PNWU Anatomy Cadaver Memorial Service

Soft piano music floated through Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences’ gross anatomy lab as members of the school’s community gathered and mingled. Despite a long week of classes having just come to an end and the pleasant weather outside, medical students voluntarily filed back into the classroom, dressed in white lab coats, to honor 35 individuals whose legacies will live on through science.

For the sixth-consecutive year, first-year PNWU students organized and hosted the Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences Anatomy Cadaver Memorial Service. In what has become an annual event, PNWU medical students, faculty and staff are given an opportunity to meet the family members of those whose bodies have been donated to the school’s gross anatomy lab.

“It’s a positive time for the students to interact with those family members,” explained Dr. Diana Rhodes, Chair of the Anatomy Department and Professor of Anatomy. “It also gives the families a chance to see the great appreciation students have for their donation.”

Throughout the semester, students meet for four-hours per week for the lab-portion of their anatomy class, working in small groups to dissect the donated cadavers and learn about the body system(s) they had discussed in lectures leading up to the lab. 

“There are a lot of teaching modalities available that are helpful in learning anatomy,” said Dr. Rhodes, “but we feel that you gain a lot more from actually dissecting and finding these structures for yourself. Everybody is different, and you learn that when you have 35 unique individuals that you work on all year.”

Faculty and anatomy scholars lead the students through the lab. By studying the cadavers, they are able to witness first-hand the normal anatomical variation that occurs in patients, as well as the effects of surgeries and various pathologies, such as cancer or Alzheimer’s disease.

Additionally, as their cache of scientific and anatomical knowledge grows, students develop team-working skills and learn professionalism by working together on the dissection. “They also learn many intangible things about humanity and mortality,” added Dr. Rhodes, “allowing themselves time to acknowledge complex feelings that often surface in medical care.”

As a token of their appreciation, students who volunteer to organize the event often gather resources to purchase a class gift aimed at memorializing the donation. This year they purchased an iron bench, complete with a memorial plaque, which now rests in the garden behind Butler-Haney Hall. Additionally, one student knitted a quilt for the donor family, relating the process of making the quilt to the learning process of the anatomy lab.

Stitch by stitch, she explained, the quilt – like her knowledge -- began to take shape, starting as a single row and growing into multiple rows before all coming together. Every day, she explained, she would build upon the material she had gathered the previous day. That material, she went on, will prove invaluable in her continuing education.

“Our students did a very professional job organizing a very thoughtful, touching ceremony,” said Dr. Rhodes. “These are busy medical students, and there are many things they could be doing on a Friday afternoon besides getting dressed up to come back to school. The fact that they were there, in any manner, was really nice and meant a lot to the families.”

“We couldn’t teach gross anatomy without those donations,” she continued. “Many people hope to live on, in some form, after their death. Here, even after death, they go on to teach and shape young doctors.”