Learning Anatomy: Between Fear and Reality

By Wessam Ibrahim

Learning Anatomy is a journey.  All medical students have some memories about their anatomy courses; some have good memories and some don’t.

It’s October 1995.  I was a first-year medical student at my medical school in Egypt.  I had never seen a corpse except in horror movies.  I was so scared and I really thought that those bodies weren’t real. The instructor started “Well, who would like to start dissection?”  I whispered to myself this guy must be crazy.  He continued: “You guys have to do it”. OMG, I guess I will have to cut that dead body. Surprisingly I volunteered.

Years were going so fast.  I graduated from medical school and decided to have anatomy as my career.  How did I do that? Again, I don’t know; but I know that I am so passionate about teaching medical students and my utmost joy is to see them succeed in medicine…

Every year, I feel the anxiety and fear in the eyes of many of my students.  For my future medical students, here are The TEN Pearls which I feel will make your Anatomy journey easier:

  • Anatomy has its own language. Most of the medical terms are of Latin origin.  You need to learn and practice this language daily until you get used to it.  You will master it in no time.
  • The best resource to learn Anatomy is the one you make.  Try to pick the best way to memorize things.  If you are the kind of person with strong visual memory, try to make your own diagrams or simply edit the instructor’s diagrams.
  • Cadaveric dissection is among the hardest tasks faced while mastering Anatomy.  It is completely normal to have different and strange feelings as it’s probably your first time dissecting a cadaver.  But, you don’t necessarily have to be a good dissector to learn Anatomy.  Studying on prosected cadavers will save you time and will enhance the photographic memory capabilities of your brain.  We used to repeat this phrase which is absolutely true “Your cadaver is your silent teacher.”  Respect your silent teacher.
  • If you keep forgetting Anatomy; you have to know that it’s a very common problem and that it’s absolutely normal.  Just remember “RE…”. “Re” is the magic word.  You have to Repeat… Re-ask….Redraw, e.g. you have to repeat the names of the muscles at least three times, re-ask yourself how does this muscle perform this action? —— then redraw the muscle.
  • One of the key factors to learn your Anatomy is to ask yourself WHY?  Asking why will help you to remember important Anatomy topics as the logical answer will always stick in your brain
  • Perform Anatomy like you are acting in a theater.  Difficult topics to imagine will be easier by performing it with your colleges.  I used to perform pharynx, carotid sheath and gut rotation. Your classmates will never forget that they have been asked to become livers, stomachs, spleens or carotid arteries during lecture by me, or at home by you.
  • Study in a group and DRAW on the board.  Board drawing in a group is very helpful.  Board drawing and drawing in general makes the topic simple and easy to digest.
  • Create your own mnemonics (memory devices based on lists or stories created by focusing on the first letter of each structure).  Many students become expert at creating their own anatomy mnemonics.
  • Treat difficult topics like a bedtime story.  I know it sounds weird but reading anatomy just before falling asleep really worked for me.
  • Be professional. Take on the role of instructor to a small group of your friends and tutor them.  This is a real act of professionalism in Anatomy.  To teach is to learn.
  • Mastering Anatomy is a challenge but feasible. C onsider Anatomy as a journey to explore the wonders of the human body.  The more familiar you get with Anatomy, the better doctor you will be.

Wessam Ibrahim, MD, PhD, is an assistant professor of medical education at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.  Her teaching evaluations in the anatomy course are legendary at the school.

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