When I learned that I would be involved in a dissection-based course at my local community college, I was both nervous and ecstatic. Prior to this, I had taken a lower-level Anatomy course at the same school where we were exposed to donors a handful of times during the muscle and organ units. However, with this course, I would spend all year dissecting the same donor from beginning until end. I was anxious about such an intimate hands-on experience – not because of the smell or the sight – but because this donor was, in all aspects, a human. Before the start of class, I spoke to my mother, a religious woman who respected the field of science. She was just as excited for me, but also warned me to not step foot into our house until I had changed out of my scrubs. She believed that any piece of tissue that I brought in could be carrying the spirit of the donor. While the sentiment sounded absurd, I didn’t dismiss the idea that this donor could very much still be around in spirit and thus, he or she deserves all the respect that I would give to any individual alive.
On the first day of this two-part course, we all walked into our tiny cadaver lab filled with previous years’ donors and separated into two groups. There were two new donors labeled ‘male’ and ‘female’ and half of us were assigned to the female donor. We were instructed to open up the body bags and simply examine the donor thoroughly, keeping surface anatomy in mind. We were to pinpoint any irregularities in our notebooks including freckles, wrinkles, and hair. That exercise allowed me to really appreciate my donor, before I ever laid a scalpel against her skin. As I walked around the gurney, I noted the laugh lines around her eyes, the mole on her back, and her small frame overall. At the end of that first class, my instructors provided some background information on the two donors and we learned that my donor had passed away in her late 80s from complications of dementia. We were also allowed to assign names to our donors. We were to work as a group to come up with a name that seemed to fit best with our donor given our recent exercise. While in retrospect, I understand why that would be considered dehumanizing as these donors had names prior to death, by allotting them names, they were not simply “cadavers” anymore. These cadavers, or donors, were now real people. Even to this day, when someone asks about my donor or when I speak to other members of my group, I immediately speak about my experience with “Charlotte”.
After that first day, every time I walked into the cadaver lab, I felt as if I was greeting an old friend. I spent more hours by the side of my donor than I did in other classes. One day, I was working on the posterior aspect of her forearm, and in order to get a good angle, I clasped her hand. I paused for a second, gazing at my fingers intertwined with hers, not out of fear or disgust, but more so out of a sense of camaraderie. This donor had just as much of a stake in our dissection project and acted as both a teacher and an additional group member. As I would work on her arm or abdomen, I would wonder what her life was like and how she ended up making that decision to donate her body. Back home, I would speak to my family or friends about the progress we made on my donor’s body, such as holding her heart or taking out a kidney. But I would also share learned tidbits such as how “Charlotte” was not a smoker given the state of her lungs and how she opted to have a hysterectomy. There was never a moment during that semester where I felt like I was being forced to come into lab. Instead, every day felt like another day where I was able to learn a little more about my donor.
At the end of this two-course series, my class had the opportunity to visit BODIES: The Exhibition. As a scientist, I was excited to see the various displays and further my knowledge about the human body. When I walked into the exhibit, I was immediately greeted by models of humans, muscles exposed, performing acts such as running, riding a bike, and singing. At first glance, I did not think much of these models, believing them to be gimmicks to entertain the younger crowd. I was later informed, however, that these models were actual plastinated donors and upon learning this, my opinion of the exhibit quickly soured. There are many ethical concerns behind displaying human tissue and bodies in a public setting such as with the BODIES exhibition. Yet, placing actual donors in various positions and having them perform acts seemed rude and childish. I do believe that if I had walked into this exhibit, prior to taking a dissection-based Anatomy course, I would not have had such a strong, adverse reaction as I did then.
Having spent two years in that cadaver lab, I felt extremely comfortable approaching my donor in Medical Gross Anatomy. For my fellow group members, however, this was their first time seeing a donor and facing the idea of death. Respecting this, I tried to give them as much space and time possible to allow them to acclimate to the idea of our donor. It is a different experience entirely, watching others handle donors and how they grow as both individuals and future healthcare providers by the end of the semester. I watched one of my group members confidently remove the skin from the face of our donor when on that first day, she struggled to even pierce the donor’s skin with her scalpel blade.
Spending two and a half years working on donors has allowed me to grow both professionally and personally. Working with a group of three or four other individuals always promotes teamwork, but when your point of focus is a donor, it just forces each and every member to communicate more and practice more caution in his or her actions. I cannot imagine a program where donors are not an intricate part of the curriculum for where would one learn these valuable and necessary traits?