Anatomy Donor Lab

Hey everybody! I’ve been thinking about what to tell you about and I thought I’d go into more depth about our awesome donor lab. For me personally, the donor lab is one of the reasons I chose Elon University over some of the other programs that I could have attended.

At the beginning of the year we were introduced to our donors, our cadavers, that we would work with for the rest of the year. Our class is split into two groups, half spends a few hours in the History and Physical Exam class learning procedures and questioning techniques while the other half is down in our anatomy lab. Then we switch. In the anatomy lab we are further split into groups of 3-4. Each group has a donor that we work on.

I was deeply grateful for the way our program introduced us to our donors. While we are only given our donor’s first name and cause of death, our instructors made sure we understood what a privilege it was to work with them. We had a chance to get together with the first year PT students (who also have donors) at the Numen Lumen Center with Dr. Cope (from the PT department), our fabulous Dr. Bennett, and Elon Chaplain Jan Fuller. They made sure we were aware of what an honor it was to have the opportunity to dissect and learn from our donors. They reminded us that our donors were people with families and lives who had donated their bodies so that we might better our education and our understanding of the human body, all with a goal of being better clinicians.

Ok so from this point on I share in some detail what we do in the lab so if you’re queasy maybe just skim through. J

I had a cadaver lab in my undergrad anatomy classes, but this was the first time I had the opportunity to dissect a human cadaver. The process really was a journey of discovery and emphasized to me that the body truly is a marvelous miracle. To be honest, the first time I used a scalpel I had to take a moment, center myself and thank my donor. It was a milestone for me, an indication of how far I’d come in my studies. It also helped me focus on my goal of ultimately working with a living patient.

Over the last few months, we’ve had the opportunity to go through almost all of the organ systems in our donors. We started out broad by dissecting out the muscles of the back. These are big muscles and it gave us a place to start and improve our burgeoning scalpel skills. After improving our dissection technique, we moved on to more delicate structures like the muscles of the face.

For me, one of the most amazing experiences during this process was when we opened up the cranium and removed the brain of our donors. It was our first time using a bone saw. It was very nerve wrecking for me, but also an incredible experience. It struck me as impressive just how thoroughly the brain is protected with the skull and meninges! Once we had the top of the skull off, someone had to “catch the brain” so that it wasn’t damaged, while someone else separated it from the spinal cord. One group had the… interesting opportunity to remove the head of their donor at the neck. The head was frozen and then they used a larger saw to cut it in half so that we had a midsagittal section to look at and study. It also helped us see the structures in the neck better. Later in the year, we studied the brain itself with the help of Dr. Diane Armao, an adjunct professor with Elon and a neuropathologist with UNC-Chapel Hill. It was fascinating to study the relatively small structure that is to crucial to who we are, what we experience, how we move and so much more. Dr. Armao was amazing and had a lot of personal experience and real world cases to help us better understand and comprehend the fascinating structure that is the brain.

Through much of our work in the lab, Dr. Tim Oaks helped provide tips in dissection/surgical technique. He also was vital in helping us understand what structures we were seeing (unfortunately veins are not blue and nerves are not yellow as depicted in textbooks). Dr. Oaks is a cardiothoracic surgeon from Cone Health, and also taught several Clin Med lectures. In the lab he demonstrated how to do a median sternotomy, which is the procedure where you cut the sternum in half and retract the ribs to get access to the heart for heart surgeries. We then used branch cutters to sever the ribs and remove them altogether in order to work within the chest cavity. One group had the opportunity to remove their donor’s heart and lungs together in a functioning unit so we could see how they worked together. Dr. Bennet provided some intubation materials so we could inflate the lungs and visualize just how much they can expand.

When we moved down into the lower abdomen, we found many interesting pathologies that we had learned about in our Clinical Medicine class. It was fascinating just how much one group’s donor could vary from another’s. We found many unique “fascinomas” (as Dr. Bennett calls them) in our donors. It emphasized that people don’t always “read the text book,” meaning real people don’t always present exactly as the text book depicts.

Along with learning from our donors, we had several opportunities to dissect and learn from fresh tissue. During our Head, Eyes, Ear, Neck, and Throat (HEENT) section, Dr. Bennett provided us with fresh cow eyes to dissect and study. It was certainly a different feeling working with tissue that hadn’t been preserved. During the cardiac section, she brought in deer hearts for us to work with. They were similar enough that we were able to identify the blood vessels of the heart and point out different crucial anatomical structures. We learned a lot from working with them. (This was also the first time we were introduced to suturing, which was AWESOME!)

Right now we are studying musculoskeletal system, and it is the first time we’ve traveled outside of the axial skeleton. It has been fascinating to see what lays under the skin in the appendages and how all of the muscles work together to produce such a variety of movements and motions. Dr. Kasinksi, an orthopedic surgeon from ­Triangle Orthopedic Associates in Burlington, is helping out in this section. He too has great insight into the anatomy and can relate to us his experiences with real cases.

So that is our anatomy donor program in a nutshell. I am so grateful for the chance I’ve had to participate in lab. I have learned so much from my donor and I know that it will help me be a better clinician.