unusual and effective teacher. They will have never met their teacher in life, they may never learn their name or their life history, but they will learn so much from them, probably more than from any other teacher, knowledge and understanding that will be with them as a professional and used well beyond the short time they spend with their teacher. Developing this student-teacher relationship often starts tentatively with students unsure how to engage with their teacher, worried whether their dissecting skills are damaging structures and by doing so whether they are being appropriately respectful. But gradually as their skills develop, their teacher reveals more and more of their secrets and the confidence of the student grows and the relationship develops. The students begin to appreciate the natural variation between bodies, what happens when tissues and organs become damaged or diseased during life and what interventions may have been made.
Respect and Compassion
Such a dissection experience that focuses on exploration, anatomical knowledge, orientation and variation, as well as pathology is key, however this needs to be augmented by incorporating opportunities for developing a whole host of other professional skills and attributes, the greatest of which must be respect and compassion.
Professor Darrell Evans
Professor of Developmental Tissue Biology
The University of Newcastle
Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia