“Everyone is so different, yet we are all the same.”
The dissection lab where people donate their bodies to science resembles a car dealership in a way: squeaky clean, brightly lit, a distinct smell, ready for a big reveal.
But until this year, that was virtually unknown to Butler University students.
That’s because there is no cadaver lab at Butler. Dissections have largely been confined to the classroom, done occasionally on donated bison hearts, but more often than not, anatomy has been taught via plastic models and textbooks.
While there is the new Anatomage table—a virtual cadaver dissection table that enables students to manipulate three-dimensional virtual human cadavers—there is nothing quite like seeing the human body in its natural state, says Mikaela Drake, Assistant Professor of Health Sciences.
“Fresh tissue enables students to see the tissue as it exists in our body, but to also experience the smell, manipulate the joints, and remove the organs,” Drake says. “In a traditional cadaver lab, bodies are preserved, which means everything is the same color and has an almost plastic feel.”
Enter the Medical Academic Center.
The Medical Academic Center, or MAC, is a medical education center in Carmel, Indiana. Often, a medical device company would go to the MAC, for example, to train physicians on new products or procedures using fresh tissue cadavers, explains MAC Director Sandra Haugo. But that training, done on donated fresh tissue bodies, is almost always confined to a small area of the body—a shoulder, fingertip, knee—and then the rest of the body would be untouched.
“I couldn’t stand having an entire torso sent to cremation, knowing the abdomen was untouched,” Haugo says. “We have people who donated their body to us and we weren’t using it to its full potential. Let’s get as much as we can out of this because that is what these individuals would have wanted.”
So, Haugo started freezing the bodies after procedures were completed, and opened the MAC up to educational programs. At around that time, Drake, Amy Peak, Director of Undergraduate Health Science Programs, and Michele Moore, Assistant Professor of Health Sciences, went to get some dissection practice of their own. And a partnership was born. Butler is the only university working with the MAC. “This isn’t just memorizing bones and nerves and where that is and what that is called,” Peak says. “This enables our students to see how everything is all connected, what everything feels like, and smells like, but it goes beyond that. Experiencing a human cadaver enables our students to make connections beyond the physical, to the emotional, and all other aspects that go into who that person was and what their life journey was.”
On a recent Thursday afternoon, about 15 Butler students were at the MAC, ready to take part in their first fresh tissue dissections. The students, part of the Anatomy and Physiology Lab, gathered in a classroom at the MAC first to learn a bit about the individuals whose bodies they would be working on.
They learned the age, gender, weight, BMI, date of birth, date of death, and cause of death, then were told if they felt queasy to take a seat in one of the chairs in the lab. They were warned that the arm would have the most “intense odor.”
Then, the students put on yellow gowns and blue gloves and headed into the lab. Questions were shouted out.
“Do your fingernails keep growing?”
“Is this his actual skin skin?”
When it was time for Drake to open up an 83-year-old woman who died of dementia, there was an audible gasp in the lab. Her lungs were dark. “This is very different than the plastic models,” says Andrew Thompson, 2018 graduate with a double major in Health Sciences and Spanish who is currently in Butler’s PA Program. “The black is indicative of disease, but it says she died of dementia. It just really makes you wonder about so much, and her life, and if she suffered.”
Then, Drake ran into some trouble.
When she was trying to cut out the female donor’s heart, she was having trouble getting it out. One of the major vessels that leaves the heart and brings blood to the rest of the body, it turned out, had an aortic aneurism. This was only discovered once Drake was able to take the heart out.
“I could cut into the heart and show the disease from the inside out. It was a fantastic teaching lesson. They could understand and I could show them how it happened and you cannot beat that,” Drake says. “I wondered if we were the first ones to see this. Those are ticking time bombs and are not possible to feel in a preserved cadaver. “With a plastic model, everything is where it is supposed to be and where you expect it to be. Pieces come apart perfectly, and go back together right where they should. But when you work with donor bodies, as soon as you pull back the breast plate, you don’t know what you will find.”
The 2017–2018 school year was the first year students went to the MAC. About 66 participated, and this fall, about 110 are enrolled in the Human Anatomy and Physiology lab, and therefore, get to head to the MAC.
Most want to be healthcare professionals of some sort, Peak says, ranging from medical school, to dental school, to PA school, but others are Music, Communication, and Chemistry majors, to name a few.
Recently, a student came into Peak’s office and said the MAC experience influenced her career path. She was thinking about becoming a medical examiner because of her love for solving problems and mysteries.
For Drake, just like most of the students in her lab, her first fresh tissue dissection came courtesy of the MAC. She has dissected hundreds of pig hearts and cow hearts, but about a year ago had her first fresh tissue human dissection at the MAC.
“I never dreamed I would have done this and I find myself, much like our students, still thinking about the individuals we dissected,” she says. “This experience gets at the heart of what we teach. Everyone is so different, yet we are all exactly the same.”