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The dead aid the living in UAA anatomy lab

  • Author: Peter Porco
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published May 24, 2009

Brenna Lewis, a 23-year-old medical student from Anchorage, pulled gently on a thin muscle in the fully dissected, wide-open forearm of a woman who died last year.

Lewis slid a finger under the muscle toward the wrist until she could move it no more.

A notebook in her other hand, she leaned in under the surgical lamp, peering at the brownish-purple band and its gangly surroundings -- dozens of cord-like nerves, tendons, muscles, blood vessels and bones that compose the miracle of motion and strength in the living human arm.

"I memorize muscles based on where they begin and end," Lewis said, tugging at the strand as if she were gauging the tension on a fan belt. She was hoping to identify this particular muscle's name and purpose because, on that Monday in mid-April, she was taking an exam in the human musculoskeletal system.

Inside the Gross Anatomy Laboratory at the University of Alaska Anchorage, a room cooled to the mid-60s and smelling of ethanol and other preservatives, a half-dozen first-year students in the WWAMI biomedical program were quietly exploring three cadavers open to their gaze, and taking notes.

Another five cadavers lay on steel gurneys close by, zipped into blue body bags.


WWAMI is the regional medical school composed of university affiliations in Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.

Known locally as Alaska's Medical School, it annually accepts 20 state residents who spend the first of four years of study at UAA. For their second year, they're in Seattle at the University of Washington School of Medicine. The last two years are spent in clinical "clerkships" in any of the five states in the program.

During their first year, they work with eight cadavers while taking three anatomy courses. The cadavers come from the University of Washington, with UAA picking up the costs of transportation and cremation and other expenses, according to Ray Bailey, a WWAMI professor and the lab's director.

The cadavers are the bodies of people who prior to death authorized their full use for medical study, Bailey said. They're generally between 60 and 90 years old when they die, usually from natural causes. Those presently in the lab consist of six women and two men who at death ranged in age from 70 to 94.

Besides the bodies' age and gender, those working with the cadavers learn the person's first name but, because of federal privacy laws, nothing else about them.

The cadaver Lewis studied had been a person named Eleanor who died in March 2008 in her 90s.

"We take command of these dead human bodies from death to interment," Bailey said. The eight arrive in the summer and leave the lab 11 months later for cremation in Anchorage and burial in Seattle. Authorities provide a memorial service and a separate burial for each set of remains, said Bailey.


The medical students dissect the cadavers in a year-long sequence of milestones, he said. Their first dissection is made through the back to expose the spine and attendant muscles. Next comes the opening of the chest and chest cavity.

"That's a big event -- they're looking at the heart and lungs," said Bailey.

The abdomen and pelvis are next.

In the second semester, students open the head and remove the brain.

"A huge amount of our focus is on the nervous system, the spinal cord, the vertebral column and its muscles," said Bailey.

The medical students are a core constituency of the lab but by no means the only one. The cadavers serve many others, including a couple dozen undergraduate and graduate biology students in courses taught by David Pfeiffer, a UAA professor, who said the lab work for his students is a rarity.

"In North America, only a handful of gross anatomy labs allow undergraduates to do their own dissection," Pfeiffer said.

Each year, through UAA, seven Alaskans enrolled in an occupational-therapy program at Creighton University in Nebraska work with the cadavers as they take distance-delivered courses from the Lower 48 school.

About 20 Alaska doctors and dentists learn special procedures -- how to implant a new kind of pacemaker, for example -- by rehearsing on the cadavers. As many as 40 paramedics and paramedic technicians also refine techniques in the lab.

Bright Alaska high school students from Anchorage and other road-system towns and from places as far away as Unalakleet and Barrow -- perhaps 500 youngsters in all, most of them Advanced Placement students -- visit the lab every year, with a few parents and principals tagging along.


From the way they handle the cadavers, it appears the students are serious but relaxed and unfazed by the material.

A few days after the medical students took their exam, undergraduates were working aggressively on the cadavers -- easily poking and pulling structures, separating fat and other linings in the leg muscles, for example, or slicing into muscle to probe deeper into what seems to be endless layers of human tissue.

"It's remarkable how the organs can differ from one body to the next," said Noelle Kreofsky, a 28-year-old undergraduate from Anchorage. "The spleen from Clarence was like this," she said, referring to one of the male cadavers while forming her hands almost to the size of a grapefruit. "But Eleanor here, hers was maybe like this," about the size of a plum.

Kreofsky, who intends to be a dentist, is taking something else from the cadavers besides anatomical knowledge.

"This makes you appreciate your body a lot more," she said. "I'm definitely going to get my glasses of milk down."

Lewis, the medical student who also worked on Eleanor, said she's unsure of what medical specialty she'll pursue.

"I love everything," she said. "It's so intimate, and we get so much time with Dr. Bailey, and we can come in here any time."

When she dissected a body or investigated its parts, did Lewis ever think of the person who once inhabited it?

"Always in the beginning," she said. "You notice personal things, like the fingernails. But you quickly slip into your work and you're thinking about looking for 10 different things in the hand."

Former Daily News reporter Peter Porco was working for the University of Alaska Anchorage when he wrote this story for the Daily News.


Daily News correspondent