A single white curtain hanging in the open doorway of a particular room in the science village blocks wandering eyes for their own good.
Venture inside and it would become crystal clear why an extra obstruction is necessary.
Students might easily overlook the old brown cabinets full of plastic and rubber body parts, bones and anatomical specimen not unusual to a science lab. Pictures and posters opposite the cabinets create an inspiration wall displaying best-case-scenario human dissections that wouldn’t immediately grab one’s attention.
No, it’s the bright orange body bag with a protruding skull-less head in the center of the small lab that could make anyone forget about the overwhelming stench of formaldehyde.
Welcome to Anatomy 110, Professor Teri Trendler’s human dissection lab.
“We try to keep it sort of on the down low only because there’s a chemistry room next to us,” Trendler said. “They have no interest whatsoever for knowing what’s right next door to them. We hang a curtain so that while we’re coming and going no one who is walking by accidentally becomes really, really shocked and startled.”
Indeed, PCC has been home to two human cadavers—both a male and female—for students enrolled in the Anatomy 110 course to observe and dissect. About ten years ago all the anatomy classes only worked with cats, which came at a high price for the division because the felines needed to be both procured and destroyed post-dissections due to all the chemicals.
Assistant professor Terri Borman and Trendler suggested that the former dean of the natural sciences division, Bruce Carter, swap out the cats for the real thing.
After all, it is human anatomy.
“Carter asked me one day what we could do instead and I said ‘it’s human anatomy, what about humans,’” Trendler said. “At that time, it was really rare for any of the community colleges to have them.”
The natural sciences division has a contract with UC Irvine to keep the cadavers for a two-year period. Before arriving at PCC, the human cadavers get their blood drained and tested for any diseases, then embalmed. Once the cadavers arrive at the school, students enrolled in the lab get the hands-on experience over the course of spring semester, while other Biology and Anatomy classes get to come visit and observe the body throughout the year.
“Those students in the Bio 11 classes occasionally do come over for a field trip and might have the biggest reaction because they are not science majors,” Trendler said. “Those in Anatomy 25 may be a little squeamish. They don’t like the smell necessarily or they are only going into nutrition so they don’t really ever want to deal with the insides of the body.”
Pretty much all the students enrolled in the lab are pursuing a career in the medical field. Amongst the students, a few just got into nursing school and some are transferring out.
“This is one of the last electives they might take to improve their chances,” Trendler said. “It’s kind of an advanced variety.”
Tonya Michlin is amongst that group and is about to start the accelerated bachelors program in nursing for entry into the masters program in nursing at Cal State L.A. in June.
“I’m going to put my head down in a book for the next three years,” she said. “Hopefully I’ll pop up.”
Then there’s the outlier, Caius Chickanis, an anthropology student with a deep interest for anatomy and physiology.
“I did massage therapy as well [as] art, so I got into anatomy through that,” said Chickanis. “Now I’m doing forensic anthropology, so it’s all just educational.”
Even these students enrolled in the class were slightly nervous at first despite their science-heavy career paths, but soon it all became routine to them.
“They already pretty much know what they are getting themselves into,” Trendler said. “There’s a little bit of gallows humor because they actually start to be able to talk about food while working.”
Ribs anyone? Students of Anatomy 110, were working on the thoracic cavity (chest cavity), on Fri., April 11, which was only half cracked open. Within the next two hours of class, the students worked on getting it fully exposed.
“This week we are opening up the chest,” Trendler said. “The clavicles are so thick they have to use a bone saw, so we practiced on a piece of cast first since it’s about the same density.”
Contrary to what non-science majors may think, these human cadavers aren’t kept in a morgue-like setting, and the room isn’t held at bone-chilling temperatures either.
“The embalming that is done after they pass away is all the preservative that’s needed,” Trendler said. “They are in cases that are locked up to prevent anyone from unauthorized access. We do have to remoisten the tissues after every use because they start to dehydrate— just like your lips being chapped.”
But before the students could even get to the chest cavity, they had to remove the skin—which comes off in one piece. Depending on how lean the cadaver was at the time of death, skin removal can be instantaneous, revealing a complete structural sight of muscle groups. However, that wasn’t the case for their male cadaver this time around.
“Ours happened to be heavier than average at the time of death so there’s a whole lot of work in between skin and the muscles,” Trendler said. “It’s a lot of cleaning the individual muscle groups. Not even until after midterms do we start opening up the body cavity.”
And now, as the class hits the home stretch, only two segments of the cadaver are left for dissection: the abdomen and pelvic/genital region.
Though non-science majors or even the maintenance crew may shiver at the thought of dead humans resting on campus, the addition of these cadavers has added to student resumes throughout the years.
“They are invaluable,” Trendler said. “I think that the division agrees that it’s a big enough importance for our future. It’s a little dose of reality.”