SDSU lab gives Willmar High School students chance to view, study human cadavers
WILLMAR — The man and woman had both died of cancer. She had colon cancer that spread to other organs. He had lung cancer, making his lungs black and hard.
Their names were not known to the high school students who viewed their dissected bodies last week at the South Dakota State University cadaver lab in Brookings. But there was not much else unknown about them when the Willmar Senior High School anatomy class visited the lab, with parent permission.
The 27 students on the trip with teacher Jared Eilers were able to view the bodies and other specimens in the lab with the help of biology Professor Andrew Ellis and SDSU student interns.
With transportation provided by a grant from the Willmar Public Schools Foundation, the trip was free for the Willmar students. They pooled their resources to make a donation to the anatomy program's scholarship.
Ellis explained that the people they would see had donated their bodies to be studied to benefit medical education in the hopes that advancements could help their families and others in the future. He told them about the people's medical conditions and gave the class a mini-lecture about the realities of going to college, Eilers said.
Half the class visited the lab while the other half ate lunch, then they switched places. They were able to glove-up to touch and hold organs. They could see where the woman's cancer had spread to her lungs and liver and the effect of being a heavy smoker on the man's lungs.
Some general views from the class: While most had seen dead people before, they had never seen them like that. A couple students said they were "grossed out" by viewing human bodies dissected, with their skin removed, but most were fascinated. Nearly everyone in the class is interested in entering a field of medicine.
Some practical advice: It was better to have eaten lunch before going into the lab than after.
Students said they felt they learned a lot during the visit. They viewed the cadavers and were able to hold organs, tap on an eardrum to watch it vibrate and view a cross-section of a head.
Kate Murphy, a senior who plans to be a dentist, said she was interested to see what cancer looked like, "to actually hold and touch what cancer is." Students said the cancers were obvious because of their different color and texture.
"It's a cool course," Murphy said. "I feel like you should know your body."
The chance to learn from the cadavers gave them opportunities they hadn't expected.
"I think we saw more than we ever expected," said Riley Schneider, a senior who wants to be a pediatrician. "I held a human heart in my hand." The people at the lab told them that the people they were studying understood what would happen when they made the decision to donate.
The differences between the two bodies were remarkable, said Taylor Bengtson. The man was a large person, but the woman was very small. Her cancerous liver was so large it had pushed other organs off to the side, and her body had wasted away.
Some of the students said they would be sorry to see their anatomy class end when the term ends in mid-January. But it's helped some solidify their future plans, and it should help them be more prepared when they take their college anatomy courses.
"It's made me more excited to follow my dreams of wanting to become a pediatrician and go to medical school," Schneider said. "I just want to keep learning more."
The 18-week high school class is an elective science course, and the credits count toward students' science requirements. The students have learned about the major systems of the body, including skeletal, muscle, circulatory and respiratory systems. They have dissected cow brains, sheep hearts and cow eyes. The final dissection will be of the body of a small mammal before the class ends in mid-January.
The highlight of the class was the trip to the cadaver lab last week, Eilers said, and coming in second was their chance to watch a live knee replacement surgery over the internet this week.