In a chilly basement hallway of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, four students don pale blue and white surgical uniforms and enter a room with a sweet, pungent chemical smell.
Lying before them on a stainless steel table is the cadaver of an 81-year-old Maryland woman who donated her body to medical science. The students walk over to the table, gather up an array of surgical tools and begin to probe the veins and nerves in one arm of the cadaver.
The exercise is part of a new course that grew out of a partnership between the Catonsville campus of the Community College of Baltimore County and the medical school, the first such partnership in the state.
The course gives students the opportunity to step into a world normally reserved for surgeons, aspiring doctors, shock trauma specialists and emergency medics.
In its first year, the occupational therapy assistant program has an enrollment of four, only two of whom are preparing to work in that field. Still, all agree the laboratory work is invaluable.
"There are books, computers, but nothing that can compare to a learning experience like this," said Jim McConkey, a biomedical engineer for a firm in Columbia that specializes in computerized surgery. "This hands-on knowledge we receive is because of [the woman's] gift."
During a lesson last week, Andrea Milton -- studying for a nursing career -- was alerted by her professor to the importance of knowing the precise location of blood vessels in the arm.
"In starting intravenous fluids or drawing blood, you can't make the mistake of sticking the patient in the artery because it could be fatal," Diana Curley, assistant professor of biology at Catonsville and originator of the program, told the class.
"In some people, those vessels are extremely close so you have to be sure."
Curley lifted a small section of tissue from the cadaver's forearm for emphasis.
Milton, who wants to work in the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, said the course has provided considerable insight into how the body works.
"We have realized human body responses we never could have understood from lectures or books," she said. "To most people, cadaver work sounds unpleasant, but you learn little things like if a muscle and tendon in the arm move a particular way, certain mechanical reactions follow."
When the course started this month, the students were hesitant as they approached the cadaver for the first time.
"There was some trepidation when they first saw the body, but they quickly overcame that normal reaction," said Curley. "They now know dissecting animals -- what they used to do -- has limitations when preparing for the medical field."
Olivia Chenworth of Lutherville had other reservations about working on a human subject.
"I had some internal conflict with moral and ethical issues," said Chenworth, who is working toward a career in occupational therapy. "But then I realized we are granting this woman's final wish, and all my doubts went away."
Grant received for study
Curley received $3,600 from the Catonsville college's foundation to fund the cadaver study.
"We hope to eventually expand the program," she said. "We can go into other body parts like the brain and organs. I'd like to have our own Web site."
The course includes six four-hour laboratory sessions, with additional classroom and home study required.
"The students are pretty amazing, staying on their feet for hours," Curley said last week as the students worked with scalpels, scissors, probes and tweezers.
The students said they appreciate the generosity shown by the donor.
"She's left a legacy that is impossible to measure," said Kendra Wegener, who is studying occupational therapy.
In Maryland, all donated cadavers go to the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.
`Incredibly generous people'
"We have incredibly generous people in Maryland who donate their bodies to science," said Ronald Wade, director of the medical school's division of anatomical services. He said the school uses about 1,200 cadavers a year. About 20,000 people are on file to donate their bodies when they die.
Surgeons use the cadavers to practice complicated or new medical procedures. Medical students and shock trauma workers perform dissections to gain detailed knowledge of the human body.
And now, the generosity of anonymous donors will open a new world to students at the Catonsville college.
"I got my degree from Hopkins, but I never had this kind of a chance," McConkey said. "Now I better understand why the human body is one incredible package, thanks to this lady who we'll never know."