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Melissa Carroll: Guardian of the Gross Anatomy Lab

Dr Melissa Carrol, director of the gross anatomy lab
Melissa Carrol - Guardian of the gross anatomy lab

Just past the Pulse Café in the Gambet Center is a lab unlike any other in the Lehigh Valley. Inside DeSales University’s gross anatomy lab, you’ll find a dozen whole-body donors ready to make their contribution to medical science. You will also find Dr. Melissa Carroll—the lab’s director and self-professed guardian.

“I treat each of the donors as I would want to be treated or my loved ones would want to be treated,” says Carroll. “I want to make sure that they are protected in any way, shape, or form.”

The desire to serve and protect patients runs in Carroll’s family. The assistant professor and classically trained anatomist was born and raised in the Bahamas to a family of physicians.

“My dad, interestingly enough, was the first Bahamian radiologist. There was a lot of inspiration in the household,” she says.

Carroll came to the United States to pursue her undergraduate degree at Colorado State University. An avid sports fan, she always thought she wanted to be a sports physician. But things changed her junior year with her first anatomy course.

The subject piqued her curiosity so much that by her senior year, she applied and received special permission to take a graduate-level dissection course. That’s when she fell in love.

“When you open a human body—a cadaver—you see God in front of you. It’s so amazing to be able to see how we are uniquely and wonderfully made.”

 Dr. Melissa Carroll, Director of the Gross Anatomy Lab

Carroll went on to get her master’s degree and Ph.D. in anatomy. She came to DeSales in January of 2014 and became director of the University’s gross anatomy lab. Each year, the lab houses a dozen whole-body donors, a term Carroll takes great care to use.

“That’s one of the biggest things that I stress to the students,” she says. “Rather than using just the term cadaver, actually holding the donors with a higher level of respect and referring to them as donors rather than body or corpse.”

Physical therapy, physician assistant, and nursing students all share the lab. The donors are primarily split between the DPT and PA programs, with Carroll preparing a full-body dissection on one of the donors to use as a demonstration. She likens it to having x-ray vision, getting a glimpse of what’s going on beneath the skin.

“There’s a lot of misconception behind dissection. Each program has a different and unique need to explore the human body.”

Each program also has the opportunity to view all 12 donors and see the differences and uniqueness of each one. In keeping with the University’s Salesian spirituality, the programs hold blessing and memorial ceremonies at the beginning and end of each academic year to give thanks and to reflect on the donations.  

“It’s a really emotional experience,” says Carroll. “It’s a really great opportunity to come full circle, to pull back the compassion, the empathy, and everything back into working with humans and appreciating the selflessness that humans can have.”

As director of the lab, Carroll has to know the curricular paths of all three programs. She also coordinates the pick-up and return of each donor, gets new donors in each year, and is in charge of cleaning both the lab and the donors when they first come in—something she considers a privilege.

“I definitely take my own time when I’m preparing them for the lab to just say thank you, to say a quick prayer, and to be grateful for the reoccurring gift that we get each year. Without people being consciously aware of wanting to donate themselves to education and to research, we wouldn’t have a program.”

State anatomical boards typically control whole-body donations. In Pennsylvania, donors must register with the Humanity Gifts Registry, have a witness, and then have their request notarized.

Just because you are an organ donor does not necessarily mean that you cannot also donate your whole body. Carroll views the two donations in the same way but with one major exception.

“Rather than just your one heart saving one life, if you imagine that your one full body can educate 30, 50, 100 students that may be the next future generation that is creating whatever medical advancements that are out there.”

At the end of the donation cycle, donors are cremated—free of charge—and their ashes can be returned to their families. Several DeSales alumni have contacted Carroll about donating their bodies to the University. But she cautions that since the process depends on supply and demand, donors do not always get to choose where they end up.

Still, Carroll recognizes that without whole-body donors, she would not be able to do what she loves. That is why she plans to become one herself.  

“I’ve always said for myself, if I’ve made my living from learning and teaching and educating from whole-body donors, then I would somewhat be hypocritical if I didn’t give back in the same vein.” 

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