Feb 16 2012

Donor as First Patient

Anatomical Donations Program gives students foundation for careers in medicine

Medical student Halley Crissman’s first patient was an 80-year-old male with a history of cancer. But before she even began her basic anatomy class, the patient gave Crissman an amazing gift: his body for study.

“We were told by our professors on the first day that the body we were receiving for anatomy was our first patient,” says Crissman. “My experiences learning anatomy through my donor have been humbling and moving.”

Crissman is one of several hundred U-M undergraduate students, medical students and researchers who benefit every year from body donations to U-M’s Anatomical Donations Program. Anatomy, the study of the structure of the human body, is one of the most important courses in the education of physicians, dentists, and other health professionals such as nurses and physical therapists. In most of these fields, the study of anatomy comes first in the curriculum and serves as the foundation for other courses.

“Working with the body . . . it’s easy and hard at the same time,” says the first-year medical student. “You’re working on the hand, for instance, and you realize this is someone who used their hands for all kinds of things. It does take you aback. But to view the internal structures—there’s no comparison. There’s an amazing difference between looking at the real thing and an artist’s rendition.”

Anatomy students receive their first patient about a month after they start medical school and work with him or her for about a year. They also receive a full CT scan of the body and the cause of death. The entire class works as a team to discover and share pertinent information about their patients.

Medical student Bridget Cornett

“Our first objective is to teach,” says Sabine Hildebrandt, M.D., lecturer of anatomy, division of anatomical sciences. “We carry this aim hand in hand with the respect we feel for our donors and their families. They have given us a gift, and from the time we receive it, we honor that gift.”

Medical student Bridget Cornett’s first patient was a man who passed away in his late fifties from throat cancer.

“What’s interesting,” says Cornett, “is that my patient became a member of the team, too, by contributing his information and patient history. I’ve gained a real appreciation for him as a person. I don’t think I’d be able to learn anatomy as well or so completely.”

Cornett found the annual fall memorial service the program holds for donors and families very moving. “It underscores the sacrifice of those family members and shows them respect and appreciation for their and their loved one’s gift,” she says.

In addition to being one of the oldest anatomical donation programs in the country, U-M’s program holds the distinction of having one of the largest plastination laboratories. Medical schools throughout the U.S. call on U-M to preserve unique anatomical specimens for a fee. The process takes about a month, and afterward the specimens can be handled repeatedly by students without deterioration. They can also be stored just like any inanimate object.

For more information, including questions and answers about anatomical donation, visit http://www.med.umich.edu/anatomy/donors/index.html

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