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Anatomy Textbooks Come to Life for Local High School Students

Lehigh Valley Orthopedic Institute sponsors extremities cadaver lab at Venel Institute

When it comes to studying human anatomy, this is as real as it gets.

For two hours Monday, textbooks took a back seat for about 60 students from Allentown Central Catholic and Emmaus high schools.

In place of book pages with finely drawn illustrations were five surgeons from Lehigh Valley Orthopedic Institute and dissected human cadaver extremities at the Venel Institute, a bio-skills lab in Hanover Township, Northampton County, focusing on medical education and cadaver-based surgical training.

The cadaver lab experience

Students rotated through six stations in the wet lab at Venel. Stations featured cadaver extremities including the knee, shoulder, elbow, wrist/hand, and foot/ankle. There also was a suturing station where students were shown suturing technique on a piece of raw chicken and then got to try it themselves.  

Gloved, gowned and masked, students traveled from station to station, listening to Orthopedic Institute surgeons, asking questions and answering questions. Talk of cartilage, tendons, ligaments and nerves filled the room. There were students who knew their radius from their ulna, and those who didn’t. For students who previously suffered injuries to their extremities, the lab was a chance to relate to what happened, what may have been fixed and how it was done.

“I was really grateful to have this experience. It was everything I wanted it to be and more. I got to ask a lot of questions. The doctors were really great.” - Emmaus junior Madison Shelton of Macungie

Jenny Kidd, director at Venel, says the facility has been hosting high school groups for over three years. It also provides cadaver-based training for residents, emergency medical personnel and more, and medical equipment companies sometimes use Venel’s facilities to test new products.

“It’s an experience they (students) can’t get from looking at a book or seeing a model,” says Kidd. “They can touch ligaments and see muscles and bones. These doctors are some of the best, and they are really giving the kids a great opportunity.”

The Orthopedic Institute lineup Monday featured:

The cadaver extremities used in the lab Monday were from people who had donated their bodies to science, says Kidd.

There is always a need for cadavers for study and teaching, she says. The demand outpaces current supply, estimated at about 20,000 whole body cadavers each year in the U.S. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in even less cadavers being available, says Kidd, because those who were positive for the virus could not be used.

Learning by doing

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” Sage advice, even today, and something not lost on teachers from Central Catholic and Emmaus who were thrilled to have their students exposed to the real thing at Venel.

“I think it was extremely beneficial. Any student who is thinking about going into medicine, to be able to have that hands-on experience is fabulous,” says Gina Regan, a biology teacher at Central Catholic. “I think they liked it. They seemed to be really getting into it.”

Regan was echoed by Kristina Svencer, an Advanced Placement biology teacher at Emmaus. “There’s no comparison to a textbook,” says Svencer. “In addition to just seeing the real body parts, having the doctors there to go through the dissection, explaining not only what the parts are but how they move, is invaluable.”

High marks from students

“I thought it was really cool to see what we’re actually studying. You don’t get the same experience when you’re just reading a textbook,” says Isabel Martinez of Allentown, a junior at Central Catholic.

Her fellow Viking, Mabhell Gonzalez, is the co-founder of the school’s new chapter of Health Occupations Students of America and wants to be a surgeon one day. “I thought it was a really good opportunity. Learning about it in the classroom and reading in textbooks is not comparable to really getting there and touching it and feeling it and putting it into practice with people who do it every single day,” Gonzalez says.

Emmaus junior Madison Shelton of Macungie says the lab was originally open only to seniors at Emmaus, but she begged to join in. “I was really grateful to have this experience,” she says. “It was everything I wanted it to be and more. I got to ask a lot of questions. The doctors were really great.”

Fellow Green Hornet Ava Holden of Macungie is a senior and has already been accepted into college to study physical therapy. She’s admittedly apprehensive about the sight of blood, but says she looked beyond it Monday. “I really didn’t focus on that at all. I was interested the entire time in learning about what everything was and how it worked together.”

Doctors paying it forward

Sibley, who organized the event, says the students were very engaged. “Hopefully, this was a good starting point for them,” he says. “I think they are going to take this experience and fly with it to the next stage in their careers, start reading about it a little bit more, start shadowing doctors.”

For the surgeons, it was about giving back.

“As a student, I was always very appreciative of the people before me that would take the time out to teach,” he says. “When we teach residents, we do that to put our knowledge to the next generation of surgeons. It’s not going to stop with us. It’s going to continue, so we have to pass the torch. It’s about paying it forward. That’s what we must keep doing. Otherwise, the forward motion stops.”

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