Occupational therapy students engage in unique dissection cadaver lab

Emily Ambery | Staff Writer | Lucy Barber (left) and Jess Ashton (right) evaluate a fake hand bone.

Emily Ambery | Staff Writer

Nov. 10, 2022

In a cold, bright room, four third-year occupational therapy students gathered around their station as they worked on the superficial back of the cadaver, separating connective tissue and exposing the muscular structures underneath.

Jess Ashton and Lucy Barber used their fingers, as one approached from the back of the cadaver and the other approached from the side.

As they worked with their hands and learned in a way no textbook could teach, the cadaver moved while they tried to meet in the middle, which would signify that they had successfully separated the connective tissue from muscle. As they worked, Sarah Ricketts and Vivian Chan observed and debated about the seemingly aggressive method their professor was having them use.

“That’s probably muscle tissue,” Chan said to Ricketts as they pointed to something to the left of what Ashton and Barber were working on. “Maybe we were too aggressive.”

Then, Chan stepped in to replace Ashton and continued to move her fingers toward Barber’s.

“Oh, that’s your finger!” Barber said, finally, as the four of them leaped forward in excitement to see.

In their third year, Duquesne’s occupational therapy program requires students to take a dissection cadaver lab to further their learning of anatomy as a foundation in their education. In this lab, students work in groups of four with one cadaver for the entire semester. Twice a week, students are in the lab for two-and-a-half hours. Two students begin the first hour, and then co-teach the other two as they come into the lab for the final hour-and-a-half.

Although many smells permeate the environment, formaldehyde was the most prominent as it filled the air. Barber described the smell of rotting fruit as the closest scent she could relate to the chemical preservative.

The atmosphere was respectful, yet filled with eager learners and a professor whose passion motivated a lot of the students to keep exploring.

“This is gorgeous,” Dr. Kim Szucs said, the professor of the lab and lecture, with her hands deep into the back of a station’s cadaver. “Look at that posterior delt right there.”

While the benefits of a dissection lab, as opposed to the more typical pro-section lab, are highly debated, Szucs advocated for this hands-on type of learning. Pro-section labs have the cadavers already dissected for students to look at.

“The 3D relationships of the body in a life-size view are critical for understanding how the structures of the body work together,” Szucs said. “It is a relationship that cannot be developed from textbooks, apps or plastic models.”

Measuring the benefits of the dissection cadaver lab is difficult. But in her six years of teaching anatomy at Duquesne, Szucs always sees the confidence built in her students as they work with cadavers. In the lab, the senses are used in ways that develop a unique depth of learning, she said.

“Before working with the cadavers, I was really excited to see what everything looked like but as soon as I actually saw the cadavers I thought, ‘Wow, these are real people who lived real lives just like us, and we are going to be some of the last people to touch their bodies,’ so I felt guilty in a way,” Ricketts said.

“However, after working there for a couple hours, I was able to detach more and focus on learning the muscles. I now just feel really grateful that they were willing to donate their bodies for our learning because it has really helped me to have an accurate understanding of our bodies.”

Before the students go into the lab, the program establishes a sense of gratitude and respect in the space. Students learn that the opportunity is a gift, and that it is respecting the person’s wishes to learn as much as they can in the lab, Szucs said.

There is a card at each station detailing the person’s first name, age, cause of death, marital status and occupation. The information helps to provide context for the student’s learning, but also helps to maintain empathy and appreciation for the person and their choice to donate their body to science.

“We always try to stick to the lab manual so we’re not doing any meaningless cuts and keep the face and genitals covered,” Ricketts said. “Most of us also refer to the cadavers by their names as a reminder that they ad an identity and life before this.”

Each group of students in the lab worked at 1 of 14 stations. Students were dressed in scrubs, masks, protective eyewear and lab coats. Some were using a scalpel and forceps to expose more of the muscle, while others were using their hands to explore the structures they were studying for the day.

As all the occupational therapy students worked with their specific cadaver, students from different groups went around and asked about what other students were discovering.

The takeaway from every station was, “Nobody is the same, even if they look similar on the outside,” Barber said.

Another benefit to dissection Szucs noted was the variability in each cadaver, not found in textbooks. She noted specifically that, with occupational therapy’s holistic approach, understanding and seeing the differences in structures across the cadavers will help their future careers in problem solving and treatment plans.

“Learn the typical, but respect the atypical,” Szucs said.

A lab assistant and practicing physical therapist, Holly Bacasa, shared that her master’s program only used computer models for learning anatomy.

“Even after 25 years of practice, this experience will definitely benefit my therapy from now on,” Bacasa said. “It really makes you appreciate how everybody is different and the textbooks just do not do it any justice.”

At the end of the semester, students will write letters of gratitude to the cadaver they worked with. Then, at the end of the year, the cadavers will be sent back to the procurement center, cremated, then sent back to their families.

Duquesne will hold a service for the cadavers, in which students are invited to show their respect and appreciation for the donation.

“Everything is where it should be, but for me, it is like I am seeing [the structures] again for the first time,” Szucs said. “It is satisfying to see the students have these lightbulb moments in making the connections between the structure and function on a deeper level. It gives you a great appreciation of our bodies.”