'Silent teachers' leave medical students with lasting lessons
Each year, some 90 human cadavers are donated to the University of Ottawa's medical school
The University of Ottawa's medical school calls them "silent teachers," and the lessons they impart will stay with these young students for the rest of their lives.
On a clear, late-summer day last week, 160 first-year medical students entered the faculty's anatomy lab for an orientation tour.
These are people who have been loved by their family.- Dr. Alireza Jalali
Yellowed human skeletons, delicately pinned and wired together, stood watch, each hanging from its own steel gambrel hook.
Spaced around the perimeter of the white-walled room are more than a dozen stainless steel dissection tables.
The students crowd around Dr. Max Hincke, their anatomy professor, who stands at one of the tables.
Hincke lowers a lever and the tabletop opens smoothly. A human form draped in wetted towels rises from the container below until the platform it rests on stops at waist height.
There's a strong chemical whiff. The room falls silent as Hincke lifts the covers off the body.
"Now remember," he cautions his students. "Sometimes people are feeling a little faint when they get to this point."
As if on cue, one student slumps to the floor.
"Maybe you didn't have any breakfast. Grab onto your neighbour. There's no shame in stepping outside if you feel you need to," Hincke continues.
Each year, some 90 human bodies are donated to the school's clinical and functional anatomy division, where they provide students with the kind of practical experience that can't be replaced by lectures and textbooks.
"People have donated their bodies, or their loved ones' bodies, because they believe strongly in the value of teaching human anatomy and training doctors with human bodies," Hincke tells his students.
Dr. Alireza Jalali, the school's head of anatomy, sums up the lab's governing rule in a single word: Respect.
"These are people who have been loved by their family," Jalali said.
Of course, there are rules to ensure that respect is granted.
The lab is equipped with security cameras in the ceiling and a modern entry system controls who gets through the door.
Chewing gum is forbidden, but that's mostly because it can absorb fumes from the formaldehyde used to preserve the bodies.
For the same reason, the amount of time students are allowed to spend with the cadavers is limited.
"The smell stays with you," Hincke observes.
'I was struck by the calm'
Among the students peering down at the beige-coloured flesh of the cadaver is 29-year-old Selam Ogbalidet.
"I was struck by the calm and quiet that overcame that group," Ogbalidet observed after the class. "There was just this collective awareness that this moment is bigger than us."
"When you're studying from diagrams, books, it's very clear-cut," said student Vishesh Patel, 21. "Everything looks the same. There's no distinction between muscles and connecting tissues. They all just kind of blend together."
Patel believes working with the cadavers will better prepare him for what's ahead.
"In the real world, we're dealing with patients. We're not dealing with textbooks."
Each June, the University holds a memorial service for those who donated their bodies to further the education of tomorrow's doctors.
"When I look at these individuals, I try to keep in mind that they have stories, families, and that they're no different from myself," Ogbalidet said.