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Gift from the lab

Gross Anatomy takes students on learning journey to heart

by Dawn Brazell
Public Relations
The bodies draw the attention, all laid out on their dissecting tables.

We all pretend this is a normal, every day occurrence to walk in a room of cadavers, all donors to MUSC’s Anatomical Gift Program. They can’t speak to tell their stories, but there’s a sense of altruism that ties them all together.

Laid out beneath their red protecting covers, they all seem the same until we get to know them better.
There are the stitches on one man’s wrist. Varying amounts of body fat. Body scars that tell a story. The pacemakers and spinal stimulators. Some of the donors have more body hair than others, an oddly touching sight in the brightly-lit laboratory with its hanging skeletal models and anatomical textbooks propped up on stands for today’s lab session.

Christopher Bridges, first-year medical student, tentatively continues his dissection of the pectoral region on the body at his team’s table. He likes it that they have a friendly competition with another dissecting team that comes in on another day. The teams share information and teach each other.

They’ll be in gross anatomy lab for three to four hours today. It makes for long afternoons for the MUSC medical students. So far, he hasn’t dreamed about it.

“I’ve dreamed about medical school, but not gross anatomy—yet,” he said, smiling. “And, I’m OK with that!”

Dr. David Bernanke in the gross anatomy lab where his easy-going manner helps students adjust to the lab.

David Bernanke, Ph.D., director of MUSC’s Anatomical Gift Program, jokes with the students. Having taught this type of course since 1986, he knows how to handle the intricate balance required in gross anatomy that aims at desensitizing students enough to be able to study and learn medicine, while preserving a reverent attitude necessary for anyone in the healing professions.

The students all cope in their own ways. On some tables, the faces are draped.

I ask one team why they chose to do so. A female medical student quickly answers: “To preserve the body.” Another, Donald Barr, pauses in his methodical dissection of fat and fascia to add, “There’s probably more to it than that.”

The team’s silent a moment, processing the comment.

MUSC gets about 60 donations a year, averaging six or seven a month. Bernanke, as director, often talks to these potential donors. He doesn’t ask them why they’ve made the choice to give their bodies to science, but often they volunteer that anyway.

“They say that they’re giving back and what they’re giving back is to the body of knowledge,” he said. “They’re helping train a doctor or a physical therapist or a dentist, and through that, they’re helping a lot of people.”

There has been a trend to go to 3D imaging as a way to train these students. Bernanke welcomes technological advances, but knows from years in the lab the value of hands-on training. “You learn as a child by reaching out and touching the world. If you pick up something in your hand, you immediately know how big it is, how heavy it is, what it feels like, how resilient it is. This tactile-based learning is an important part of gross anatomy just like it is for any kind of learning—for a child to learn or a mechanic.”

He recently was asked by a doctor interested in becoming a donor if they still needed bodies.

“The answer is absolutely yes.”

An unusual feature about MUSC’s program is the student-led memorial service held each year at St. Luke’s Chapel in honor of the donors to MUSC’s program. The service gives students an opportunity to relate to the families of these donors. It’s a time they can say thanks and make a personal connection, he said.

“It’s an excellent thing to do, and it caps off what we want the students to get—no matter what program they’re in—in terms of  the relationship to people, patients, the world.”

The service and the course hit home for the students.

Barr said gross anatomy has been his favorite part of medical school so far. It gives him a chance to step out of conceptual concepts to physically grapple with something tangible to study, he said.

“The most difficult parts to adjust to have been the flashes of humanity that I see in the individuals who have given his or her body for us to learn from.  It usually comes out of nowhere, but I’ll be in the middle of a dissection, and I’ll wonder what her story is, or how something about her is slightly familiar. It can be tough being so intimate, but remain disconnected at the same time.”

Though he likes 3D computer models as a supplementary learning tool, it doesn’t equal working with a real body that offers a connection a computer screen just can’t, he said. “There is something about touching, manipulating and being a part of the physical unfolding of the structures that connects you to what you’re doing.  It’s knowing you’re working with a real person that you truly start to understand what a privileged position we are in as future physicians.”

Bernanke said there are the funny moments during class, such as when a donor’s arm will happen to drape a student. They do joke to keep it from being too somber, but they’re careful not to cross the line, he said. He recalls a few years back when it was time for the last exam. The bodies were in black bags at that point on the tables. It marks a time when students are “crazy busy” before the exam and staying late in the lab to study. Generally, there are papers, stools and benches all over the place.

“Well, I walked in and the place was neater than a pin. I thought maybe I had come on the wrong day. I looked around the lab and over on one table on the back row of the lab, there’s a bouquet of flowers on one of the body bags, so I just left it there. Everyone was very touched by this. When the body was removed for cremation, the flowers went as well. It was the single most touching moment when I realized the level that they appreciate the gift that the people give them.”

Barr said it’s impossible not to be deeply touched.

“You can’t help but revere and respect the courage of the person on the table; more exposed and vulnerable than they ever were in life. We have professors directing the lab activities, but they are really the ones teaching us. It takes a kind of selflessness and caring that I’m not sure I have myself, so I struggle with the hypocrisy of benefiting from their sacrifice but being uncertain if I’d be able to make the same one.

“That’s one of those moments when the humanity of their gift can be a little overwhelming. The best way I try to show my thanks is by making the most of every opportunity to study and learn through them.”

Want to be a donor?
The Anatomical Gift Program falls under the umbrella of the Center for Anatomical Studies and Education (CASE). Thierry Bacro, Ph.D., and director of CASE, said that the Center for Anatomical Studies and Education was created in 2009 to establish an academic structure within the newly re-named Department of Regenerative Medicine and Cell Biology to host the activities related to teaching of anatomical sciences to the students in the College of Dental Medicine, the College of Health Professions and College of Medicine, as well as to provide a university interface to support and promote anatomical research studies, educational projects and continuing education workshops at MUSC.

For more information about the MUSC’s Anatomical Gift Program, visit or e-mail your request to

Friday, Oct. 15, 2010

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