Going Deeper

For Professor Greg Smith’s human anatomy students, an uncommon learning experience is lasting.

Julie Pryde ’87 recalls spending countless hours in the anatomy lab, carefully separating nerves the thickness of dental floss from the fat and muscle surrounding them. Dissecting a human cadaver was a painstaking process, intricate and time-consuming. It taught her patience.

“If you want to be in medicine, having an understanding of the body at that depth is paramount. It makes you so much better as a clinician,” said Pryde, who earned her BS in biology and psychology at Saint Mary’s College and today is a senior physician assistant with Muir Orthopaedic Specialists in Walnut Creek, where she often functions as a second surgeon in the operating room.

It’s no pun to say that Pryde and others who have studied advanced human anatomy with Professor Greg Smith like to go deeper. These SMC undergraduates jump at the opportunity to do a full dissection of a human cadaver. The requirements of providing the experience—the cost of cadavers and instruments, a secure storage space, faculty with the appropriate training to design and oversee a course incorporating dissection—make it one rarely available to students at their academic level. Yet its impact is both immediate and long lasting.

“It’s such a different experience than looking at a cadaver that’s already dissected, and it really enhanced what I got out of the nursing program,” said Kacey Hansen ’90, MBA ’08, whose dissection of a female cadaver coincided with clinical courses covering obstetrical nursing and adult medical and surgical nursing care.

Hansen began her career at John Muir Health in Walnut Creek as an emergency department nurse and currently serves as the executive director for trauma and regional transfer center services. Her dissection experience proved invaluable during her first decade as a clinician. Hansen explained, “In professional practice, you have to think about what the patient will need based on the clinical presentation, and I had a great understanding, physiologically, of how the body works.”

For Rob Walters ’96, MA ’12, dissecting a human cadaver was both an opportunity and an honor. The health science graduate who now directs inpatient rehabilitation services at John Muir Health recalled, “I felt privileged to be a part of the program. It was such an unusual opportunity. This was graduate-level work. It was just me and a partner, not 30 other classmates.”

He found dissection fascinating, but also intimidating at first. Walters said, “I was in a smallish room with a brand-new cadaver—a person—in front of me. I had seen dissected cadavers in class and had an idea where the structures should be, but every body is a little different. We were required to keep a log of what we did every day, so I also had to reflect on what I was doing. It was a very Lasallian approach to science.”

To Eduardo Garza ’91, a health science graduate who went on to study medicine at New York Medical College, dissecting a cadaver offered an early lesson in respect for the human body. It also gave him an appreciation for those willing to give up their bodies for the benefit of science and education. Most of all, it provided a head start in medical school.

“A full-body dissection is what you do in the first year of medical school, and I’d already done it. I knew the techniques. I was able to not be intimidated by the whole experience, which made my transition to medical school much easier,” said Garza, a physician with an obstetrics and gynecology practice in the Palm Springs area for the past 11 years.

Walters made a similar discovery when he began his graduate study in physical therapy at Emory University in Atlanta, feeling far more prepared than other students who had dissected only frogs, cats, and pigs as undergraduates. This confidence in his anatomical knowledge has carried over into his career. Walters explained, “As a physical therapist, you have to understand the body in a holistic way, biomechanically how it’s supposed to work across a number of systems. I was able to relate what I’d seen underneath the skin, to know how the muscles are behaving when I put my hands on a person.”

Pryde also believes her experience dissecting a human cadaver had a residual effect on her educational and professional trajectory. She said, “It set me on the right track, and I’ve used the knowledge and experience to propel myself to another level.”

After graduating from SMC, Pryde studied physical therapy at the Mayo School of Health Sciences in Minnesota and became a senior physical therapist and athletic trainer at UC Berkeley. She also taught physical therapy classes at Samuel Merritt College in Oakland before returning to school herself to start a new career as a physician assistant.

“My graduate physical therapy program was so much easier because I’d done a dissection before. I was even asked to do the dissection for the following year’s class,”

Pryde said. “It’s made my job easier now because I’m a physician assistant in surgeries. It makes joint and tendon injections easier, too. I can look back and think: Where is that nerve? Where is that tendon? Is it medial or lateral? Anatomy doesn’t change. Once you’ve got it, you’ve got it.”

For students of their era, getting to that point was challenging. Aside from illustrations printed in a book, they had no visual aids for guidance. In contrast, those in Smith’s advanced human anatomy course today—a much-updated version of the independent study the alumni remember—can turn to 3D animations and stereoscopic videos of actual human specimens that look much like what they see inside a cadaver.

“The only way you really learned to do it then was to get your hands dirty,” recalled Pryde, who performed her dissections and other undergraduate work so successfully that SMC’s annual award for the outstanding Allied Health Science Program graduate now bears her name.

But that is exactly why Smith and SMC students view the dissections as an indelible way to learn human anatomy. Pryde explained, “When you stand over a cadaver trying to get a small nerve out, you focus. You know anatomy after that.”

Read more Annual Report stories »
Annual Report homepage »