I see dead people: Human anatomy class uses human cadavers to learn internal structures

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Article written in October 2013 for the 2013-14 edition of the Warbler, the yearbook at Eastern.

The room erupted in whispers the first time the students saw the steel box opened.

“You can see the leg hair!”

“It looks like a mummy from ancient Egypt!”

“How close can we get?”

As she pulled the clean white sheet back from the male cadaver, human anatomy professor Anabela Maia explained that the face was to remain covered, out of respect. This is the practice used by all organizations that use cadavers — medical schools, detectives, car safety manufacturers.

“Some people get more personal when they see the head,” Maia said.

Students squirmed in their seats and craned their necks to get a peek at the cadaver, its skin yellowed and looking like burnt plastic.

The cadaver was already dissected a few semesters ago, and its role is merely a way to identify structures on “the real thing,” rather than the simplified plastic and rubber models at each lab table.

Students were hesitant to approach the cadaver that first day, only a few brave souls stepping forward in their white lab coats and rubber gloves to follow the “scavenger hunt,” as Maia called it, of identifying the muscles in the arm.

Matt Feldhake, a second-year graduate student in exercise science, said the cadavers are good for the practical learning experience of the class. He said some of his classmates were “grossed out” by the cadavers as first, but that feeling subsided for most after the first few weeks.

“It is easy to initially look at something and think it looks disgusting or smells funny, but when you treat it like a learning tool, there is very little negativity that crosses the student’s mind, for me at least,” Feldhake said.

Another student, Peter Simon, a sophomore kinesiology and sports studies major, said it was “pretty cool” interacting with the cadaver for the first time.

“I like to learn by actually seeing the part in the body,” Simon said.

And that’s exactly why Maia likes having human cadavers in the class. At the last school she taught, they used cat cadavers. But it’s not the same.

“It’s much easier to see the muscles (in a human),” Maia said. “They make much more sense here than in a cat. A cat is tiny, the muscles are tiny, so it’s much harder to see where they end or where they begin.”

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