A Gift for Science: The Willed Body Program at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth


The Willed Body Program has been in
existence for quite a long time and started when the major academic
institution was the School of Dentistry, so it’s been part of the Medical School
since the late 1970s. The purpose of the program is to provide our faculty
with specimens that can be used in the education of our students which is the
primary mission and also in the continuing education of our faculty
members and residents. We also support physician training at hospitals. For the
training aspects of it we use it for the paramedical people as well. My opinion,
and this is gonna be biased because I happen to be the medical director of it,
but the premier aeromedical transport service in the country, if not in the
entire world, that’s my opinion. Memorial Hermann Life Flight is the
best. Why is it the best you would ask?
Well it’s protocols that are in place. We practice very advanced medicine very far
forward, we’re always pushing the envelope. We utilize the Willed Body
Program to go over high-risk skills so we want to make sure that we’re able to
do those on the cadavers before we go and actually do those on live people. What we learn we want it to get out into the community so our whole goal with
Memorial Hermann Life Flight is to better medicine. So my job as the medical
director and the chief nurse that’s up there helps as well, is to get you
comfortable enough to save a life when it really matters. You actually need
to put your hands on somebody to learn this, and cadaveric is a fantastic way to
do it. It’s not unrecognized from the standpoint of the learner how powerful
it can be to use a human body for training. We also support residency
programs, we support faculty development through continuing education programs. We support other schools throughout the city of Houston. I’ve been hired to come
in and work with the medical students in the fall semester. I serve as a lab
instructor and then in the summer I work on a contract with MD Anderson and Rice
University. They run a special federally financed training program for graduate
students and postdocs coming from the world of bioengineering and biophysics.
These students are very computationally knowledgeable but they’re going to be
working with cancer research teams, working with physicians and surgeons and other types of researchers, so this is a way these anatomy resources here get
used in ways beyond just for instructional purposes with medical
students. I also use these same resources to instruct these advanced cancer
researchers to help them better understand how the human body is put
together and how it works. One of the most pivotal courses you take
as a young medical doctor is gross anatomy. I think it’s the name of
movies, it’s the name of television shows, it is the course that defines medical
school. Knowing anatomy and knowing anatomy well is the difference between
okay surgeon and a great surgeon. Well the first week of gross anatomy is
a very short week and really it’s just an introduction to the cadaver for the
students. Anatomy is to help them understand disease processes and
treatment processes as well. I was really excited, like I mean I was nervous, this
is the first time I’ve ever seen a dead body, but I was excited to just figure
out how like when looking at the inside what their life was like. It’s a little
emotional at first because you just, you think about how these are real people
and they’ll have stories and so that was really humbling for me. But yeah it was
exciting from then on. We’re very careful about the way we bring the students in,
how we introduce them to the cadaver they’ll be working on and very quickly
they acclimate. Within 30 minutes they’re walking up to the tank they have their
hands on and now they’ve begun their professional education. Getting to see
things in real life is so different from the book, you know, it’s like a reminder
that because, even with the body, there’s a lot of variation because
everybody’s different and it’s just a reminder every patients different.
They can’t be treated like the textbook because not everybody is like
the textbook, so there is no substitute for being able to actually see the
structure of the human body as it really is, not only that the touch, the feel, the
relative positions and perhaps most importantly the fact that every body is
individual. So it’s very important for these
students to be able to walk from body to body and to really appreciate the
differences in structure. The cadaver is a real powerful tool in order to engage
the mind, engage the hands and put all the concepts together. The people that
are donating their body are doing something that really makes a big
difference. Many people want to support the
development of physicians because they or their family members have benefitted
from the high level of training from the physicians in our community and
sometimes that is a very powerful motive for an individual, sometimes it’s a
powerful motive for the family to donate after death. This is the basic resource
we have to teach these medical students or these advanced cancer research
students. Without this resource we’re severely limited in what we can teach
and we use these people, their bodies, to the maximum that we possibly can, right,
so multiple people will make an incision, multiple people will get to experience
it and see it. We will do all kinds of different things with the cadavers. We as
a society, we’ve got to learn somehow, and what better way to learn than on
actual cadavers, you know, so just like our personnel, doctors, nurses, we all got
to learn somehow. SWAT, we’ve had Sheriff’s Departments, we’ve had all
kinds of people come through and the requests keep going up and up, it’s hard. We know we have to care of Life Flight, we know we have to
take care of the medical students, we have to take care of the surgery residents, and all these other groups, so there’s only a finite amount of people we can
get this through, so we just get the people that are gonna make the biggest
effect. Only a finite amount of bodies. In our culture, donation is not that common and so it requires the family to
make a big commitment to take that pathway and follow through on the donors
wishes to will their bodies to the Medical School. What better way to
give back to donating your body for knowledge, and you know the one thing
that I do appreciate here is the respect for that, for what people have
done and given up for us, to have the opportunity to learn from them. If we
didn’t have this program, I think going into surgery rotations, third year, having
no hands-on experience with the body would be really difficult, so I think
this is, first and foremost, important for all fields, but especially
for surgery, what I want to do. This is an invaluable gift to science, it’s an
invaluable gift to medicine, and the training of physicians, and I think we’re
all aware that the better training the physician has, the better doc they will
become. It’s our job to prepare the future physicians that will be
practicing.

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