The ceremony that took place recently at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV honored four individuals ranging in age from 72-94 years old, two of whom died as a result of respiratory-related ailments while the other two passed away from cardiovascular disease.
All four — two males and two females — donated their bodies to medical education, bodies now used at the medical school in anatomy instruction.
At the ceremony, two students, Peyton Sakelaris and Sarah Saxe, both in the class of 2027, read a poem that pays homage to donors, “Cadaver Anatomy – Learning Humanity,” by James R. Carey, Ph.D., a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota.
The last stanza reads in part:
You yield one last gift of selfless virtue
Your body to us
In awe, we learn anatomy
Higher, we learn humanity
The observance by the medical school ushers in a new human cadaver lab to complement virtual anatomy instruction, making it possible, according to Owen McCloskey, human anatomy lab and safety manager, “to move to a more hybrid style in presenting the anatomy curriculum.”
Until now, Kirk Kerkorian medical students largely learned anatomy using virtual anatomy tables, interactive touch screens loaded with a library of clinical images – pathology slides, CT scans, X-rays, MRIs, and other diagnostic tools at a physician’s disposal. Body images are viewed in a variety of perspectives, able to show an organ while rotating it in three dimensions. A student can view successive horizontal sections of the body cavity and its internal structures by dragging three fingers down the table. Similarly, students – they also have used anatomic models and skeletons and observed cadavers professionally dissected to further their knowledge – can virtually slice through an anatomical structure: in essence, dissecting it.
As impressive as the high-tech approach to learning anatomy and dissection can be, Dean Marc J. Kahn, who spoke at the ceremony, says learning anatomy with cadavers gives students the ability to truly feel the texture of tissues and organs.
No matter how good the technology, Kahn said it is impossible to replace the sense of being around an actual body of someone who had been living.
Cadaveric dissection is, he said, “a rite of passage” for medical students.
Observed McCloskey, who helps teach anatomy, “Virtual cadavers, plastinated cadavers, and models are very helpful for learning, but nothing truly compares with seeing the anatomy and its organization within a real human body … It allows one to move structures around in order to make better connections with the integration of the organ systems within the body … and also provides students with better opportunities to become more familiar with using the various dissection instruments that include scalpel, probe, scissors, and forceps.”
Because the medical school is still in the process of creating its own Anatomical Willed-Body Donation Program (the new Medical Education Building, which has 10 cadaver tables, opened to students in the spring semester of this year), McCloskey procured four cadavers from the University of Nevada, Reno, School of Medicine’s donation program.
“We are still building our anatomy faculty team,” McCloskey said. “We’re currently in the process of hiring a new anatomy professor and assistant dean of anatomical education. In the future we’ll use all 10 cadaver tables.”
At present, second-, third-, and fourth-year students have become involved with dissections of the cadavers, with first-year students learning from the results of their work.
McCloskey says he feels sure that the people of Southern Nevada will participate in a body donation program once the medical school’s planned program is certified. Many individuals understand, he said, that becoming a donor contributes to the advancement of medicine.
“Since I started here last summer, I’ve received contact information for at least 10 individuals that would sincerely like to donate their bodies to our medical program and continue helping out with the education of future doctors.”
The school’s anatomy program has also acquired four plastinated specimens, which come from donated human bodies.
Plastination is the process invented by Gunther von Hagens that preserves human tissue, organs, and whole bodies by removing water and fat from the tissues and replacing them with certain polymers and resins, thereby preventing decay. Plastinates, which are rigid and do not allow demonstration of hidden structures, do not replace dissection courses.
“The human cadavers and plastinated specimens,” said McCloskey, “add a whole new element and resource for the students at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine to utilize and enhance their knowledge on the anatomy and physiology of the human body.”