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May 31, 2012

Medical students learned on the bodies, now honor the donors

(Continued)

Don't rush.

"Put your hand deep into the heart, look at it and feel it before you take the heart out," he said.

At Table 11, students removed an unusually large heart, an indication of disease. It was the size of a small melon. "Look at the size of that aorta," murmured Kate Wagner, 24. Their donor, an 85-year-old man, died from stroke and high blood pressure.

Her tablemate, Liz Harkin, 23, washed the dried blood clotting the internal structures. She held it under running water at a nearby sink. She was focused on her task, but she also realized she was holding a human heart in her hands.

"It's unreal," she said. "It's hard to imagine."

Finding the anatomical structure can be frustrating because every body is different. When Table 13 was looking for a nerve that controls the primary muscle used in breathing — it looks like a yellowish-white flat shoelace — one student used her iPhone, protected in a zippered plastic baggie, to consult an interactive electronic guide. But discovery is exciting.

"You almost gasp," said John Nolan, 23, a first-year student who was also one of nine teaching assistants for the class. "You have that 'aha' moment, and everything starts to click. This artery is leading to here, which gives blood to this part, and you can follow it the whole way."

Discoveries inevitably lead to more questions.

"I'm curious to know how she lived to 102," said Bridget Kaufman, 23, bending over the chest cavity of her table's cadaver. The heart was in good condition. Her lungs "were really clean," she said. No cancer.

Had the woman been rich and lead a pampered life, Kaufman wondered, "or did she live so long because of genetics?"

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