Distance learning helps medical students connect with professionals

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published December 17, 2013

ST. CLAIR SHORES — He peeled away the layers of skin to expose the muscles and tissue surrounding the woman’s throat.

But this wasn’t the start of a horror movie; it was a learning opportunity for students looking to pursue medical careers.

With the help of Lake Shore High School’s Distance Learning Lab, about 200 medical and dental careers students were able to interact with Ray Vollmer, a respiratory therapist in the Practical Anatomy and Surgical Education Department of St. Louis University in Missouri.

“We do anatomy and physiology as part of our curriculum,” said Hilda Lynch, who teaches the first medical careers class at Lake Shore High School. “We thought it was a good thing for the kids to see an autopsy.”

Lynch said she and Deborah Spellicy, the dental and medical careers teacher, learned about Vollmer at a conference of the Michigan Health Occupations Educators Association and contacted him to ascertain his interest in speaking with the students. Because of an educational consortium, there are students from Lakeview, Roseville and South Lake schools in the classes, along with Lake Shore students.

Lynch said she thought many students might not even know that some people donate their bodies for education like this.

“Realizing people donate their bodies to science, it’s a good experience,” she said. “We cover the 12 body systems (in class). Hopefully, then they can relate to this.”

The interactive presentation was a live stream of Vollmer performing an autopsy on the body of a woman. While the camera was focused tightly on the part of the body he was working on at that time, Vollmer talked to the students about the functions of various parts of the body and shared information like the fact that lungs are useless without muscles and the skeletal structure of the body to move them. He also described how surgeries such as the insertion of a cardiac stent worked and showed them the difference between a healthy lung and one that was in the body of a smoker.

The woman he was dissecting had an enlarged heart, he said, showing the students that the heart should only be the size of a fist, but that this woman’s was much larger. That, he said, pushes the lungs out of the way and makes it more difficult to breathe.

Spellicy said the group was a mixture of first- and second-year students. The second-year medical careers students had already learned about anatomy, while the first-year students were just beginning their study of the human body, she said.

“I’m hoping this just solidifies all the information we give them,” Spellicy said.

While, in other career-oriented classes — such as technology or building trades — students can get hands-on experience, there isn’t really a way for medical careers students to get that hands-on work.

“So this is the closest we could come,” she said.

Spellicy said, initially, some of her students were apprehensive at the thought of watching an autopsy performed live on a cadaver, even after she assured them there wouldn’t be any blood shown.

“Some of them were apprehensive seeing a human body for the first time,” she said. But in the actual distance learning experience, “they’re not closing their eye or turning away. They’re interested. This is the first time we’ve tried this.”