The body fantastic

The Journal takes a look inside the Human Body Donor Program, which allows students access to human cadavers for learning purposes

Medical students utilize plastinated body parts as part of their studies as they work at the Anatomy Learning Centre in Botterell Hall on Wednesday.
Medical students utilize plastinated body parts as part of their studies as they work at the Anatomy Learning Centre in Botterell Hall on Wednesday.
Photo: 
Preserved human body parts are kept in the Anatomy Learning Centre museum on the ninth floor of Botterell Hall.
Preserved human body parts are kept in the Anatomy Learning Centre museum on the ninth floor of Botterell Hall.
Photo: 

On Tuesday, I held a plastinated human heart in my hand as I watched students in a second-year anatomy lab observe and label live human tissues.

I looked around the Anatomy Learning Centre in Botterell Hall and realized I was surrounded by any and every possible human body part: bones, lungs and intestines galore.

This is made possible by the Human Body Donor Program, run by the department of anatomy and cell biology, which has existed with the School of Medicine since the 1840s.

The program allows for anatomy, Life Sciences, nursing, rehabilitation therapy and medical students to have contact with human tissues as a core part of their studies.

The program receives 15 to 22 donations a year to facilitate medical teachings and research.

Rick Hunt, the senior technician at the department of anatomy and cell biology, said these facilities are also used by people involved in orthopaedic surgery, general surgery, anaesthesiology and the Clinical Mechanics Group in mechanical engineering.

Hunt said the process of body donations involves the person and their family as well.

“What happens is when someone indicates to their family that they’d like to donate their body to us, the family contacts the University to see if they’d be a suitable donor,” he said, adding that the process follows body donor protocol.

“In Ontario, the next-of-kin or executor has the legal right to make decisions for the person who has passed away. If the family feels like this is something the deceased would want to do, they will contact the University.”

The family is then interviewed by the University to ensure that they can accept the body for research.

According to Body Donor Protocol, bodies can’t be accepted if they have been autopsied or embalmed, if there are infectious diseases or degenerative neurological diseases in the body, if it is extremely emaciated or obese, if it goes through a serious accident, has undergone a major operation or if more than one day has passed since the death without refrigeration of the body.

Hunt said communication with the deceased’s family is important.

“We spend a lot of time talking with the families to make sure that this is really something that they want.” Hunt said it can take up to three years before the bodies are returned to the families, but the family always has control and can withdraw cadavers from the program at any time.

Once the body is brought to the University by the hospital or funeral home, it’s then embalmed to prevent decomposition during research.

“We don’t embalm the body in the traditional sense, like in funeral homes. We need to preserve the body, more like a mummification process.”

Hunt said the bodies can take from six to 10 months to absorb the contents.

He said the body is then refrigerated before it is taken into the dissecting room.

Body tissues can be stored and preserved in a variety of ways. One of these involves storing the tissues in a glass jar with a liquid comprised of two per cent formaldehyde, he said.

“Another method is to ... plastinate them in which silicone replaces the water in the tissue ... Another method is to freeze dry them,” Hunt said, adding that the bodies are put in a vacuum chamber after being frozen.

Hunt said these processes allow for the preservation of tissues dating back to the 1950s; others have been in the lab for as little as two weeks. Anatomy and cell biology professor Les Mackenzie teaches three undergraduate Life Science courses, graduate courses and the anatomy component of two blocks in Phase 2 of the medical curriculum. His area of research includes pedagogy in anatomical sciences. “The respect and dignity for the donated body is a must for anyone that works and learns using these resources. Faculty, staff and students are encouraged to attend to show respect to the families,” he told the Journal in an e-mail.

Mackenzie said the Human Body Donor Program is an effective resource in his research and teachings.

“I (and others) couldn’t effectively teach anatomy without the use of the human body as a resource,” he said. “I believe that it has been well documented (although some will argue) that the most effective strategy in learning human anatomy is the hands-on approach using real specimens. The students have the opportunity to hold in their hands the actual anatomy (i.e. heart), which solidifies the theory of anatomy that we deliver in the lecture.”

Charles Graham, head of the department of anatomy and cell biology, said it’s important to remember to treat each body with dignity and respect.

“Before medical students start their first lab ... we have the University chaplain come to talk about the sanctity of the bodies donated,” he said. “Something I tell them is that the bodies they will be working with were someone’s grandfather.”

Queen’s holds an annual memorial service for the bodies donated. This year’s ceremony will be held June 4 at the Cataraqui Cemetery.

“The families are invited ... Queen’s covers the cost of funeral arrangements.”

Graham said each body is cremated before the memorial service.

“Some families request to have the ashes sent to them but some choose to have them buried here in the burial ceremony.” Graham said donor families often feel better knowing they are contributing to medical research.

Anatomy and cell biology professor Stephen Pang said being able to handle real body tissues benefits students’ three-dimensional learning of anatomy.

“When you use a textbook or computer devices, you only convey the two-dimensional aspect of anatomy,” Pang said. “The three-dimensional aspect is particularly important in surgical techniques, what I call the spatial orientation of the body.”

Using human tissues in learning is also important for tactile learning, Pang said, which involves learning by dissecting the material.

“To me the most important aspect of that is what I call the psychological aspect of dissecting real human material; looking at the textbook is not the same as what you do in front of you.”

Pang, who was head of the anatomy and cell biology department for 10 years and teaches third and fourth-year anatomy courses, nursing courses and Phase 1 of the medical curriculum, said practicing procedures using human material also promotes a connection to the material learned.

“The psychological connection to the body is a very good learning experience,” he said. “You learn to appreciate the emotional aspect of it. Without that aspect, the humanity aspect of learning will become lost.”

Pang said working with a former living human being gives the students a sense of responsibility.

The Anatomy Learning Centre museum, operated by the department of anatomy and cell biology on the ninth floor of Botterell Hall, is also a useful learning tool, Pang said.

“We include high school students in the Kingston area. Every year we have a tour of the anatomy museum over the summer ... We have a wonderful facility and want to promote that.”

Pang said the facility is also used by public servants.

“We also have groups from the police department, fire department and paramedic groups who are interested in learning what we do,” Pang said. “I consider education to go beyond the university level.”

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