The Gift Of Life In Death

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Dr. Larry Witmer, the director of anatomical sciences at Ohio University's medical school, remembers working on his first patient when he was a medical student student at Johns Hopkins University.

His first patient was – as many medical students' first patient are – a cadaver.

Human cadavers are dead bodies to be dissected by scientists and students for scientific or educational purposes. Witmer said that thousands of people have signed up to donate to the lab at the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine when they've passed. When students arrive in the lab, Witmer and his staff not only try to ensure that the students are learning all that they need to pass their exams, but that they fully appreciate their first patient and obtain a new outlook on humanity.

"Of course, it provides us with the opportunity to dissect and understand the details of the human structure," Witmer said. "But by having different cadavers in the lab; many cadavers in the lab allows students to see how different we all are. The structure of the arteries coming off the heart are different in each one of us."

On the first day of class, about 70 students filed into the brightly lit and sterile lab. About 20 cadavers each lay face-down on a gurney, covered by a shroud. A group of about five students clustered around each cadaver. Some had had experience working with dead bodies. For others, the experience was a little overwhelming.

"(I'm) nervous as well, you know. It’s kind of a new experience," first-year medical student Jordan Browning said as she dissected. She said she was trying not to grow "too attached" to her cadaver. "You’ve always heard about it when you go to medical school. But it’s another thing to get to see the cadaver and be heads on."

It's easy to fall into what Witmer calls "science mode," in which students become so focused on the dissection and the memorization that they forget that whom they're working on is a person. There's so much information to retain, after all: little tricks like wearing a two pairs of gloves for double protection, the proper way to hold a scalpel, the names of the muscles – which the students said look nothing like they do in the textbooks.

A graduate student floated from group to group to provide assistance. "Dissection is usually one part tools, one part fingers, because you can really get a sense of where you’re going with the hands," she explained to one group.

Witmer does not want any student to hold back from the dissection due to discomfort, but he wants to remind students of the gift the cadavers, also called donors, have given them. Clipped onto a book stand in front of each gurney is a card that contains the donor's first name, age, occupation and cause of death. Students are supposed to refer to their cadaver by their first name. Sometimes he'll quiz the students on that information.

And if that's not enough, sometimes the body of the donor him or herself will provide another reminder. Some cadavers have nail polish, or tattoos. Some have an indents on their fingers where rings used to be.

By week five, the nervous energy that filled the room on day one was replaced by one of focus. The cadavers were now face-up, which some said made them nervous but was ultimately ignorable. They had worked on various parts of the body by this point. Leland Cancilla, who had just torn his ACL, said his favorite part was the knee.

"It was so interesting, how much went into it, but it’s such a large group of muscles, it’s such a large part of your body, and yet it’s just these tiny little things holding it all together and make it so that you can run, walk and jump," he said.

Every fall, the Heritage College holds a memorial service for their donors. The donors' families are invited, and medical students attend with their lab coats donned over their formal attire. Family members will often speak about why their loved one decided to donate, and how difficult the decision may have been for the family.

It is clear to everyone that the students that the cadavers are helping them, many of whom want to become surgeons and doctors, take one step further in their lives and one step closer to helping others prolong theirs. Chris Weisgarber, a first-year student, spoke about the effect that dissecting his cadaver's hand had on him as he worked in the lab during week five.

"The hand actually made it more real, for some reason. When you’re sitting here, holding someone’s hand, cutting into it. That makes it more real," he said.