When biology professor Tony Chennault first studied anatomy and physiology at the University of Puget Sound, he said his professor wheeled a single cadaver into the lab and the entire class huddled around the body in a poorly ventilated room. He still remembers the amazement surging through him and a few late nights studying the human form alone in the lab.
Now, the roles are reversed and Chennault is the one teaching an Anatomy and Physiology sequence class, where he and his colleagues introduce Clark students to working with cadavers.
Instead of a single body, Clark has two separate labs with six anatomical donors gifted annually from the University of Washington School of Medicine’s Willed Body Program.
“This is, as far as I know, a fairly rare setup [for a two-year college],” Chennault said. “Anecdotally, talking to other instructors from other schools and hearing from students … it’s a pretty unique opportunity that we have.”
The Anatomy and Physiology sequence and human dissection classes allow nursing and dental hygiene students to gain enhanced perspectives on human anatomy, a unique student experience and smoother transitions to four-year colleges.
Before the cadavers, Clark used plastic anatomical models, 3D computer simulations and cats, biology professor Dr. Rick Rausch said in an email. Rausch said John Martin, a former biology professor, opened Clark’s first lab in 1990 after noting the invaluable benefits of working on humans.
Rausch said Martin found a metal shop in Battleground to craft the cadaver tables which he put in one of the Science building’s old storage rooms with a restored ventilation system to keep the scent and toxic effects of formaldehyde low.
Chennault said cats are often injected with latex dyes so their veins, arteries and other areas are visible to students, but human cadavers provide a clearer learning process.
“It’s hugely important that they have a chance to learn real anatomy on real humans,” Chennault said. “When you have real human body donors, you have imperfection … even though we share so much of our anatomy with our fellow humans, there are some variations that can happen from person to person.”
Chennault instructs in the STEM building’s Steve and Jan Oliva Anatomy Lab. The STEM lab is outfitted with an advanced lighting system, three white body bags and the outline of a human figure clear underneath and six downdraft tables with whiteboards stating the proximal cause of death behind them. Students hang lab coats for dissection on a rack near the door and over 20 boxes of blue nitrile gloves are stored on shelves.
With up to 18 students in the room at the same time, Chennault said, Anatomy and Physiology professors coordinate before exams to offer weekend lab times for studying.
Anatomy and Physiology student Michael Golden said he “was never more excited to go to school for eight hours a day on the weekend voluntarily.”
Golden said he’s graduating this spring with a pre-nursing major and continuing his bachelor’s degree at Concordia University. His path, he said, was influenced by a childhood of watching his mother’s physical abilities falter due to multiple sclerosis.
“Growing up holding my mom’s hand going shopping, or anywhere, was just second nature,” Golden said. “If it was snowy or icy I’d pick her up and just carry her across the ice.”
Being introduced to the cadaver lab excited him because it was a step closer to a career of caring for others.
The first day of lab, he said, was about five minutes long. Golden said his professor opened the lab, “showed us dead bodies and then he was like ‘okay whatever you guys need to do, if you need to go meditate or have some alone time, go for a run, do whatever you need.’”
Personally, he said, Golden felt contrasting emotions.
“It was a mix of excitement and uncertainty and I think the uncertainty was because I had to challenge, in my mind, what I’d always thought about being around dead bodies,” Golden said. “It took away anything that death usually makes us feel because these people, after they died, were exactly where they wanted to be.”
Unlike most memories, Golden said, those of working with the donors will never fade.
“I never felt like I could know a person more than after you’re done working on these cadavers,” he said. “You see them in ways that are deeper than you’ll ever see another person even though you have no actual interactions with them.”
Golden’s Anatomy and Physiology professor, Mark Bolke, said he enjoys watching students’ perspectives develop in the class. He said often students are either “filled with trepidation” or excited.
Since every student is different, Bolke said, he helps them cope individually but always reminds them the future holds a career of living patients and until then they need to understand what’s inside a body.
He said students often report their reactions as less alarmed and more awestruck.
“I think they’re able to reconcile their negative emotions and their apprehension with the positive outcome of being able to study,” Bolke said.
Brooke Nuorala, one of Bolke’s Anatomy and Physiology students, said it took her a month of classes twice a week before she was used to working with the donors.
She said there were many things she didn’t expect, like lungs having a memory foam texture and arteries and muscles being shades of white, gray and brown.
Her perspective toward anatomical structure changed when she observed the lungs of a person who’d smoked a few times in their life.
“Imagine black paint on my fingers and I’m just painting your lungs,” she said, holding up two fingers and motioning streaks through the air.
“Seeing a body’s not a problem anymore but if you touch it to your things that you associate with your life outside of the lab, that’s where it gets a little funny,” Nuorala said, adding that she wanted to go straight home and wash her clothes when the smell lingered on them.
Yet even with momentary discomfort, Nuorala said working so closely with the donors creates a connection, as if they teach silent lessons. She said she appreciates Clark’s program because it got her over her initial shock before moving on in the field and she can now visualize where the roots of disease are within the body based off the anatomy she’s learned.
“When you first go in there, everybody’s really quiet,” Nuorala said. But by the end of the course, it becomes “a new standard of normal.”