PEORIA — In an age when virtual reality is replacing many traditional methods of teaching doctors of the future, the oldest tool of all — the cadaver — is still indispensable.
On Wednesday afternoon, medical students at the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria held a memorial service for the eight cadavers that spent the past year in the college’s anatomy lab, imparting knowledge that can be gained no other way.
“There is no substitute. You can look at pictures every day, but until you can see the structures and hold them in your hands, you don’t understand how they relate to each other,” said Jolene Harris, clinical associate of anatomy at UICOMP and the faculty coordinator of the memorial service.
This was the first time UICOMP has held a memorial service for its cadavers because this past year was the first time they were used in its curriculum. With the addition of the M1 class last year, the university added an anatomy lab where cadaver dissection takes place.
Students work in groups, each assigned a chemically preserved cadaver, and over the course of the year they view different structures in the body, starting with those closest to the surface and ending with those deepest in the body. Nothing is thrown away — all structures are retained throughout the course of the year. In the end, all the parts and pieces are cremated together and returned to the donor’s family or given a proper burial by the Anatomical Gift Association of Illinois, the group that provides UICOMP with cadavers.
During the year, students get to know a lot about their donor.
“Going in, they know their first names, and they refer to them by that,” said Harris. “They get to know a lot about their people by their scars and conditions, and of course they know their cause of death.”
The memorial service allowed students to also learn details about their cadaver’s lives. The program included photographs and obituaries for most of the donors.
“We wrote their family members, and many of them wrote back,” said Lauren Kennedy, one of the students who volunteered to put together the memorial service. “That was kind of our favorite part, being able to represent these people in life.”
Carol, who passed at 72, was a loving mother, grandmother, sister and aunt who will be deeply missed; Bobby was a fun-loving person who was generous to a fault; photographs of Louise showed a vibrant, stylish woman with a loving family; and Eli was a storyteller and jokester who was awarded the congressional Gold Medal for his service during World War II. While battling colon cancer at the age of 65, he declined pain medication so he could stay fully conscious.
“Donors are noble, generous people who have given us permission to use their body in order to gain knowledge to help others,” said UICOMP faculty member Dr. Greg Tudor during the service.
Kennedy also spoke during the service. She talked about her grandparents, Carol and Jack, who had previously donated their bodies to medical education. That knowledge helped Kennedy when she walked into her first anatomy class.
“My family was excited, but I was nervous. Then I read the card and it said ‘Carol.’ I immediately thought, ‘My grandma is in there, and I’m outta here,’” said Kennedy. The donor was in fact another woman named Carol. After some reflection, Kennedy decided this was a sign.
“It’s my grandma saying, ‘I’ve done this, Jack did this, you can do this,’” Kennedy said.
In addition to honoring each of the donors, the service is also a way to let people know about the importance of whole body donation. Though donations cannot be made directly to UICOMP, donors can request that their bodies go to the college, and every attempt will be made for that to happen.
For more information about whole body donations, contact the Anatomical Gift Association of Illinois at agaillinois.org.
Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.