In the basement of Klamath Hall at the University of Oregon, students like junior human physiology major Sydney Michel study human anatomy through books, models and another, more authentic, source: cadavers.
Each year, eight donor bodies that have been dissected are studied by students during the three-term-long anatomy and physiology sequence. This exposure to human bodies donated to science helps students understand how the anatomy they learn about makes up themselves.
“You can look at a textbook all day long, but the second you look at a body, you’re like, ‘This is no different from me,’” Michel said.
UO’s cadaver lab sets itself apart from other undergraduate programs by providing numerous human donor bodies so that students can get hands-on experience with bodies, get past the initial shock of working with real human beings and possibly dissect one themselves.
A historical legacy
The histories of the cadaver lab and dissection program date back over a century. UO opened its medical school in Portland in 1887, and after merging with the medical program at Willamette University, it became the only one in the Pacific Northwest. Once it was declared an independent institution in 1974, it became what is now known as Oregon Health and Sciences University, according to OHSU’s website.
After the medical school separated from UO, there was a small anatomy program that was preserved; this included the dissection program. Jon Runyeon, professor in the human physiology department and head of dissection at the university, said this is a rare case.
“Most schools that don’t have a med school don’t have a cadaver lab. … It’s a historical legacy, basically,” Runyeon said.
The move from biology department to human physiology department didn’t occur until the latter was created, as a result of Measure 5 passing in 1990, according to the human physiology department website.
Major revenue cuts to the university resulted in the closing of the College of Health, PE and Rec and its relocation under the College of Arts and Sciences as the department of exercise and movement science, and the anatomy and dissection programs followed.
In 2004, the name was changed once again to the department of human physiology, where the programs have been housed ever since.
Dissecting the donors
Students start the anatomy and physiology sequence either at the beginning of summer or fall term, but the cycle starts before then, during spring term, when eight new donor bodies arrive at the lab every year. This is when the dissection class is offered, and just under a hundred students prepare the bodies by removing or making visible different anatomical structures for the next year’s students to study.
“Right now, we’re working on our individual projects, preparing these bodies for teaching,” Runyeon said of the cycle that began this term.
By individual, Runyeon really does mean individual. Each student is assigned a region on one of the bodies which becomes their project for the entire term. They research, plan and execute the entire process alone.
At the beginning of the dissection process, each student compiles a list of all of the bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, arteries, veins, nerves, organs and any other things that are found in their region of the body. The students then must decide what they want to keep for future anatomy students to see, as well as what to remove so that the chosen structures are as clear as possible.
“At first, I was kind of confused, because there were no guidelines, and they were kind of like, ‘Have at it,’” Michel said about the process. “I felt kind of like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, why do they trust me with these bodies? I have no experience whatsoever.’”
However, there’s always an instructor nearby to help when needed.
“I probably call her over like 20 times in my lab to be like, ‘Is this okay? Is this okay?’ And she’s like, ‘You’re doing great, you just gotta believe in yourself.’ She’s definitely helped me be confident in the decisions I was making,” Michel said.
Michel’s dissection region is the head, and her goal is to highlight some areas that weren’t as visible on the bodies she studied. “[For my understanding,] I need to see a body part in so many different planes, almost like looking at it from different angles … I ended up removing the eyeball, because I wanted to get the optic nerve in the eye socket, because I didn’t remember seeing anything like that.”
Part of the learning process is making mistakes. Michel said this isn’t uncommon and neither should it be fretted over.
“A lot of the time, you’ll accidentally cut something that you were trying really hard to isolate or accidentally cut through a muscle, and [my instructor’s] like, ‘You know what? It’s fine. There are so many other bodies.’ You’re in there so long, you get invested in this process. The last thing you wanna do is cut it, but there are still plenty of usable parts there.”
A remarkable study tool
As each term of the anatomy sequence progresses, students are given structure lists outlining what they’re expected to know for that week and can be tested on for an exam.
Due to the large amount of study material, professors and graduate instructors offer many office hours and open lab sessions, in which students can come in to do some extra studying with the cadavers and models. It makes for a lively environment, especially around exam time.
“I like to think — and I’m pretty sure we are — that is, the single busiest teaching lab on campus,” professor Runyeon said. “We’re basically cruising from eight in the morning to 10 p.m. almost [every] Monday through Friday, and hundreds of students are using it.”
One of the benefits of these open labs is getting familiar with the bodies. Each one is unique, adding an extra challenge when identifying parts of them. “There’s a lot of biological variation. Everyone is completely different, and a textbook can say that something is in one place, but in reality, it could be somewhere else on a body," Michel said.
Once the cycle ends at the end of winter term, the remains of each of the bodies are sent back to the willed body donation program they were received from to be cremated and returned to their beneficiary, if they have one, while the new bodies are picked up. These donation programs are usually through medical schools.
Throughout the entire process, privacy is paramount to the department.
“Part of the agreement when you donate your body is that you remain anonymous, and so, when we get the bodies, typically all we ever get are the cause of death, the sex, age and weight,” Runyeon said. He added that height and sometimes occupation are given.
Coming to the lab at the start of the sequence and seeing the dissected cadavers for the first time is unsettling for many students, but for Michel, seeing the undissected bodies at the start of dissection was more emotional.
“The bodies don’t even really resemble humans once they’re dissected, so it’s easier to go in there and learn about them. But when they’re laying there, fully undissected, you’re just like, ‘This was someone’s grandma or relative.’ It’s just weird,” she said.
Even for professor Runyeon, the head of the dissection program, the first time wasn’t easy. “I had a really bad emotional reaction. I had to leave the lab for a little bit. I’m totally coming clean — I didn’t really enjoy dissection that first time. I had a hard time with it,” he said.
Given the hands-on experience and emotional hurdles students overcome through working with cadavers, Runyeon emphasized how having a lab here is special. “There are other … undergraduate programs that have access to cadavers but not as many,” he said. “Often, they’re kept for a much longer period — two to three years instead of recycling every year — and because of that, there’s not a dissection opportunity.”
Some other undergraduate programs that offer dissection are much more competitive. Oregon State University’s program, for example, offers only two bodies for the same number of students, meaning fewer students get the opportunity, Runyeon said.
Training future health professionals
Anatomy students spend a year learning about the human body from every angle, and eventually, the goal is for them to be prepared and ahead of the game for their next step, whatever that may be.
“By the time you’re done with this program, you know anatomy as well as people coming out of physical therapy school and medical school,” Runyeon said.
UO’s cadaver lab is a learning opportunity seldom given to undergraduate students. Anyone on the fence about the program or unsure about whether they’re too squeamish can contact the human physiology department to talk about seeing the lab before committing to the major.
Health professions are known for their long and arduous educational paths, and this is just one step for many students. It can be challenging and strenuous, but it’s also necessary.
“It is awkward, and it is hard and harder for some than others, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of or nothing I would judge anybody on,” Runyeon said. “You need this exposure if you’re going to go to the next step, because actually, this exposure, for most, is easier than the real thing.”
For Michel, the cadaver lab and dissection program have acted as decisive experiences that helped her decide on her future.
“It’s definitely made me appreciate the human body a lot more, and it’s solidified the fact that I want to be a healthcare professional,” Michel said. “I want to be a physical therapist, and I wanna help people whose muscles maybe aren’t working right because I have the privilege of being able to see those muscles right in front of my face, knowing exactly what they look like.”
Note: This article was written by a student in the anatomy and dissection courses.