Sunday, January 07, 2007

Gr(a-e)y's Anatomy: TV vs. Life

Diagram of Dermatomes from the textbook "Gray's Anatomy" (2005)
Forgive me for my terrible memory of the specific details, but a fellow medical student mentioned an amusing story recently. A non-medical friend of this student walked into the student's room, spotted "Gray's Anatomy" on the student's bookshelf, and said, "Oh, my gosh, they made the TV show into a book?"
There is a classic medical textbook called "Gray's Anatomy" (with an 'a'), which has been used for many years by students in medical school. Also, there is a hit TV show called "Grey's Anatomy" (with an 'e'), which has nothing to do with the textbook. I'm inclined to cut the lay person some slack -- it's not like I have read "Gray's Anatomy" very religiously even though it's sitting on my bookshelf too.
The diagram posted is from "Gray's Anatomy," and it depicts how spinal nerves from each vertebra correspond to specific sections of skin on the human body, which are called dermatomes. In other words, nerves from your T4 vertebra are responsible for the feeling of sensations in a thin strip on your chest along your nipple line. During Halloween, I prayed that a brave soul would paint his body in different colors and call himself "Dermatome Man." Alas, no one stepped forward.
Dermatomes is a concept that we learned in the beginning of medical school, but it was hammered home to me in an unconventional fashion when I met a teenage girl in the hospital who had been hit by a car last October. The collision had shattered her T5 vertebra and paralyzed her. When the doctor lightly scratched along her chest in the hospital, the patient could feel nothing below her nipple line in one of the most dramatic demonstrations of dermatomes that I could ever imagine. The memory has vaguely haunted me for months. My college advisor, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, performed spinal surgery on this patient the next morning to repair some damage...but it was clear that the girl would probably be paralyzed below her chest for the rest of her life.
Several months later, I wonder how this girl is doing, how her life has changed, and what happened to her and her family. Medical school is like the TV show, "Grey's Anatomy," in that you meet actual patients with dramatic stories and heart-wrenching injuries...and everything is real and what you do matters so much.
But, a huge difference between life and TV is that the patients do not cease to exist once the credits have rolled and the music begins playing...even though the lives of these patients and your own life have intersected for the space of 30 minutes to an hour...these patients follow their own paths and you move on with your own life. And I think that it's interesting how -- unlike television -- there is very little closure regarding the lives of many of these people in the hospital, the most dramatic theatre of humanity.
Cue blackout and dramatic white header: "Gray's Anatomy."
Cue music, probably from "The Fray."
Role credits.

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