A WSU College of Medicine marketing photo features a look at the anatomy lab, including tables where students examine cadavers, and a monitor showing a catscan of a human skull.

WSU’s new Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine is procuring the resources it will eventually need after it receives permission to admit students.

Clinical faculty to serve as teachers? Check. The college has hired more than 40 local physicians to create and teach the curriculum. It has also hired administrators and support staff with more on the way.

Facilities? Check. The college is good for now, with classroom space and a state-of-the-art anatomy lab on the Spokane campus.

Cadavers for students to work on? More will be needed. First-year medical students spend a significant amount of time learning human anatomy through the exploration of bodies donated by thoughtful individuals interested in supporting medical education.

WSU has had a Willed Body Program since the early 1970s when the university became affiliated with the WWAMI medical education program. Director David Conley says hundreds of people have signed forms and pledged to donate their bodies after death to WSU so that students can learn from them. Of those, he says only a small percentage become available each year. That has generally been enough to fill the educational needs of WSU and others to whom it supplies bodies.

But with the WSU medical school on the horizon, “We feel that we need to significantly increase the number of donations we receive each year,” Conley said. “That would help us meet the need of a growing medical school and the commitments we’ve made to area universities who partner with us for the use of cadavers in their teaching laboratories.”

Powerful learning tools

In the anatomy laboratory on the WSU Spokane campus, more than a dozen bodies are in use now, by University of Washington medical students and health sciences students from WSU and Eastern Washington University.

In Pullman, the bodies are studied by undergraduate students enrolled in anatomy and kinesiology courses and by University of Idaho WWAMI students.

“In addition to the normal structure and function of the body and human variation, students learn about professionalism, death and the deceased,” Conley said. “They’re learning about the effects of aging and disease. They’re learning about their own mortality.”

“Students who get this chance to work with these cadavers get so much out of it,” said Ethan Payton, a recent WSU graduate who is one of several teaching assistants in the Pullman lab. “A lot of people who take anatomy classes elsewhere don’t get this opportunity.”

Payton says his work in the lab will pay off when he begins medical school in a year or two.

“Getting acclimated to working with cadavers will obviously help me in medical school when I’ll be working with my own cadaver,” he said. “But even deeper than that it helps me respect that association between the body and the person. I feel that it will give me more understanding, more respect for the patient, for their body.”

Like the many other important components of a medical school, the bodies used in anatomy are a crucial need. Kristen Wedam, another WSU graduate and anatomy lab teaching assistant, says the experience of working with bodies has helped her teach other students and non-medical people from the general public about their own bodies, their anatomy and their physiology.

“It’s very different to look at a picture or diagram of anatomy than it is to see anatomy in a cadaver. I don’t have a photographic memory, but, for some reason, I can remember bodies,” Wedam said. “So, when I’m talking to someone about their own anatomy, I can picture an actual cadaver with their structures and imagine how they all work together, which helps me explain things in a more comprehensive manner.”

How you can donate

David Conley says the Willed Body Program doesn’t recruit donors.

“A lot of it is through word of mouth, from social workers and health care professionals,” he said. “Donors are grateful for the care they have received from their providers, so when they hear about the program, they want to help and pay it forward.”

But with the demand for bodies about to increase, Conley says it’s important to let more people know about the opportunity to donate their bodies to medical science.

“I compare a donation to a scholarship,” he said. “Instead of giving money to the university and writing out a check, individuals make a perpetual gift. Our students who learn from their donations take their knowledge forward, all over the world, and become physicians and dentists and pharmacists and nurses and people will learn from them. It’s really a one-of-a-kind experience the students will never forget.”

You can learn more about the WSU Willed Body Program at https://medicine.wsu.edu/willed-body-program/.

You can hear Dr. David Conley speak about the Willed Body Program.

You can hear WSU Pullman teaching assistants who work with undergraduates taking anatomy courses talk about the Willed Body Program.