Cadaver Lab: UF students work themselves to the bone

For many OT, PT, PA, and AT students, these are their first patients 

By Jordyn Willis


Tucked away in the basement of the Brewer Center for Health Sciences building at the University of Findaly is a little known lab.. It’s an unexpected find, but one that sets UF apart from many similar schools. The cadaver lab isn’t just a place of learning and exploration, but also of honor.

The cadaver lab is used by occupational therapy, physical therapy, physicians’ assistants and athletic training students at UF.

According to Cara Davies, assistant professor of neuroscience, anatomy & physiology and coordinator of the cadaver lab, it’s unusual for schools that are not affiliated with medical schools to even have laboratories like this, so it’s a special thing that Findlay even has such a lab.

“The size of lab that we have is remarkable, the fact that we’re not affiliated with a medical facility and we have almost 20 donors down there right now,” said Davies.

“When I go to different conferences, and they do actually have conferences where you go and dissect bodies believe it or not, they ask where I’m from, and they’ve never heard of us,” said Brandon Koehler, instructor of physical therapy. “They say ‘well what medical school are you affiliated with’ and I say ‘we don’t have a medical affiliation.’ They will ask about the size of our lab and when I tell them that we can house 20 to 22, they’re amazed.”

The University of Findlay donor lab also holds high school tours. Last year there were 45 high school tours in addition to UF students being in the lab.

“In the state of Ohio, if you want to donate your body to scientific study you have to sign what they call a pre-mortem agreement,” said Davies. “It says something like ‘I am of sound mind, this is my intention, I understand what it is that I am going to do,’ at that time you can elect a facility. We do receive some of our individuals that way.”

The majority of the individuals that UF receives come from Wright State University, because they are affiliated with a medical center.

At each cadaver lab, there must be a licensed mortician on staff because that person has to do the preparation of the bodies. Findlay does not have that. But, thanks to the University’s relationship with Wright State, the bodies arrive at UF already prepared.

Koehler says that students have a wide variety of reactions when they first go into the cadaver lab.

“You have a few that when they first get down there they are very timid, they step back, they don’t do a lot, because the bodies are whole and intact.  And then there are others that are very much ready to go and you have to slow them down for a bit,” said Koehler.

As for Catelyn Radalia, senior occupational therapy major, she says that though she was a bit nervous at first, her attitude toward being in the lab is a positive one.

“I was excited and nervous to go into the lab the first time. I knew that it was going to be a beneficial experience, but I did not know how I was going to react once I was in the lab,” said Radalia. “My thoughts have changed drastically after working in the lab for a semester and a half now. I am so grateful that these individuals decided to literally donate themselves to improve my education.”

Koehler also talked about how the attitudes of his students change toward to the donors over the course of the class time.

“They really start to have a lot of sympathy and empathy for the donors as well because as you are looking at the structures you start to find things,” said Koehler.  “This person has fusion in the back, this person has signs of a stroke… they see that, and they start to feel for these people, imagine what this person dealt with when they were alive.”

Establishing the right mindset of the students toward the donors is an extremely important aspect to UF cadaver instructors.

“From my perspective this laboratory is a sacred place,” said Davies. “These people have given their physical selves and we usually have our donors between a periods of 6-12 months. So, that’s a period of separation that the family has to endure with their loved one. Then when we’re finished with them they are cremated and returned to the families, but while we have them their family is without them after the period of loss, and that’s something that we take very seriously.”

Students view the donors as their first patients.

“My least favorite part about working in the lab was the last day of Human Anatomical Structure last semester. Dr. Davies tells all of her classes from the first day in the lab that our donors are the first patients we will ever have. So it was sad to know that I would never be down in the lab working with my donor again,” said Radalia.

At the end of the calendar year, donor lab faculty hold a memorial service that all their students are invited to, and the students have the chance to speak about their experiences.

“I also really enjoyed the memorial service Dr. Davies holds at the end of each year. This is a way for us to honor and thank the donors for their part in our education,” said Radalia.

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