Thursday, January 15, 2004

Arm from a cadaver too 'gross' for some:
Thursday, January 08, 2004
By Jane Elizabeth, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It's fair to say that both doctors showcased at a Fox Chapel elementary school on Tuesday made an impression. In one case, it was just a little more lasting.

The oil painting "The Gross Clinic" by Thomas Eakins, depicting a 19th-century medical school lesson.

Dr. Seuss was the attraction in some classrooms at Fairview Elementary, with parents reading "Green Eggs and Ham" and using seaweed and other green foods for props.

Meanwhile, Dr. Michael Horowitz was headlining a fifth-grade science lesson on the human body. His prop was a human cadaver arm, which he opened to show its nerves and other parts.

At least one child vomited; five children left the classroom feeling ill. Another child fainted almost immediately.

The experience angered some Fairview parents, kept school board member Shirley Wiley's phone ringing yesterday and had school officials scrambling with damage control much of the day.

And it left science experts scratching their heads about why a human body part would be presented to such young children.

"We've never seen that with fifth-graders," said Cindy Workosky, a spokeswoman for the National Science Teachers Association.

"An arm?" said Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht. "That would be kind of upsetting even to adults."

So what exactly was the severed limb doing at the elementary school?

District spokeswoman Bonnie Berzonski explained that the district participates in the Traveling Art Gallery, or TAG, which takes famous art reproductions to schools. A piece of art is chosen from the collection by parents and faculty.

This time, it was an oil painting called "The Gross Clinic" by Thomas Eakins, an American realist who had studied anatomy. In 1875, Eakins had asked a professor at the former Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia (now Thomas Jefferson University) to allow him to paint a medical lesson in which the doctor was removing diseased bone from a patient's thigh.

The result, in the words of an art critic at the time for the New York Tribune, was "a picture that even strong men find it difficult to look at long, if they can look at it at all; and as for people with nerves and stomachs, the scene is so real that they might as well go to a dissecting room and have done with it."

Medical students with blood-stained hands are shown helping with the procedure, while a woman thought to be the patient's mother hides her face in distress.

Horowitz, a local neurosurgeon who has a child at Fairview, brought in the limb and medical tools to supplement the art lesson, school officials said.

Horowitz appeared surprised by the complaints yesterday and said that he has visited the school in previous years bearing cadaver eyes, ears and a brain. The body parts are donated to the University of Pittsburgh medical school for research purposes, he said.

He said he was aware of the child who fainted Tuesday -- Berzonski said the boy was unconscious for 10 to 20 seconds and was back at school yesterday -- but Horowitz said he wasn't aware of any other problems.

Berzonski also said there have been no other complaints about the neurosurgeon's visits. She emphasized that Tuesday's demonstration "was curriculum-based" and that the lesson was designed to be interdisciplinary -- combining the study of careers, science and art.

Berzonski said the fifth-graders recently finished a study of how body systems interrelate -- nerves, bones, skin and other organs. She also said that when Horowitz lifted the skin on the cadaver arm to show the children what lay underneath, "there was no blood."

"My son left the room; he was quite traumatized," said one father, who didn't want his name used fearing "reprisal." The boy's mother was at the school to help with the Dr. Seuss program, he said. "She said he was as white as a ghost."

Berzonski said the children were told on Monday and again on Tuesday that the class would feature a cadaver arm, and that they could leave the classroom at any time if they wished. However, no notes were sent home to parents before the event, Berzonski acknowledged.

"Parental notification should have been done," said the mother of a fifth-grade girl, who "felt sick" during the presentation. "Use some common sense, that's all I want," said the parent, who said she called the science teacher yesterday morning and was satisfied that the situation wouldn't occur again. The teacher could not be reached for comment.

Wecht, who sometimes works with students in his job as county coroner, said he didn't "fault the doctor."

"I think it's wonderful to talk about it, that he gave his time for this," said Wecht. But, he added, "a simple, simple two-dimensional chart" could have illustrated the lesson for fifth-graders, rather than a real human arm.

"Save the actual tissue specimens until the later years of high school," Wecht said.

One Fairview parent said he made a point to tell his son, "I'm proud of you for leaving the class," knowing that he might be teased by other children.

Fairview parent Mary O'Sell, however, said her fifth-grade daughter, who couldn't attend the science presentation, "was sorry she missed it."

She didn't believe parental notification was necessary. "I have total trust in the staff out there," she said.

But, she added, "hindsight is a valuable thing."

School board member Wiley said she found the demonstration "extremely unusual." She noted that Fox Chapel students normally have to get permission slips to dissect animals and see movies with other than "G" ratings.

School officials are "going to review this situation and make a determination," said Berzonski. "Is fifth grade old enough to handle something like that?"
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