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Through death, new life is found: The College of Medicine welcomes new anatomy lab

Where medical students meet their first patients: cadavers

It looks like a high-tech, ultra-modern industrial art studio, but it is actually the new anatomy lab at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine. Within these walls, future physicians meet their first patients: cadavers.

These cadavers give students the hands-on understanding of human anatomy that lectures and books cannot. Anatomy is the bedrock of understanding with which these future physicians will treat thousands of patients. Those who donate their bodies understand the importance of this education. Likewise, students who learn from this process gain a deeper appreciation for the human body, and the human soul.

The Texas A&M College of Medicine has created a new state-of-the-art anatomy lab with this spirit in mind and with the belief that first class facilities will enhance student’s educational experiences.

The 6,000 square foot space is an attachment to the Medical Research Education Building (MREB). Two sets of double doors lead the way to the main lab, a large open room with about 43 stainless steel boxes on wheels, allowing up to 240 students to use the room at the same time.

[pullquote align=”full” ]“Every day a new discovery bloomed, a boldface term, a nerve, Asleep in your rectangular slumber, I knew you only by soft pink nails and laugh lines,” [/pullquote]

The MREB addition was created to support the College of Medicine’s future, from the 100 percent LED lighting, to plans to start construction of two to four additional floors (slated to begin in late 2016 and to include a vivarium). The company in charge of the state-of-the-art facility, Satterfield & Pontikes Construction Inc., shares this dream for the building and the students who learn within its walls.

“We recognize the critical role the lab plays in allowing Texas A&M to produce the best doctors in the state,” said George A. Pontikes, Jr., president and CEO. “We have been a proud partner on this campus from the beginning and we were extremely pleased to be able to deliver this facility.”

[pullquote align=”full” ]“The sight of her hands, quietly shocking, every time we opened the titanium box, for they were her personhood contained in ten delicate projections,” [/pullquote]

These cadavers are the first patients students touch in their path to becoming physicians, and the experience often has lasting effects. As soon as they begin their courses in July, they are assigned to a team of students and a cadaver for a 19-week journey through human anatomy.

Twelve, seventy-inch digital screens hang from the ceiling throughout the room, wirelessly connected to mobile cameras, which allows faculty to project unique aspects of one cadaver to the rest of the class. Students are able to interact without having to leave their cadaver.

“We all look different on the outside, and we all look different on the inside. These screens allow us to share these unique traits with the entire group to help our students understand the uniqueness of each body and allow them to experience more than they could in the previous anatomy labs,” said Wei-Jung Chen, Ph.D., professor, associate dean for faculty affairs, assistant dean for student affairs and the course director for Medical Gross Anatomy

[pullquote align=”full” ]“You were more than an instrument, a textbook, a manual, a dissection,” [/pullquote]

The anatomy course assigns six students to a cadaver, with three rotating pairs in each group. The rotating pairs not only allows students to work more closely with the cadaver, but it also teaches them how to work in teams as “teachers and learners”—much like they will have to do when they are practicing physicians. One team will be responsible to teach the other team that is rotating off what they learned that day—and then take a short quiz on that information. Here’s the rub, the grades earned by the learners will apply to both learners and teachers.

“Not only does teaching each other help them learn the information, it helps them learn to communicate with fellow physicians,” Chen said. “This is imperative because these are first-year students and we want them to be able to vocalize their understanding of the body and utilizing these anatomical terms from the very beginning, not when they enter clinical settings.”

“Our cadavers usually come from a 100-mile radius of Bryan-College Station,” Chen said. “It is truly a privilege for us to have these donations and we are appreciative of everyone who has given this gift.”

A portion of the lab, called the “dry lab,” is home to another kind of anatomy specimen. The “dry lab” includes cross sections of human bodies. Within their anatomy courses, students learn how to read a radiograph by using these cross sections. The human body looks quite different from different angles, and rather than learning what’s on the left, right, front or back of a body—they learn the intimate relationship among anatomical structures, which is critical for the understanding of clinical relevance among those anatomical structures. .

[pullquote align=”full” ]“I wondered who you loved, what you craved as I read your heart, open, bivalved like a book,” [/pullquote]

No doubt, 19 weeks spent with another person’s body is its own type of relationship. Students are often greatly impacted by the cadavers they are assigned. So much so, that the students hold a memorial service activity every year for the cadavers. Following completion of the medical gross anatomy course, the first year students organize this ceremony to show their utmost respect and appreciation to those who donated their body for medical education through the willed body program.

[pullquote align=”full” ]“How could I thank you, though I cried, though I ached, though I paced, though I smiled,” [/pullquote]

The current third-year medical students have also organized to create “Legacy Grove” on the new Bryan campus. Just outside the MREB building is a tree donated by the students from the 2017 and 2018 classes, with a plaque that reads: “In honor of our first patients and the invaluable lessons they taught us.”

The Classes of 2017 and 2018 donated a live oak tree as the first of what will be many additions to the Grove, a living tree to commemorate the great contribution of those who donated their bodies to the advancement of medicine.

“We often see that the relationship between student and cadaver is something internal to each student, it happens deep within each student and each relationship is very unique,” Chen said. “As an institution we do not predicate that our students memorialize or develop a relationship with the cadavers, and we allow each student to develop this in her or his own way—because this is such a privilege we don’t want to damage that relationship by forcing our students to feel something based on our beliefs, they need to feel it on their own.”

And indeed students do develop these relationships. The Department of Humanities in Medicine encourages students to submit writings about these relationships. Poems, essays and blogs have all been shared and reflect the deep appreciation students have for those who have given their remains.

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”Krystha Cantu”]“I carry you with me in my medicine bag,
You are in the familiar drumming heard behind the stethoscope,
and in every handshake of introduction as I address every patient,
I reopen the titanium box again and again.”[/pullquote]


*Excerpts taken from a poem written by Krystha Cantu, third-year medical student.

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