Transformative Learning By Lap Ki Chin

The documentary “The First Patient” introduces the public to one of the most amazing learning experiences that anyone could ever have: learning anatomy through dissection of a human cadaver. Gross anatomy class is one of the rites of passage for medical students and a significant step in the transformative process of becoming a doctor.

Lifting The Corner Of The Plastic Sheet…

I still remember my first gross anatomy class as a medical student at The University of Hong Kong. As I entered the brightly lit lab and breathed in its characteristic chemical smell for the first time, I was curious, excited and more than a little nervous. I had always had a keen interest in biology and anatomy, and had looked forward to the privilege of dissecting a human body and looking at its intricate structures firsthand. The cadavers, instead of being in body bags as they are now, lay on the dissection tables under sheets of plastic. While my classmates and I waited for the dissection to begin, I couldn’t help but quietly lift up the corner of the plastic sheet. I was 18 years old, and it was the first time I had ever seen a dead body.

Comprehension In Three Dimensions

The old lab where I had my first class has been replaced by a more modern facility, but gross anatomy has remained the foundation of medical study. This is for good reason, as it trains students in their three-dimensional comprehension of the human body, which is essential preparation for clinical procedures they will have to do after graduation on living patients. In addition to surgery, medical imaging, diagnostic procedures and the understanding of disease processes all require a knowledge of human anatomy.

Dissection Develops Tactile Knowledge

At The University of Hong Kong students learn anatomy through cadaveric dissection. By having an opportunity to open up the skin and separate the structures using their hands and dissection instruments, they develop an understanding of the shape and spatial relationship of the different structures in the human body. They also learn what the different kinds of tissues feel like. Through dissection, students begin to develop the tactile knowledge they will need to perform clinical procedures.

From Seeing Subtle Differences In Structure Comes Real Knowledge

In the gross anatomy lab, students learn to recognize not only anatomical structures, but also their variations. They are encouraged to look at different cadavers and realize that there are subtle differences in their anatomy and internal structures. It is much more difficult to acquire the same knowledge from images in a textbook, or from digital models.

Donor Respect Ceremonies Are Par For The Course

Besides anatomical knowledge, students learn teamwork and communication skills by negotiating tasks in the dissection lab. Through the dissection process, they also learn professionalism and respect.  At The University of Hong Kong all the bodies we now use for dissection are donated. We want our students to know that the opportunity to dissect these bodies is made possible by the goodwill of the donors, so we ask our students to join a respect ceremony at the beginning of a series of dissections, and then a farewell ceremony at the end.

The Nature Of Life, Death And Illness

Dissection class is also an opportunity for students to begin to think about the nature of life, death and illness. In Hong Kong, students enter medical school at the age of 17 or 18, directly after completing secondary school, although a few have already completed a university degree. Dissection class gives most of them their first-ever encounter with a dead body. We want our students to realize that these bodies were once living people just like themselves. We ask our students to write an essay reflecting on their feelings about their dissection experience. As their teacher, I feel very privileged to read these reflective essays, since some of them documented profound changes as a result of learning through dissection. Many students, as a result of coming into direct contact with the dead body of a person who willingly donated his or her body for them to dissect and to learn, suddenly realize the gravity of their career: it is about the life and death of another fellow human being.

Passing On Knowledge To The Next Generation

The study of gross anatomy through hands-on dissection plays an essential role in the study of medicine and the development of skilled and caring healthcare professionals. As a teacher of gross anatomy, I feel proud and privileged to pass on my knowledge to a new generation of medical students. I am sure that my fellow anatomy teachers are all excited to see that “The First Patient” has made that transformative learning process visible to the public.

Lap Ki Chan
Associate Professor in the Institute of Medical and Health Sciences Education (IMHSE) and the Department of Anatomy at the Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine at The University of Hong Kong