The teachers at the Institute for Anatomical Research only stick around for about 12 to 18 months. Though their tenure is short, their impact is great.
Take Isaac. During his time at the institute, he taught 158 classes and had about 600 students benefit from his tutelage. And for that, Bonnie Thompson, co-founder of the institute and its director of research, is writing a thank-you note to his family with those details, which they will receive with his cremated remains.
You see, the teachers here are cadavers. And the institute is a bit unusual.
While most cadavers are accessed in a university setting, the Institute for Anatomical Research is a nonprofit, public access lab where massage therapists, chiropractors, paramedics and yoga instructors, among others, can gain hands-on experience with cadavers. When they applied for their 501(c)(3) status, they searched for similar organizations, and there were none.
"We want to keep it as affordable as possible and as diverse as possible," says Thompson, who opened the lab in 2009. She says students in the classes don't need to have degrees, just an interest in and respect for the teachers. Thompson and Jim Pulciani, director of instruction at the institute, are joined by other health professionals to lead classes. But she insists that the real teachers in the room are the cadavers.
Pulciani, who like Thompson is a holistic medicine practitioner (he was a massage therapist but now practices acupuncture), says students can never learn from a textbook what they do by being hands-on in the lab.
Walking into the large open space that's located on West Fillmore Street, the smell of formaldehyde was in the air but not overwhelming — they had fans blowing to make sure the smell wasn't stifling. Maude and Nina were covered on side-by-side tables. I visited the lab on a weekday when about 25 students from College America were coming for an introductory class.
Maude and Nina were both in their 80s when they died. I learned cadaver donors are typically older — Thompson explained those who are willing to donate their bodies typically sign on first as organ donors. It's only once the organs are no longer viable to save others' lives that they might consider a whole-body donation. Thompson is registered as an organ donor, for now.
Maude had arthritis in her knee and a pacemaker. As Thompson and Pulciani introduced me to this teacher, I was able to feel a cyst in her breast, and touch that arthritis, which limited her movement when she was alive. She was recently used in a TMJ class, which allowed students to learn more about the joint in the jaw that causes pain for many. The dissection of the jaw allowed various health care providers to understand how to access and attempt to relieve the pain for their patients. Thompson says the majority of their students are massage therapists.
Two Colorado College interns spent the last nine months at the institute studying Nina. She had an enlarged heart which, Pulciani showed me, pushed on her lungs. One of the students plans to go on to teach anatomy. The other plans to go to medical school. Thompson explains how years of dissections have influenced her own practice as a massage therapist. "The thing people most often say are 'your hands are scalpels,'" she says. She laughs as she says that precision she finds when treating her patients comes from actually wielding a scalpel so often.
In a time when there's increased demand for cadavers ("Over my dead body," Cover, Oct. 28, 2015), this lab, which is operated entirely by volunteers, often receives direct donations.
In the case of a 79-year-old woman with a brain tumor, Lorraine, they were able to speak to her before her death.
"She asked us to learn about her brain," Thompson said. And a class of 25 students did just that.
"My real passion," says Thompson, "is to create a facility where people can come to learn. That's where my heart is."
Having lost eight family members over a two-year period only served to enhance her respect for the donors and the gift they provide to students.
Thompson's mother had Alzheimer's, and while she entertained the idea of donating her mother's brain for research, she said, "Even I have my limits."