Five Things I’ve Learned about Staying Sane during the First Week of Anatomy

Ever since Vesalius (frontispiece featured above) put the dissection of human cadavers back on the table, the study of human anatomy and cadaver dissection has become one of the seminal experiences of medical education. It has a fraught history, but nowadays, medical students have the assurance that bodies are obtained through legal means, through someone generously donating their body to be a human specimen for scientific study. Instead of its dubiously ethical roots, Anatomy is now one of your first shared experiences with your new classmates and the first opportunity to develop the “detached concern” that will typify the rest of your life as a physician.

It is also a truly intense experience.

I don’t know how other medical schools do it, but here at the University of Chicago, anatomy is a 9-to-5 affair, an intensive 10-week course during the summer when even most of the faculty are gone on vacation. It’s spending hours out of every weekday in the anatomy lab until you think you can still catch whiffs of phenol on yourself even on a Sunday morning just after a shower.

It’s really no wonder that anatomy produces clinical detachment.You tell yourself that you want to learn (and you really do) but by the end of the week, you can’t even get excited enough about taking the heart out of the body to want to stay late to see how it really looks on the inside. You can’t help feeling as you peel muscle away from bone (even if it feels so squicky to even think this) that there are uncanny similarities to carving up meat. You want to take the opportunity to get to know your classmates, but you’re all in the thick of so much more information that you can handle that the stakes feel too high to take the time to reconcile disparate learning styles to really work together as a team.

You want, above all, for these ten bloody weeks to be over already, but you listen to the upper classmen that tell you that you will remember this experience for the rest of your life and that the anatomy will actually turn out to be useful in the end. You stop and take a breath and find your way of both passing anatomy and being at peace with yourself.

Here’s how (at least for me):

  1. **Take care of yourself first **– For me, that involves doing at least ten minutes of yoga a day and making sure to eat and eat well. I signed up for 30 days of yoga for this first month of medical school (and it’s been a true boon for keeping me on my commitment) and gave myself a very generous food budget. Even when money is tight, there are some things that you just don’t sacrifice.
  2. Focus on the key points, not the details – The amount of information that comes with medical school has sometimes been compared with drinking out of a water hose, and that’s true. However, the truly important material is that which is going to be repeated over and over again. So I’ve been finding that studying has felt more like reviewing the material and fleshing out the big picture rather than picking out minute details. If those minute details that don’t fit into the your conception of the big picture on the test, well…
  3. Remember that medical school is pass/fail – At least at the University of Chicago, you only need to get a 65% of the test to pass. That’s just over half of the questions on the exam—really not that much of the material. Passing at test feels very different from acing it, so I’m getting used to that feeling and recognize that this is how much general information you really need to become a doctor. (I write this realizing that some school are not yet completely pass/fail. I can’t really speak to those experiences, but any input people from those schools have re: medical school grading and keeping things real would be greatly appreciated!)
  4. Plan ahead and use your time wisely – I actually haven’t done the best job of this judging by my activity on Twitter and Facebook, but in general, cramming for anatomy is not a thing that works very well. Assimilating a little bit of information every day goes a long way. Even though I have been more lax about this, I still carefully partition the information to fit into the available time, so piece by piece I make sure that it all gets done in a way that works for my learning style. My goal: to really learn the information and not just memorize it to forget the day after the exam.
  5. **Don’t forget why you are there – **At Pritzker, thankfully, we start work at free clinics during anatomy, so I look forward to the experience of working with patients again so I do not forget why I am going through this. But until those opportunities for patient experiences arise, I’ve been reading stories of inspiration, books about the patient experience, keeping up with my health news and talking to friends near and far to remind myself that there is a reason that I am in medical school.

So, current and former medical students, what are your thoughts on surviving anatomy?****