Sunday, July 12, 2009

Living anatomy

As opposed to morbid anatomy. I remember well that first evening when I gained access to the dissecting room. It was in a gloomy Victorian building, constructed like a Gothic church. The only light was admitted through the high windows and was that of an orange, sodium streetlight. That October evening in 1962 is etched in my memory. The dissecting room was large with ten lead-topped tables arranged in two rows of five. On each was a body laid and covered with a green cloth so that all you could see was the body's shape - far more frightening than the body itself.

The smell, sweet and sickly, was a mixture of formalin and chalk dust. I'm not sure what scared me, but I was glad to be out of there having ascertained that I would be assigned table number 4 along with Roger, Adrian and Dave.

The next morning was altogether different. The lights were full on and there was an air of jollity, mainly engendered by those students who had done 1st MB, a sort of resits for failed A levels taken at the University instead of school. These, with their year's experience of University life, were the early leaders. We didn't realize at the time that they were the rich but dim kids whose parents could pay the extra cost of resitting their exams at University rather than school. It is easy to be cowed by confidence.

Looking back it is hard not to feel that the medical course was designed to coarsen our sensitivities. We were naive schoolboys (and girls) who needed to be toughened up. Perhaps that was a true perspective; I have since seen several young female residents and one male who found the rough and tumble of medical life too pungent to be tolerated. Interestingly, they have all been Christians. Are Christian doctors such delicate flowers that life and death in the raw are too unpalatable?

We began our dissection in the armpit. I had no idea that smelly armpits hid such a nexus of nerves. We called our body (or cadaver, to give it its professional name) Ernest (because we were always working in dead earnest). For six weeks I had a recurring nightmare. Ernest would be lying there with his great hook nose. As I stuck my scalpel in his armpit he suddenly raise himself up from the table laughing ans said, "Stop tickling!"

Each week we dissected something different or at least Roger and Adrian did - they were keen as mustard on the whole business - while Dave and I nipped down to the Refectory for coffee and to try writing something for the Christmas party. I wonder what became of my earnest colleagues. Last I heard of Dave he was driving a soda-pop delivery truck, having failed his 2nd MB twice. Roger only failed once and became a GP. I did hear that he had some trouble with the GMC; something to do with drugs and prostitutes, I believe. I think Adrian ended up in the Solomon Islands. Every week we had a viva-voce examination with one of the Demonstrators. The Demonstrators were trainee surgeons who were taking time out to learn some serious anatomy. Surgeons are among the few doctors who really need to know anatomy; for the rest of us it is an exercise in rote learning designed to keep us off the streets. The degree of detail is seldom any use to us during clinical practice. We generally managed to pass the vivas, even though Dave's usual answer was, "I think I have a mental block on that one."

On one occasion we all failed miserably. The viva was on the larynx and we had drawn a demonstrator who was a trainee anesthesiologist rather than a surgeon. Crico-aretinoid muscles were a mystery to me and still are.

Apart from cutting up dead bodies we also had a series of demonstrations of living anatomy. This meant we had to examine our own bodies. For some this had immense attraction as there were girls in the group. In fact there were 12 women out of 60 students. Since we were to be divided into groups of 8, it looked as if at least one group would be mixed. Alas for some the men were separated into 6 groups of eight and the women into 2 groups of six. One coarsened wag posted a poem about it on the anatomy notice board. I think I can remember it:

O living anatomy
Thou dost seem flat to me
Since they did segregate
The sexes into groups of eight
Or so.
O blow!
The shame and degradation
Never to have seen
An hemispherical elevation
Or touched one e'en.
Perhaps it would be best
To entertain our guests
With poetic tales of roses on twin crests,
Or accept the bland
A modified sebaceous gland
Divided by some fibrous strands,
Lest the shock should dull the mind
When in the course of time we find
That as we watch the garments fall
It wasn't really worth it after all.

The culprit was summoned to see Professor Yoffey the head of the Department of Anatomy, and then sent away to return wearing his blackstuff gown. He was given a final warning pending rustication.

Yoffey had more to worry about. Dick Smith, one of the students whose father was a GP, desperately did not want to be a doctor. Instead of dissecting bodies he used to drive in his little Standard Eight to Weston-Super-Mare and from there send Yoffey a postcard saying, "Wish you were here!"

Yoffey was interested in the lymphocyte, which he was convinced turned into red blood cells as it matured. After he retired he emigrated to Israel and became a Professor there. Years later I met his granddaughter who also happened to be related to Victor Hoffbrand, the Professor of Hematology at the Royal Free Medical School. She had written a play about the Song of Deborah and was astonished that anybody else had ever heard of it.

Dick Smith left Medical School and became an Army officer. I met him years later. He still had the old Standard Eight. In the trunk he had a case of smuggled gin, which he tried to flog me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It appears that you are feeling better, leaving long posts. I hope that is the case!