Theresa Connors gets varying reactions when she tells people where she works.
“Some people think it’s cool,” Connors said. “Other people think it’s kind of ghoulish.”
But Connors treats her job with reverence. At the College of Medicine, she is an instructor and lab manager for gross anatomy — meaning she spends much of her time in a lab with cadavers. She also manages the College of Medicine’s Spinal Cord Research Center in the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy.
She came to work at the Medical College of Pennsylvania 35 years ago, and she has stayed as her employer has changed names at least three times. She’s been working in gross anatomy for around 20 years. She also runs a program that brings high-school students into the lab to visit and work alongside the medical students.
To her, working with cadavers isn’t odd or scary. She’s simply helping to carry out the wishes of all sorts of people who decided to donate their bodies following their deaths to help train tomorrow’s doctors.
“The cadavers almost look like mannequins or wax models, but I tell the students that this was someone’s mother or father or grandparent,” Connors said.
Connors coordinates the delivery of the College of Medicine’s cadavers with the state agency that handles their delivery. She then becomes familiar with them as each one is assigned to a group of four or five medical students for the duration of their first year.
She helps the students get over any jitters they might have. That’s important, she said, because the cadavers are more than just an anatomy lesson for medical students; in a way, they’re the students’ first patients.
“These are 20-something-year-olds who haven’t really thought about death or dying, and that’s a tough experience for them,” Connors said.
As part of a research project, students from the College of Medicine polled medical students from around the country and found that nearly all of them assign names to their cadavers. Each student and donor brings a different life experience and background to the lab, and the naming process often reflects this, she said.
“I learn something from each person,” Connors said.
At the end of every school year, the gross anatomy students meet the families of the people who donated their bodies and pay tribute to the donors with songs and other performances.
Even beyond her job experience, Connors has a special appreciation for those donors: Her father, who died five years ago, was one. He made the decision before he even knew that his daughter worked with medical cadavers, because he liked the idea of helping to educate future physicians.
That’s a good story she can tell her students to show them the significance of the gift donors have given. And she can appreciate the importance of the work she does in the anatomy lab, as well as her work in the research lab aiming to better understand spinal injury.
“The gift that the donors and their families give is well-used,” Connors said.