Body donors give students special opportunities

Take a look around her Tupper Hall office or talk to Brandi Schmitt for a few minutes and it becomes plain that she is a perpetual student of the human body.

Near her hangs a brilliantly colored, detailed chart of the human anatomy - illustrating the beauty inherent in the body's complexity. But the beauty of the human spirit also plays heavily into Schmitt's role as curator of the UC Davis Medical School's body donation program.

"The idea is to help the living by studying the dead," Schmitt said.

Students of medicine, dentistry, plastic surgery, chiropractic and physical therapy - as well as companies that manufacture prosthetic devices - depend upon donors and programs like UC Davis' to help them understand the mechanics of the human physique and morphology - the location of organs, the structure of the skeleton and the movements of joints.

The medical school is unusual in that it allows undergraduates access to study pro-sections - the professionally dissected parts of donated cadavers - such as legs, arms, hands and feet, plus various organs, said Schmitt, who is also in charge of the undergraduate anatomy study room.

"There aren't more than a handful of universities in the United States that have such a program," said Douglas Gross, a senior lecturer in Cell Biology and Human Anatomy on campus as well as an associate professor of pediatrics at the medical school.

"Of course undergraduates at other universities study animal anatomy, like cats and pigs, but nothing like this."

Constant opportunities for learning

Schmitt has 10 years of experience in mortuary science, five of those years as an employee of UC Davis. Her job includes monitoring the activity of medical students and undergraduates in the dissection lab and accepting donor's bodies for research - which includes embalming, refrigerating and freezing bodies and body parts. She has to adhere to stringent documentation protocols and her work might also include removing a brain for study or removing an entire head.

"I'm lucky I have a great supervisor," Schmitt said. "There are some days when I just tell him I've had enough, I'm going home. He understands. I think he's just glad I'll be back the next day."

Like herself, Schmitt said, anatomy professors who teach in the medical school come all the time to the lab to refresh their skills. "I have to keep studying because an undergraduate may ask me about how a muscle overlaps another muscle and I have to know what he or she is talking about, what's going on. It's a part of the job I enjoy, the constant learning," Schmitt said.

While the latest computerized human anatomy programs are amazing teaching tools, she said, having cadavers to study is still an essential for medical students, physicians and researchers. "Computer programs are two dimensional at their best," said Schmitt. "They are very good, but nothing can simulate the touch of human tissue. Surgeons need to be able to feel the organs, the connective tissue, to feel pressure in order to learn their skills."

Students aren't always future docs

Gross spends Monday through Thursday among undergraduate anatomy students and supervises open lab sessions on Fridays and Saturdays, too, answering questions and moving around the tables where prosections are displayed for study.

Undergraduates taking his CHA 101 often plan to go into fields including dentistry, optometry, nursing, physical therapy, occupational therapy or anthropology. "Some students are not pre-anything, but just want to learn anatomy," Gross said.

"These are students who are going into research or physical therapy and sports medicine areas. Maybe some of them will work for prosthetic companies."

They aren't usually pre-med students, since medical school students are going to study human anatomy their first year of medical school anyway, Schmitt said. The undergraduates won't all be doctors but they will need this information for the careers they choose.

Gross is particularly proud of the undergraduates. "This is a very intense class - a 10-week class worth seven units," he said. "There's a lot to learn here. Most of the students who complete this class could pass the human anatomy exams given to the medical school students. They might not achieve as high a grade as the med students, but they could pass it."

On this particular Friday, Justin Lemieux, a third-year undergraduate, is at one of the four lab tables - giving pointers to his fellow students as they examine the hemisected pelvis of a female donor. Justin is patiently and meticulously pointing out the ovaries, the Fallopian tubes, the uterus. He uses a probe to illustrate the density of the bone marrow, or, in this case, the lack thereof.

"You can see how porous it is. You know about osteoporosis, right?" says Lemieux, who would like to go on to study medicine at Johns Hopkins University.

At another table, Kalen Fu, a UC Davis graduate, is back in the anatomy lab as a teaching assistant. He and a group of students are examining a prosection of a male pelvis. Fu isn't sure what lies in his future. "Maybe med school, maybe business," he says, identifying the prostate and noting how it is enlarged. "See, right here, how it's grown into the bladder? That's not so good."

A ong history on campus

The body donor program has been operating since 1968; more than 4,000 people are currently on the books as donors.

"When we receive the normal body of a 90-year-old, I don't have any problem with that," Schmitt said. "A person that age has probably lived a long and healthy life. The ones that bother me are those people who come in here that I see have suffered, who were unhappy for a long time."

While the body donation program won't accept people with severe body trauma, if the person filled out the donation form years ago - before they became ill - the fact they no longer qualify might not be discovered until they are delivered to Schmitt.

Bodies rejected by the program include those of people who have died with hepatitis, AIDS, tuberculosis, multiple sclerosis and Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS).

UC Davis has never had any undergraduate or medical school student infected by any disease through the program, but there are liability issues, said Schmitt.

The university does not pay anyone for donating their body or an organ, but Schmitt does occasionally have to field those inquiries, she said.

Getting over the uneasiness

Some medical school students have a hard time initially with their anatomy classes. Each has their individual way of handling exposure to their first cadaver, Schmitt said. "But I think all of them are respectful of their cadavers. They realize they are confronting their own mortality."

Personal things upset some students, she said. "I had a woman come in with polish on her fingernails. Some of the students are upset by this because it personalizes the dead person. Obviously, someone took the time to paint the woman's nails for her before she died."

Tattoos are also disturbing to some, Schmitt said. "Army and Navy tattoos aren't too bad but a heart tattoo with a name inside it can be upsetting."

Other students want to know as much about the donor as they can or actually seek a more personal connection with their cadaver. "They give them names that we associate with our grandparents, such as Pearl or Clyde. They'll come in and tell me, 'I'm going to work on Grandpa now," Schmitt said.

It is extremely rare, Gross said, for students - whether medical or undergraduate - not to overcome their uneasy feelings and "move on to truly enjoy learning from studying a human body."

Remembering the donors

A special memorial to people who have donated their bodies to the program now sits in the health sciences district.

It was first planned in the fall of 1998 when a group of medical students from the class of 2002 asked Schmitt how they could pay tribute to the donors from whom they learned anatomy.

"We began talking about a ceremony but soon turned to the idea of a memorial - something that would be a perpetual reminder of the unselfish gift that was given and a place where future classes and families could pay their respects."

With funds from the students and the Medical School dean, the memorial was installed during the spring of 2000. It consists of a plaque installed on a bench and a small grove of redwood saplings.

Continuing the tradition, the class of 2004 has donated an additional tree and the class of 2005 is currently planning its contribution. A couple of donors' families have asked if they could donate a tree as well, Schmitt said, noting, "The site has turned out to be a wonderful peaceful place where anyone can reflect on the beauty of the human spirit."

Writer Lance Veit works on campus as a project assistant for student housing helping to manage capital construction projects like the new Segundo Dining Commons. He recently completed paperwork for donating his body to the body donation program.

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Amy Agronis, Dateline, (530) 752-1932,

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