Wayne K. Roustan Sun Sentinel
Few classes require a moment of silence before the teaching begins, but this show of respect was the initial lesson learned by a group of emergency workers handling cadavers in Coral Springs.
The three-day Critical Skills Lab, in a converted conference room, gave an estimated 500 South Florida firefighters, paramedics, police, doctors, nurses and medical examiners hands-on training using some of the newest medical equipment on human flesh and bone.
“They are somebody’s dad, mom, loved one, and we do a moment of silence before we go in to make sure everyone realizes what a gift to us this is,” said Juan Cardona, Coral Springs Fire Rescue EMS Division Chief. “We are very respectful and aware of that.”
Three men and a woman chose to serve science and teach students after their lives ended. All died in their 60s. They allowed their respiratory systems, their chest cavities, their organs and limbs to be manipulated in ways that no standard training mannequin could.
“It’s very rare that we have experience with cadavers, bodies that are not mannequins, that are not synthetic,” said Lt. Frank Pekora, also with Coral Springs Fire Rescue. “These are true bodies with different anatomies that help us learn about different body types and different anatomical functions.”
Memphis-based Paragon Medical Education Group has been supplying bodies for training purposes nationwide since 2009, said Chief Operating Officer J. Harold “Jim” Logan.
As with organ donor options on driver’s license forms, Logan says some people choose to sign over their entire bodies to organizations like Paragon for research and education purposes.
When the teaching ends, the bodies are cremated and returned to their families with a letter detailing how their loved one helped advance medical knowledge.
This is only the second time this course has been taught in the state and the first time in South Florida, Logan said.
“It’s all hands on,” he said. “Some guys just want to stand in the back and observe, that’s fine, and anybody who wants to try anything that they haven’t tried in the field, in advanced procedure, they can just walk to the front and they get a chance.”
Crews huddled around and rotated between three training stations during four daily sessions that were held from Tuesday through Thursday.
There was the general anatomy station where crews got to see the whole body’s internal physiology on display.
“They get a chance to manipulate some of the internal organs,” Cardona said.
The second was the hemorrhage control station where these students learned to apply tourniquets and other equipment to stop bleeding.
The third station featured airway management where crews got to use devices to penetrate a person’s respiratory system.
“They also get a chance to practice needle insertion and drills designed for that purpose,” Cardona said. “We inject fluids and medications into patients, directly into their bones.”
Many experienced life savers came away with a new appreciation for what they do, Logan said.
“A lady paramedic came out and said, ‘Wow, this changed my life forever. I’ll be able to treat my patients differently,'” he said.
Pekora said he learned a few things about the nature of trauma’s impact on the human body.
“We’re trained in trauma as it happens not seeing the end result of what our interventions could possibly do or how they’re affecting the body on the inside,” he said.
When one group was done, the students would strip off their protective gowns, gloves, masks, hairnets and slip-on shoe-covers then file out while the next group suited up for a new session.
All the while, the cadavers lay patiently on autopsy tables waiting to teach again.
“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for many,” Cardona said of his colleagues.