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A shortage of cadavers at the anatomy lab

Students work on dissections in an anatomy laboratory at UNM in 2019
Courtesy of UNM Health Sciences
Students work on dissections in an anatomy laboratory at UNM in 2019

For many people, the prospect of an anatomy lab full of corpses is disconcerting. But for first-year medical students, it can be exciting

"I remember the first time we walked in, you just get this sense of how big the moment is," said Alyssa Yock, who is studying at UNM medical school and tells me that all the reading in the world is no substitute for the slow, careful work of dissection of a real person.

"You know, you see things in a book, and you expect it to look like that," she said. "But when you get into a lab, you see that people are different, it's not always going to be how it is in the book."

But during the last two years, along with difficulties having students assembling safely in labs, the medical school has received fewer donations of people who had decided to give their bodies when they die.

Amy Rosenbaum, director of UNM’s Anatomical Donations Program, explains why.

"Unfortunately, the pandemic shut us down for a while, we had to close," she said. "But the other aspect was that because of the pandemic, we can't take COVID-positive donors…So that has really limited our pool.

It is a sensitive subject but Rosenbaum wants to remind people that the school is accepting donations and people can sign up to the program.

"It's really hard to advertise this, it's kind of a taboo subject," she said. "But there is a need. And I think that that's what we're trying to get out, is that there is a need for donation here."

The problem exists across the country. An article in the BMC Medical Education journal found that many schools nationwide stopped accepting donations during the pandemic, and about 80% of course directors said the pandemic affected the quality of learning, with many citing the absence of dissection as a problem.

Anatomy lecturer Julie Jordan says during the worst virus surges, the school explored online teaching options but would prefer not to rely on them

"We did use a virtual anatomy program that was cadaver based," she said. "It was pretty good. But it was ultimately really frustrating too, because you could only do so much with moving it around, and really investigating structures and function of the body."

Student Devin Maez learned online in his first year, during the worst of the pandemic, but assisted in the dissection lab in his second year and was grateful for the opportunity.

"There's something innately beautiful about learning hands on, that you don't get in a book," he said.

At the end of the course, the students learn more about their donors. Alyssa Yocky learned she had dissected a woman who had worked as a teacher, and as a nurse during wartime.

"I went in with one of my lab mates and we went and held her hand and it was like, I started to cry," she said. She hadn't expected to feel so emotional but was struck by, "just how much I learned from her and just thanking her for being such a great teacher."

Alice Fordham joined the news team in 2022 after a career as an international correspondent, reporting for NPR from the Middle East and later Latin America and Europe. She also worked as a podcast producer for The Economist among other outlets, and tries to meld a love of sound and storytelling with solid reporting on the community. She grew up in the U.K. and has a small jar of Marmite in her kitchen for emergencies.