Nestled in the underground depths of Alden Street, away from the prying public eye, lies Springfield College’s untold mystery – the cadaver laboratory, or as it is now called, the human donor lab.
Unless a student is studying in the programs of Physician’s Assistant, Athletic Training, Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy, or in the Master’s Exercise Science program, they have never seen and most likely will never see – the inside of what this special lab is really like.
The lab sits underneath the Health Sciences Center on Springfield’s main campus. A long staircase leads down to a massive and brightly lit laboratory room.
The room is full of computer screens, plastic bones, x-ray imaging boards, textbooks, and whiteboards. At the back, a large refrigerator currently holds seven human donors that have been laid onto metal carts and zipped inside white body bags.
There is also a shelf filled to the brim with containers of actual human organs ranging from hearts with pacemakers to the inner parts of the abdominal system.
Dr. Kathleen Pappas is a faculty member in the department of Physical Therapy at Springfield College with the official title of Associate Professor of Human Anatomy.
Pappas not only teaches students within the PT curriculum, but also coordinates and organizes all that goes into maintaining a human donor lab. Dissections and the overall preservation of the lab are part of her daily roles as professional coordinator.
Between all of the programs that are involved, Pappas says that there are approximately 200 students that utilize the lab every week.
As for the donors themselves, Pappas explained where exactly they came from.
“We borrow them — and there is a fee involved, of course – from UMass Medical Center. They are an anatomical gift program, authorized by the state of Massachusetts, to take gifted donors and preserve them and use them for medical teaching,” Pappas said.
“We work with them primarily because they are considered a person-first gift program. This means the actual donor, while they are alive, consents to donating their body for medical teaching and research. So, it is the wishes of the donor that we follow,” Pappas added.
Donors typically stay at the medical center they are sent to for one to two years while their body parts are studied as much as they can be. Afterwards, they are sent back to the UMass Medical Center, where the team follows the wishes of the donor and their family. Usually, the donors are returned to their family for cremation, services, or final burials.
There is also an end-of-year event held at both Springfield College and the University of Massachusetts where a service is held to recognize what these donors have provided for the students that have been studying.
Students in the aforementioned majors offered at Springfield can expect to work with the human donors to provide themselves with real-life situations.
Danielle Hoffner, a senior in the Occupational Therapy program, has worked in the human donor lab since her junior year of college.
She says that some people react poorly when she tells them she works with actual human bodies, but it’s not actually scary or disgusting at all. Each of these donors wanted this to happen to them after they passed away, and those associated with their lab are purely just following their final wishes.
“Working with the bones and the muscles has been crazy cool. It really enhances your learning more than what you’re learning on paper. It’s one thing to learn it on paper and it’s another to actually see what it looks like in the body,” Hoffner said.
“The cool thing about using human donors is that they’re all unique and they’ve all had their own stories so when they come [to us] and are opened up we get to see different aspects of it. Like, we found on one donor that he had open heart surgery and we were able to see the chicken wire in his chest… you’re really getting more than just textbook stuff, you’re getting real life people,” she added.
One thing that both Pappas and Hoffner made clear was that the donors were people too. When one hears that ‘Springfield College has bodies on campus,’ they generally react with discomfort or repulse.
However, Springfield College is extremely grateful for the learning opportunity this lab provides for their students. The donors were once living, walking, breathing, conscious people, and the appreciation that the students who work with the donors have for them is immeasurable.
Photo Courtesy Irene Rotondo