For the 10th consecutive year, the Human Cadaver Prosection Seminar at the Indiana University School of Medicine – Northwest (IUSM-NW) will introduce a variety of students and working professionals to the field of gross anatomy with a two-day, hands-on lab experience involving anatomical donors.
On Wednesday, July 30, and Thursday, July 31, a diverse team of 30 volunteers from across the nation will assemble at IUSM-NW in Gary, Ind., to prepare six human cadavers for upcoming gross anatomy classes at the medical school. College undergraduates will work alongside medical students, and healthcare workers will partner with non-medical professionals, during this unique and innovative learning program.
Under the guidance of trained personnel, these volunteers shall actively participate in the preparation of human cadavers for classroom instruction. While doing so, these “prosectors” will receive the sort of practical, real-life introduction to human anatomy that few outside of medical school ever see.
“I believe there is no better way to learn anatomy than to dissect a human cadaver,” said Ernest Talarico, Ph.D., course director of human gross anatomy and embryology at IUSM-NW. Talarico leads the IUSM-NW Human Cadaver Prosection Seminar, which he developed a decade ago.
The term “prosection” refers specifically to the cutting away of the cadavers’ skin and fat to reveal the muscles and organs underneath. But the IUSM-NW program emphasizes not just cadaver preparation but also anatomical education; by prepping the donors for this fall’s incoming medical students, the volunteer prosectors will gain their own valuable knowledge about the structure of the human body.
This year’s anatomical donors arrived on the IU Northwest campus July 16. A group of this year’s prosectors assisted Talarico in making preliminary preparations for the seminar. Cadavers were wrapped in shrouds and hydrated with a phenol solution. Hands and feet were sheathed with white socks for added protection, since they are particularly susceptible to damage. On July 18, volunteers were scheduled to assist in taking full sets of radiological films for each donor, a new learning element that Talarico has added to this year’s seminar.
IUSM-NW is the only campus of the IU School of Medicine that invites volunteers to participate in the prosection process. Talarico said he is unaware of any volunteer prosection program at any other medical school in the country. In recent years, the award-winning program has developed a strong national reputation, with volunteer applications far outnumbering available slots.
This year’s prosectors hail from such diverse regions as New York, Florida, Kentucky, and Washington D.C., as well as from Chicago and Northwest Indiana. Some volunteers are pre-med undergraduates or current medical students. Many others come from assorted professional backgrounds, some that are healthcare-related and others that are not.
Brian Spatola, for instance, is the anatomy collections manager at the National Museum of Health and Medicine of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (NMHM/AFIP) in Washington, D.C. Stephanie Crook is an embalming instructor at Ivy Tech Community College in East Chicago, Ind. Derrick Del Rosario, of St. John, Ind., is a design professional who is contemplating a career change to medicine. And Anne Marie McKenna-Duffek, of Pompano Beach, Fla., is a former English teacher and current Florida Atlantic University graduate student whose volunteer efforts in Haiti and elsewhere helped lead to an interest in medicine and anatomy.
“Life keeps pulling me toward a greater understanding of how the human body works, and your program is the next step on my path,” McKenna-Duffek wrote in the personal statement she submitted as part of her application to this year’s IUSM-NW prosection program.
“Last year, when the opportunity to volunteer in Haiti arose, I jumped at the chance,” stated the mother of seven (including five children who are either doctors or studying medicine). “I thought that I was going there to comfort patients with AIDS and hold sick babies at a Nutrition Center. I did both and found great value in being there, but, when they asked for volunteers to help clean wounds, I was the first in line. Cleaning and re-wrapping the gashes made me marvel at the remarkable ability of the human body to renew itself in spite of near-devastation. I am continually left with a desire to learn more.”
Although the prosection program is open to non-medical professionals, successful applicants typically have some background with or demonstrable interest in human anatomy. Several years ago, Talarico welcomed to the program a Native American tribal chief from the Cheyenne Nation with a background in taxidermy. Last year, a law student studying medical malpractice law at Valparaiso University took part.
