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The Quinnipiac Chronicle

The Student News Site of Quinnipiac University

The Quinnipiac Chronicle

Mold shuts down cadaver lab for five days

Peyton McKenzie
Quinnipiac University officials closed the human anatomy laboratory for several days in October after discovering mold growth on two of the lab’s 48 cadavers.

Quinnipiac University officials shuttered the institution’s human anatomy laboratory for five days in early October after making an inconvenient discovery: mold on two of the lab’s cadavers.

The university’s anatomy laboratory houses dozens of donated cadavers to provide Quinnipiac’s medical, nursing and health sciences students with “first-hand knowledge of the anatomical structures of the human body,” per the medical school’s website.

But on Wednesday, Oct. 4, professors began notifying students working with the cadavers that the laboratory would be closed until the following Monday.

“I regret to inform you that the Human Anatomy Lab is now closed until Monday, October 9th,” wrote Deanna Proulx, clinical professor of occupational therapy, in an Oct. 4 notice to students. “No one may enter including students, faculty and staff during this time.”

The official reason for the laboratory’s sudden five-day closure was not immediately clear. However, rumors quickly began circulating that mold growth on some of the cadavers — or “donors,” as they are known colloquially — had prompted laboratory officials to shut down the human anatomy wing for cleaning.

If it spread more, then the possibility of shutting down in the lab and needing to get new donors might have been a possibility.”

— Maureen Helgren, associate professor and director of anatomy at Quinnipiac University's Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine

Maureen Helgren, associate professor of medical sciences and director of anatomy at Quinnipiac’s Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine, confirmed that officials shuttered the laboratory upon detecting mold growth on not one but two of the lab’s 48 donor cadavers.

But the situation was more complex than that, Helgren explained.

“Mold in any biological lab is always a potential,” said Helgren, a Quinnipiac alumna who has worked in laboratories for four decades. “We have protocols in place if mold is to show up at any point in time.”

Laboratories treat cadavers with specially formulated chemical wetting solutions to preserve bodily tissues and forestall potential fungal growth.

Yet she said mold growth remains a relatively commonplace — and typically benign — phenomenon in cadaver labs like Quinnipiac’s.

“I would say that probably every year there might be some mold that we take care of,” she said, noting that checking for contaminants like mold is part of the laboratory’s “everyday protocol.”

Prior to this month, though, mold had never in the lab’s decade-long history prompted its closure.

And it probably wouldn’t have shuttered the massive laboratory this time, Helgren said, had the mold not already spread to a second cadaver.

“We’ve never shut down the lab because it’s never really spread,” she said. “That it spread, or was on two donors, that’s where my concern was.”

Left untreated, mold infestations can wreak havoc on anatomical dissection laboratories.

At Eastern Illinois University, for example, a 2014 malfunction in the anatomy laboratory’s ventilation system triggered mold growth so severe it forced officials to discard the institution’s only two cadavers, according to the Daily Eastern News, the university’s student-run newspaper.

“If it spread more, then the possibility of shutting down in the lab and needing to get new donors might have been a possibility,” Helgren said. “I closed the lab so that we could completely take care of it.”

Because the two donor cadavers impacted by the mold were assigned to the same program, Helgren offered a likely explanation for how the mold spread beyond a single cadaver.

“Students don’t just work on their own donor,” Helgren said. “And if they have spores on their gloves, that could transmit to a number of donors.”

This explanation, however, left open the possibility that the mold had unknowingly spread to additional cadavers. Accordingly, Helgren attributed the lab’s closure, at least in part, to the need to check each of the 48 cadavers for previously undiscovered signs of mold growth.

Helgren admitted this process typically doesn’t take her longer than a day to complete by herself — but a shoulder injury, of all things, threw a wrench in those plans.

“This is going to sound ridiculous, but I have a rotator cuff injury,” Helgren said. “And I couldn’t manipulate the donors by myself, so it was better just to close it down.”

However, the lab’s unusual closure, she said, came with an interesting array of speculation.

“One of the rumors I heard was that we then got rid of the donors,” Helgren said. “And that is not true. We just treated the donors, and they’re still in the lab, and they are mold-free now.”

But how exactly does one “treat” mold on a cadaver?

“We do an inspection to see where the mold is, and then we apply chemicals to arrest the mold growth,” Helgren said.

The cadavers, she said, also undergo a debridement procedure — that is, officials remove any moldy tissue and chemically disinfect the surrounding areas.

“It’s almost like a tumor, right?” she said. “You take that tumor out, and you make sure you have clear margins, and then you continue to treat with the chemicals.”

Amid the lab’s closure, Helgren said laboratory personnel also consulted with representatives from the chemical manufacturer and the company responsible for the anatomy lab’s complex ventilation system to review the university’s systems and procedures.

“We always try to maintain the lab for the safety and education of our students,” Helgren said.

Helgren also emphasized, though, that the laboratory has as much of a responsibility to its donors — who are a part of the university’s anatomical gift program — as to its students.

“We also have this priority of maintaining the integrity of our donors,” Helgren said. “They have donated in order to provide education for our health professionals.”

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Cat Murphy
Cat Murphy, News Editor
Peyton McKenzie
Peyton McKenzie, Creative Director

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