Cindy Lombardo has gone trekking with mountain gorillas and toured the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia, but neither could have prepared her for this summer's adventure.
On Monday, Lombardo, 66, of Richfield, started the two-week Anatomy Academy program at the Northeast Ohio Medical University in Rootstown, which gives regular people the rare opportunity to dissect cadavers.
Participants spend the first half of the day in the classroom working with models and the second half of the day in the gross anatomy lab, where they work with cadavers under the guidance of Director and Founder Dana Peterson, Katie Mattinson, Dr. Christopher Yohn, and a team of medical student teaching assistants. According to Peterson, the academy covers about two-thirds of a semester-long anatomy course. Tuition is $2,500 with some scholarships available.
Stepping away from a cadaver with an exposed chest, Lombardo explained that she read a short blurb about the Anatomy Academy in a magazine. The idea of working with a cadaver made her so uncomfortable, she decided she had to participate.
"The older you get the more important it is to do things that are kind of scary and outside your comfort zone. I'm so far out of my comfort zone right now I might as well be in another galaxy," she said.
Leading into the academy, she had lots of ideas about what it would be like, many of which were based off of the Canadian crime series "Murdoch Mysteries," but all of her ideas were wrong.
"The first thing I did [on Monday] was go to this cadaver, which of all them, is the most intact and so the most human looking. They asked me to cut across the calf with a scalpel, and pull the flap of skin back. It was a really an odd feeling," she said.
Lombardo, a retired deputy director for the Cleveland Public Library, is one of the program's "non-traditional students," explained Peterson.
Typically, participants are high school and college students who are interested in entering the medical field and want early experience in the gross anatomy lab or a leg up in the competitive medical school admissions process.
Andrew Newsom, for example, is a 20-year-old biochemistry/pre-med major at Kent State University who is planning to apply for NEOMED's early assurance program this coming fall.
"I took generic biology and cell biology last year, and this coming year I'll take genetics, organic chemistry and physics. But I wouldn't have the opportunity to take an anatomy class until my junior or senior year, so this was an awesome opportunity," said Newsom, originally of Zanesville.
Prior to the Anatomy Academy, Newsom had only seen a cadaver once during a high school field trip. He said he was looking forward to working with the cadavers.
"When I walked in, the smell got me at first, but it was weird. Right when I touched the cadaver and started cutting, the smell didn't bother me anymore. My nausea, lightheadedness, just went away," he said, which confirmed for him that he was headed on the right path and has made him consider surgery as a specialty.
The students also learn about the ethics of working with body donors and what people go through as they prepare to donate their bodies to science. As an educational program, the Anatomy Academy meets the criteria for body donations, Peterson said.
"We take that very seriously and we hold them to a high standard of behavior and accountability in the lab because of that," Peterson said.
There are also high school students participating in the program, including Field High School senior-to-be Brianna Bish, 16, and Akua Amponsah, 16, of Ghana who is spending the summer in Akron with her family. Both Bish and Amponsah said they have always been interested in the medical field and saw the Anatomy Academy as an opportunity to explore the profession more.
"For me this is really mentally challenging. I'm here with a group of people who are 45 years younger than I am, at least, and they have really great memories and they've taken advanced science classes. They're really starting at a level that I kind of hope to get to by the end of the two weeks," Lombardo said.
"It's intimidating, but that's part of it. If you're afraid to do something, that's probably a pretty good indication that you should do it."
Krista S. Kano can be reached at 330-541-9416, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @KristaKanoRCedu.