Medical School: Of Cadavers and Coping Measures


Warning: The following may seem appalling and grossly inappropriate, violating the tenets of “political correctness,” and woefully so I might add.  For those bent to the more sensitive side, I feel your anguish, but then again it’s a disservice to sugar-coat any narrative, for doing so robs the story of its essence.  Hard truths are often wrapped in distasteful circumstances.

Medical students are an odd bunch.  At least in my day.  I attended the Medical College of Wisconsin back in the late 1980s, so what you are about to read may or may not be representative of medical training nowadays.  Med school starts right off with a ginormous load of basic sciences.  Prime amongst these is gross anatomy--dissecting and studying every inch of the human body from head to toe.

On the first day they immediately threw us into the fire.  We were led into an expansive cadaver lab, where we found large black bags atop metal tables, formaldehyde lightly permeating the air.  They grouped us four to five per table.  After a couple of words from some of the faculty, we pulled back the plastic “black bag.” 

That was my first exposure to a dead person.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect.  I knew this day would come but had no idea how I’d react.  I didn’t sleep well that prior night, worried I’d do something stupid, such as faint, fall and face-plant right onto the cadaver.

Fortunately, I kept my composure.  The initial shock eventually gave way to detachment, a coping mechanism necessary for the study of the human body in its raw form.  This happens surprisingly fast. 

With the intimate study of a human body, you come to appreciate the gift that someone left to educate future doctors.  One tends to forget this with so much work crammed into a short timeframe; and instead, with the attendant stress and weariness, more coping measures invariably arose.  The most common was humor. 

And as young adults still reaching for respectful maturity, many of us held onto a rather adolescent mindset, where sophomoric humor reigned supreme

We wore lab coats during the dissections—long, white, cotton coats with large pockets, pockets great for small books, notepads, a snack and sometimes pieces of cadaver snuck-in by a fellow classmate.  I was a victim of this myself.  One day I felt something in my pocket.  I reached in, pulled it out, and gleefully found one of my favorite vending-machine snacks.  Being hungry at that moment, I salivated with ecstasy, until I saw pieces of tendon sticking out from each side of the foil package.  Shortly after, an eyeball rolled out. 

Other than the brief shock-and-awe, I was disappointed not to have a snack.  I looked around for the culprit, only to find a bunch of classmates laughing hysterically.

Since lectures, labs and study occupied most of our waking hours, what little remaining free-time was spent in the most efficient manner, often in merriment.  For instance, we had monthly exams, all day on a Monday.  To decompress, more than half of our class of 200 students gathered at a local nightclub later that night.  Being a Monday, the place was packed with little else than first-year med students, and beer was cheap, making our merrymaking all the more merrier.

Living in the “Beer Capital” of Milwaukee, it should come as no surprise that much of our extracurricular activities involved generous servings of beer.  This was reinforced early on from the administration and faculty, who encouraged us to “stop and smell the roses” along our long journey to doctorhood.  The reverie (with the help of beer) was justified, rendering the long journey more enjoyable.  I assumed this was how life operates in general. 

To us, the Medial College of Wisconsin was “MCOW” (pronounced “em-cow”) being in the “Dairy State,” though the official acronym is MCW (pronounced “em-cee-dubayoo”).  Those in administration expressed great displeasure in the MCOW misnomer, telling us repeatedly to abstain from its use.

In an act of defiance, a group of us instead created a lovely Christmas card, picturing us around a live cow draped with a large “M” (M-COW, get it?).  Next to the photo was my drawing of a cow and a smiling worm wrapped around a staff, single antler atop its head.  You’ve probably seen this official symbol for medicine (sans antler), called the Staff of Asclepius (the Greek god of medicine).  There’s debate whether it’s a snake or a Guinea Worm, a human parasite that’s removed by slowly winding one end of the critter around a long stick, rotating it a little each day until it’s out, a process that takes days to weeks.  The result: a worm around a stick.  Anyway, my worm is smiling from ear to ear (and no, worms do not have ears) after biting into a cheeseball atop the staff.  Above the worm is “MCOW” in big obnoxious letters and below, “Udderly Wisconsin.”  We sent that card to everyone, to faculty, even the dean of MCOW and several others in admin.  Their reaction was a mix of disdain and laughter, but heck, we all eventually graduated.

At the behest of fellow classmates, I designed a logo with the same smiling worm and staff, hovering above a large cow wearing sunglasses, donning a huge “M” on its flank, two hands grasping sudsy beer mugs projecting from each side, and in big letters below, “MCOW.”  We planned to mass produce this on T-shirts and distribute them widely throughout MCOW.  But alas, someone in admin caught wind and we were told, “Do this and die,” or something to that effect. 

Sadly, the MCOW shirt never came to light.  Not until years later did that drawing resurface as a title slide for my last Grand Rounds lecture—a roast of my attendings--at the end of my Ear, Nose and Throat residency.  I guess I never grew up.

Getting back to the cadavers: in December of that first year, the “Black Bag Ball” was held, an annual tradition commemorating our completion of gross anatomy and all our other courses that first semester.  We were only human, and as full-grown doctors would still be.  Yet despite our immature ways, the proclivity towards beer, and our crude coping measures, we had a healthy respect for the dead; their priceless gift enabled us to become doctors, who would later have a profound effect on the living.

At the end, we held a candlelight vigil honoring our cadavers, bodies who temporary housed beautiful and everlasting souls.  Afterwards, we went out for a beer.

©Randall S. Fong, M.D.

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