The time spent on dissection varies by school. Many medical schools supplement the teaching with high-tech virtual simulations or pre-dissected bodies. Georgetown puts a heavier emphasis on students performing their own dissections; they typically spend about 100 hours in the lab. This year, course director Carlos Suarez-Quian added another hands-on component. Students had to pass a table exam after each unit, identifying specific structures on the cadaver within 20 seconds.
He noticed that students in years past were too reliant on perfect drawings they saw in textbooks or on the Web.
"That's not who your patients are going to be," he said.
Most donors are elderly. Disease or age often prevents them from donating organs. This year, one donor was a woman who died of breast cancer in her 40s. Another donor's lungs were pitted black from smoking. Students don't know the names of their donors, only age and cause of death.
Wearing blue scrubs and lab aprons, students worked in groups of five to a table, using the same body for all the labs. They started with the spine, finished with the head and neck. Only the body part being dissected was exposed; the rest was covered with cloth and black plastic, to protect the tissue from drying out. Cadavers in tan body bags meant the family wanted the remains back. Blue signified eventual burial in a common grave. The embalming process drains bodies of blood and other fluids, leaving the skin feeling hard. Students often wear two pairs of blue gloves to protect against contact with the intensely strong-smelling chemical preservatives.
Class began at the end of October. By early December, they had progressed to the heart.
Instructor Suarez-Quian gave last-minute instructions. Watch out for pacemakers. Cut through the fat around the heart.