This year, Spatola, who is a forensic anthropologist, will bring his own experiences in anatomy to the IUSM-NW lab. Before joining the National Museum of Health and Medicine, which is one of the few museums in the United States that collects and displays human remains, Spatola worked as a morgue supervisor in a medical examiner’s office, where he would often assist with autopsies. Spatola said he applied to this year’s prosection program as a means of continuing his own education in human anatomy.
“In the medical examiner's office, an autopsy often only involves the head, the chest and the abdomen,” Spatola said. “In a high-volume ME's office, you get very familiar with certain regions of the body. You have a job that requires a lot of attention to the task at hand and very little time to explore things from an academic standpoint. That's what I'm hoping to do in this program.
“If you are able to take the time and really study the body and learn from it, you can find something new every time,” he said.
For Crook, who teaches embalming chemistry at Ivy Tech’s East Chicago, Ind., campus, the prosection seminar is an opportunity to gain an added perspective on her own field.
“I’d like to have more of a basis of comparison that I can talk to my students about,” Crook said. “A lot of them are doing internships or currently work in funeral services, so they have a lot of experience with having handled human bodies before. My students talk about what they see in their field, and I need more experience with that aspect of it. I have read a lot about it, and I can relate to them in that sense. But it’s different to have actually done it.”
In the Human Cadaver Prosection Program, volunteers learn about more than just human anatomy and the inner workings of nature’s most complex and astounding organism. They also learn about respect for the donors and their vital role in the process of medical education. It’s a lesson that will be shared later by IUSM-NW’s first-year medical students as they study and interact with the donors who are prepared by this summer’s volunteers.
“You are a professional, and you are expected to treat the donor with respect and full dignity,” Talarico told volunteers who participated in last year’s prosection seminar. “The donors knew full well what they were signing up for when they signed up. Part of the reason they did that was because they knew you would treat them with respect, and they knew that you would use what you learned to help others.”
This conscious emphasis on human dignity extends from the initial prosection seminar through a semester of anatomy classes and, finally, to a January memorial service where students and teachers gather with the donors’ family members to celebrate the lives of the people who have helped to expand their medical understanding. Students at most medical schools never even learn their donors’ real names – the cadavers typically are assigned nicknames – but, for Talarico, this protocol of anonymity undermines the very principles of compassion and respect for human life that he tries to impart to his classes.
“That is a person. That donor is really their teacher,” he said. “These people did a fantastic thing, and they have real names.”
The annual memorial ceremony is solemn yet joyous, and always acutely emotional. Medical students take the opportunity to talk about what they have learned from their donors. In January 2008, students honored Dr. Phillip Countryman, M.D., who was not only a medical doctor but who was also a graduate from and instructor for the IU School of Medicine. Countryman had made arrangements to carry forward the tradition of medical education by donating his own body to the Indiana Anatomical Education Program. Those students who worked with him as a donor expressed gratitude and respect for the chance to learn from a member of their own IU family.
Many times, donors’ family members attend this ceremony. In January 2008, Helen Miller, the daughter of donor Florence LaDuke, traveled to Gary to hear first-year medical students talk about what they’d learned from Florence throughout the semester. Like most relatives who participate in the service, she came away with the sense that Florence’s students respected and cared for her as a human being, not simply as a lab specimen.
“I really was glad I was able to come and take part in it,” Miller said. “I appreciate the effort being made to make their subjects in anatomy much more human. It had that human touch of knowing that there is more to it, that there was a personality there.”
For everyone involved – students, professors, donors’ families, and volunteer prosectors – IUSM-NW’s unique approach to anatomical education provides a complex, academically and emotionally rewarding learning experience that’s unlike any other program in the country. And it all starts this month, when a group of motivated students and working professionals from across the nation will converge in the Dunes Medical/Professional Building at IU Northwest to begin preparing this year’s anatomical donors for one last important role in their lives – that of teacher.
For IU Northwest student Del Rosario, this month’s prosection seminar may tell him whether he wants to pursue a career in medicine instead of design. He doesn’t see the two disciplines as being entirely unrelated.
“The human body is really like the ultimate design,” he said.