Exploring cadavers at SHU

“Hic locus est ubi mortui viventes docent.”
“This is where the dead teach the living.”

This year brought on many additions to the science program at Seton Hill University (SHU). Last semester SHU built the JoAnne Woodyard Boyle Health Sciences Center, an extension of the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine building on campus. This semester students, particularly in the Physician Assistant (PA) program, were excited to hear that cadavers would be coming to campus.

The cadavers are located in the Joanne Woodyard Boyle Health Sciences Center at Seton Hill University. Photo courtesy of setonhill.edu

The cadavers are located in the Joanne Woodyard Boyle Health Sciences Center at Seton Hill University. Photo courtesy of setonhill.edu

“In previous years PA students would travel to the University of Pittsburgh to experiment with their cadavers,” said Bobbie Leeper, associate professor of biology at SHU. “After Pitt developed their PA program, Seton Hill students were no longer invited to use the cadavers.”

This is when Leeper pushed the initiative to get cadavers brought to SHU. “The great benefit of cadavers is that they provide the 3D anatomy students need to better understand what they are learning,” Leeper said.

In the past students were taught with specialized applications (apps). “They didn’t provide enough visualization,” said Leeper. “The 3D aspect allows for better visual and hands-on practice.”

“The students performing the dissections are in their first year of the graduate physician assistant program,” said Leeper. This includes juniors and graduate students from SHU and other universities. Dissections began the first week of February.

“The first cut was a little overwhelming,” said Brianna Lynn, a junior in the PA program at SHU. “However, once I started recognizing the anatomy and learning from it, I never wanted the lab to be over.”

This is the first group of students to perform dissections on cadavers at Seton Hill University. Photo courtesy of B. Leeper

This is the first group of students to perform dissections on cadavers at Seton Hill University. Photo courtesy of B. Leeper

“You don’t quite understand how much you can learn from them until you are there experiencing it,” Lynn added. “It’s so interesting to see the actual muscles and nerves in real life compared to pictures in your textbook.”

Leeper’s hope for the cadavers is that they are intended for more than just students in the PA program. “Of course the PA students will utilize them as much as possible, but I’d like to reach out to other programs. I recently brought in students from the forensics program to explore fingerprinting the cadavers.”

“The cadavers present us with an opportunity to lift fingerprints, which gives us practice on taking fingerprints, and also shows us how difficult it can be to lift a good print,” said Ashley Perillo, a sophomore forensics science major at SHU.

This is the Memorial Garden located on West Virginia University's campus. Location for remembrance ceremonies for those who donated their body to science. Photo courtesy of wvu.edu

This is the Memorial Garden located on West Virginia University’s campus. Location for remembrance ceremonies for those who donated their body to science. Photo courtesy of wvu.edu

“We will also get to see the cadavers once the PA students have dissected them,” Perillo added. “This will be helpful to forensic science students that might be interested in going to med school to perform autopsies or students who might be interested in investigating crime scenes.”

Leeper also plans on reaching out to local high schools in order to bring some of their students in for observations and learning experiences.

The cadavers are donated to the school from West Virginia University (WVU), but SHU does make payments to WVU for the funds that go into maintaining the cadavers. “The money that SHU pays to WVU covers the cost of preparing and preserving the bodies, transportation to and from SHU and cremation,” Leeper said.

Leeper explained that there was an application process in order to obtain the cadavers. “WVU had to make sure that the cadavers would be sent to an accredited program and used for educational purchases,” she said.

SHU will receive new cadavers every spring semester and they will be utilized until the following fall semester. At this time, the bodies are given back to WVU where they are individually cremated and given back to their families.

Each year, WVU puts together a remembrance service in honor of the donors. Leeper encourages her students to attend these ceremonies, but she would also like for SHU to take its part in honoring. “I would love to have a remembrance ceremony here on campus specifically for the three donors we have,” Leeper said.

“I like to instill in my students the fact that the cadavers are human and not objects,” said Leeper when talking about her lab sessions. “I like to refer to them as the students’ ‘first patients’ and I refer to them as donors, not cadavers.”

“I felt so privileged and blessed to be able to learn so much from someone who has so generously donated their body,” said Lynn. “We could not have asked for a better opportunity to learn from the dead and we cherish every minute that we have with them.”

“There is a lot of misconception,” Leeper said when explaining how a body is donated to science. “The process is very technical and there are many rules.”

For example, family members cannot decide if the body is donated after death. Someone who wishes to donate his or her body must fill out a detailed form prior to death. Each state has an individualized form under the Human Gifts Registry that a person can fill out if they choose to donate their body.

Leeper emphasized that there are a number of rules/regulations for deciding which bodies get donated to science. A crucial regulation is that the cause of death must be natural. This is extremely vital for students utilizing the bodies for learning experiences. For more information visit the Human Gifts Registry website, http://www.hgrpa.org

“The donors [cadavers] teach the students techniques that can be applied in surgery, as many of the tools and techniques used during dissection are the same as used in surgery,” Leeper said.

The memorial plaque is located in the Memorial Garden on WVU's campus. The plaque is in honor of those who donated their bodies to science. Photo courtesy of wvu.edu

The memorial plaque is located in the Memorial Garden on WVU’s campus. The plaque is in honor of those who donated their bodies to science. Photo courtesy of wvu.edu

She mentioned that most importantly, “the donors teach the students professionalism and respect as they are to treat the donors as their ‘first patient’.”

There is a quote written on the wall inside of the cadaver laboratory. The quote is a latin phrase that reads “Hic locus est ubi mortui viventes docent.” Translated this means “this is where the dead teach the living.”

“There is a lot of talk and excitement on campus,” said Leeper. Students and faculty are looking forward to what is to come with the cadavers on campus.

“I think the cadavers are a good learning asset for the physician assistant students, as well as anyone else that learns something from them,” Perillo said.

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