Cadavers are not so scary, when they’re for science

Dr. Alexandra Hall, senior lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, gave a little disclaimer before her students brought out the cadavers. She said if you feel dizzy or faint, to sit down. Luckily, I was already sitting.

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Yes, I’ve been to funerals with open caskets, but never have I seen beneath the skin of a body, at least not in person. So, I decided to take a visit to UW-Stout’s cadaver lab to get an inside look as to what unique anatomy courses this university has to offer. Now before I begin, I want to let you know that I am not an applied science, dietetics, or even a health, wellness and fitness student – all of which are common studies of those who take UW-Stout’s anatomy courses. I am a professional communication student with an ambitious curiosity.

The program was first introduced to the university six years ago, by Dr. Ann Parsons, professor and chair of the Biology department. Hall teaches two cadaver-based courses, BIO 434 Cadaver Dissection, and BIO 334 Advanced Human Anatomy. I observed in BIO 334, the spring course.

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The agenda for the day asked students to learn more about the veins, vessels, arteries and other parts of the heart. Half of the class was to observe and identify the parts on the cadavers. The other half was to create 3D models with clay.

After a short lecture, it was time to wheel out the bodies. But, before that, let me tell you a little bit about the two who donated their bodies to science. Hall said that the two cadavers (in their 80s), were provided by UW-Madison’s cadaver lab, and every academic year, UW-Stout’s lab receives two new cadavers. After the cadavers have finished their purpose, they’re cremated. The remains are given back to their families.

“The male cadaver that we have now, he died of cancer of the salivary gland. You can see the cancer and you can feel it,” said Hall.

The female cadaver died from a hole in her heart. But, that wasn’t  all the students discovered. With hands-on experience, Hall and her students made surprising findings along the way.

“The female cadaver didn’t die from, and they may not have even known that she had it, but she had colon cancer,” said Hall.

Okay, back to the wheeling out of the cadavers. When the students uncovered the bodies, an overwhelming smell filled the room. The smell came from the wetting solution and lipids and fats from the cadavers. Not going to lie, when I left the room, I smelled my clothes to make sure I wasn’t walking around smelling like a cadaver.

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Groups of students clustered around the bodies with lab coats, goggles and gloves. They removed the rib cage and organs, beginning their observations. Phrases like lateral thoracic, thyrocervical trunk, subscapular and axillary subclavian were tossed around with ease. Students pointed to these parts on the bodies, while others shaped them with clay, asking themselves “Does this go under or over?” Hall walked around, aiding students in locating these bits and pieces that make up our bodies.

To be honest, I was lost half the time. That was no surprise since the last time I took an anatomy class was in high school. And we definitely didn’t have cadavers. But, to think that there are so many parts of our bodies that we are clueless about, makes you think. This small vain plays a significant role in your life. It can make or break you.

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It was a little scary at first to see two cadavers, who were once living beings, laying on tables in front of me. But once you realize that the two who donated their bodies to science have provided UW-Stout students essential knowledge of our makeup, you can’t help but appreciate them. And it then becomes a little less scary.

The cadaver courses are available to all students interested in human anatomy, with a prerequisite in BIO 234 Physiology and Anatomy.

By Shannon Hoyt

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