The First Patient: TTUHSC Students Gain Life-long Knowledge From Willed Body Program

Willed Body Program dedication plaque

The Willed Body Program has served West Texas since 1972 and is the foundation upon which the TTUHSC Institute of Anatomical Sciences is built.

In 2020, the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) Institute of Anatomical Sciences (IAS) opened its new 19,000-square-foot facility to support the university’s Anatomical Sciences Program. In doing so, TTUHSC established the only anatomical sciences institute in Texas. It also provided additional space and resources for the university’s Willed Body Program, which has served West Texas since 1972 and is the foundation upon which the IAS is built.  

Kerry Gilbert, PT, Sc.D., TTUHSC’s assistant dean for anatomy, research and education, serves as IAS co-director with Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences Dean Brandt Schneider, Ph.D. He said the Willed Body Program includes ample storage and space for cadavers and cadaver material the university receives annually from approximately 200 donors.

“Without the generous donations from families and individuals to donate their bodies, we don’t have the resources to do the work we do here for education, research and training,” Gilbert said. “Those two pieces, fit together, really form the backbone of the Institute of Anatomical Sciences.”

There are 11 willed body programs in Texas; all are housed within a health sciences center and all are governed by the Texas State Anatomical Board, which was founded in 1907. TTUHSC’s Willed Body Program covers a larger geographic area than most of the other programs, many of which are generally concentrated in more densely populated parts of the state such as the Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio areas. TTUHSC’s coverage area extends south from Wichita Falls to the Rio Grande and encompasses every area of the state located west of that imaginary line.

“My primary function is to ensure that the donors’ and their family’s wishes to give to the next generation of health professionals is fulfilled with the utmost transparency and integrity, along with the respect that is deserved for these generous individuals,” Jason Jones, Willed Body Program director said.

Though Jones operates TTUHSC’s Willed Body Program on behalf of the anatomical board and under its guidance and approval, he said the program’s primary goal, which has been ongoing for 50 years, is to address the needs of health care professionals being trained and educated at TTUHSC to serve the West Texas and Texas Panhandle regions. 

When students begin their training and education at the IAS, they are placed into a dissection group with three to four other students and then assigned a donor cadaver. Midway through their course, the student groups alternate and go to a different donor at a different tank. However, students’ access to the donor cadavers is not limited to the donor to which they are assigned; Jones said each student is allowed to study and investigate the structure and anatomy on all 32 bodies that are in use during their course.

“They’re able to see a wide range of donors and anatomy, which is important because not everybody has had the same medical conditions or the same medical disorders,” Jones said. “Maybe [the cadaver] had a certain disease or disorder that is not like the donor that was assigned to the group. So, it’s important for them to see all of that so they can see the variances in the human body where we’re all anatomically the same. But we’re not all anatomically correct.”

Jones said it’s important to see those anomalies because this is one of the courses that the students will revert to in their mind when they’re actually palpating (i.e., examining an area of the body by touch) or otherwise working with a patient. Knowing how some of these diseases and disorders can make their way through the body can help the students provide more effective care for patients they may one day treat who may have similar characteristics. Jones believes that’s what helps make gross anatomy a more effective and in-depth way to learn the human anatomy.

“It’s a very hands-on approach, and that tends to sink into your mind a little heavier than just looking through a book or looking at a digitized image,” Jones explained. “We’re not against the use of technology, because technology is a great tool. There are many areas of anatomy that technology has assisted and improved treatments and surgeries. However, without a deep understanding of the anatomy to begin with, the use of that tool could potentially be worthless to the operator because they don’t know how to set up that piece of equipment to be more effective in their treatment or in their surgical skills.”

At the conclusion of the course, each donor body is cremated. The remains are then returned to the families who have elected to receive them. Unclaimed or unreturned remains are commingled in TTUHSC’s ossuary. On Memorial Day each May, a service is conducted to pay respect to the donors and their families. Because of COVID-19, Jones said TTUHSC had to forego the in-person memorial services due to occupancy and capacity, but he is looking forward to a return to in-person services in 2023.

Because of COVID-19, Jones said TTUHSC had to forego the in-person memorial services due to occupancy and capacity, but he is looking forward to a return to in-person services in 2023.

“We take that day to have the opportunity to memorialize those that have given up themselves in the last calendar year, so those that passed from May 1 to May 1 are recognized during that memorial service,” Jones said. “It is conducted not only by faculty members of our institution, but also by the students who are the utilizers of our donors. They are able to express their gratitude for the generosity of those donors, and it’s a wonderful opportunity for the donor families to actually commingle with the recipients of their loved one’s gift, because not everybody in the family may have understood or really weren’t quite sure about the donation process.”

The memorial service also allows the families to see firsthand the impact the gift given by them and their beloved family member has had — and will continue to have — for years to come. Jones said it’s truly a life changing experience on both sides.

“I always say that somehow those individuals that are willing their body to science have come up with a way to live on even after their passing, because what is learned from that individual by that student is going to be carried with that student throughout their career and used to help and treat their patients that they come in contact with,” Jones added. “You see the change in our students from the first day of class to the final day of class. They go through a walk; it’s a transformation; it’s a journey that they’re taking beyond their educational aspect because that donor is their first patient and they will never forget it.

“And for anyone who is thinking about donating their body to science, know that those of us that are here on the receiving side of your generous gift, including the students, do consider it a gift and the highest respect and dignity is given to those donors and their families. The gift is greatly appreciated.”

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