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UW medical students in Spokane learn about anatomy in new lab on the Gonzaga campus

Bharti Bharani, Jeanette Schwensen and Kate Fine are among the first-year medical students at the University of Washington who explore cadavers in the anatomy lab in the new UW-GU Health Partnership Building.
Doug Nadvornick/Spokane Public Radio
Bharti Bharani, Jeanette Schwensen and Kate Fine are among the first-year medical students at the University of Washington who explore cadavers in the anatomy lab in the new UW-GU Health Partnership Building.

The lab is part of the recently-opened UW-GU Health Partnership Building.

University of Washington medical students in Spokane are taking a few days off before beginning their spring quarter next week.

During their first year of medical school, students are learning about human body organs and systems. Much of their work is reading and memorizing, but they also get their share of hands-on training. They have a new venue for that.

The anatomy lab in the recently-opened University of Washington-Gonzaga Health Partnership Building is a spacious room with 15 covered stainless steel tables, each cocooning a donated body.

“It is lit up like a surgery suite would be lit and in addition to that light coming down from the ceiling, we have directional lights hanging over each table, like you might see in a surgery suite so that they can really illuminate whatever it is that they’re working on," said Dr. Zach Gallaher, a UW teaching professor who oversees the lab.

This is anything but a dimly lit, cramped, smelly basement space where some of today’s doctors learned anatomy.

“The air flow in this room is designed to exchange 20 times an hour. Air comes down from the ceiling as a sheet and moves down through the space and out near the floor, so air is always moving away from an individual’s face if you’re standing in this room," he said.

When students first came to the lab, some had worked on cadavers before, but many hadn’t. So the School of Medicine held a one-day orientation session at the start of fall quarter, something Jeanette Schwensen liked.

“Once we had that one day solely to kind of appreciate our donors and really kind of feel what it was like to be in the space, I think that really helps," she said. "Then we came back and we started to do the dissections, started to learn the anatomy. We all had time to kind of emotionally and mentally process all of the feelings that we had.”

Six months into their first year, Gallaher says the students have picked at and prodded organs and limbs. They’re about halfway through the body.

“We will have our lab sessions, which are typically run for two or three hours, but then they’ll be assessed on that material maybe two or three days to a week later and, during that time, we hope and expect our students are in this lab studying in student-led study groups," he said.

They have access to the lab 24/7. Bharti Bharani didn’t confess to logging those kinds of hours, but she did say this has become one of her most frequented places.

“Sometimes after lab sessions we’ll stay after class for an hour or so and sometimes our professors will stick around as well to answer questions. We come in on weekends and the morning before class. I’ve never been here actually at midnight but I was here till 9 once," she said.

“At one point I wasn’t sure I needed to do a cadaver lab because we had Covid, right? And people learned all the stuff online. I was thinking that as someone who has never done anatomy, it was why do we need to go back in the lab?" Schwensen said.

"Now that I’ve halfway experienced all of these dissections, I really, really appreciate that this is a necessary part of our academic training as physicians," she said.

For first-year student Kate Fine, working regularly with a donor body has special meaning.

“My grandma actually donated her body last year to the UW class and so this was a really cool experience for me, kind of full circle in that respect," she said.

It has helped open up options as she thinks about the type of doctor she wants to be.

“Being in here made me very interested in surgery, something that I hadn’t really thought about before," Fine said.

Whether she pursues surgery or something else, she will have had the chance to get up close and personal with a real human body. Next week she and her peers will turn their attention to the kidneys.

One of the Northwest's most seasoned reporters is returning to his SPR roots. Doug Nadvornick will be heard frequently on KPBX and KSFC reporting on local news.