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In LeRoy, The Dead Have A Second Life Teaching High Schoolers Anatomy

Students look at a cadaver
Kristy McLemore
Martha Sweeney works with Ayushi Shah, right, a Normal Community High School senior, and other students at the lab in LeRoy.

On any given Saturday morning, the average teen might be getting ready for work, heading to practice or a game, or maybe even sleeping in.

But at 8 a.m. on April 27, a group of around 30 high school students were the only teens in the entire country spending the weekend with cadavers.

They’ve willingly given up 4 hours every Saturday morning over the last several months to study gross anatomy at the law office of Dr. Tom Pliura in LeRoy.

With scrubs, lab coats, glasses and clipboards, the high schoolers looked like the real medical professionals many of them want to become. Working in small groups, the students buzzed around each of the three cadavers laid out on exam tables inside the lab. For their last lab, dubbed “The Gland Finale,” the students were tasked with identifying all 12 glands of the human body.

After about 30 minutes, anatomist Martha Sweeney and proctor Jim Zeleznik circled the room to check the students’ work.

Sweeney stopped to help a group of students at one of the two male cadavers. They couldn’t seem to find the final two glands.

“It’s just—the liver is a gland,” Sweeney said.

Teacher with students over a body
Credit Kristy McLemore
Jim Zeleznik taught biology and coached football at LeRoy High School before he retired, and now teaches a zero-hour anatomy course at the high school in addition to proctoring at the lab.

“So is the kidney a gland too?” one student asked.


At the female cadaver, Zeleznik helped the students identify another gland they missed. He gestured inside the body's chest, below the neck.

“Right in here you’ve got the thyroid, parathyroid, and when you were young, you also used to have a what, right down in here, started with a “t.” Remember we talked about it? All we can see in the rest of the cadavers, because they’re old, is just a little piece of fat left,” he said.

One student gives it a shot: “Thy-thymus gland?”

She’s got it. “Thymus gland, mhm.”

Zeleznik explained the thymus gland, part of the body’s immune system, disappears as we age.

The students in the lab are just 17 and 18 years old—and yet they deal with subject matter most adults shy away from. But Lisa Tomlin, who teaches Advanced Placement Biology at Normal Community West High School and serves as a proctor for the lab, said the students take a different approach to the experience.

"There isn't any better way to learn in my opinion for students other than to just jump in and do it."

“I think for young people it might be easier, and especially for these young people, the capacity that they have for learning, really has made this be an easy transition for them, that in death, these people are still teaching,” she said. “And so they’re looking at it I think maybe a little differently. It’s not as the end, but really another phase of what the body can do for the future. And so they seem to be able to handle it honestly better than most adults that we have come through the doors.”

Normal Community High School Senior Jake Simonson said while his first day in the lab was a lot to take in, he got used to it pretty quickly.

“I really like just getting to learn about a bunch of stuff that I had no idea that even existed in our body, like it’s really cool to see on the cadaver and think about how that part of the body is working in your own body to keep you alive, and that’s really interesting to think about, that we all have the same anatomy going on, and we’re able to see it firsthand on a real human body,” he said.

That excitement about studying medicine is the reason Dr. Tom Pliura founded the lab nearly six years ago. He hoped the program would inspire students to join the medical practice in some fashion.

Dr. Pliura, himself a graduate of LeRoy High School, said his undergraduate gross anatomy class was the formative experience of his time in school.

“Far and away that was the best class I ever had, and I wanted to open that up, there’s no reason why you can’t challenge high school students, to offer a similar program to area high school students,” he said.

And for the students who do decide to pursue a career in medicine, Dr. Pliura said the program gives them a real leg up.

“This isn’t just somebody watching a doctor or a college professor dissect, the high school students are actually in there dissecting from day one,” he said. “So there isn't any better way to learn in my opinion for students other than to just jump in and do it.”

Mitch Agustin, a senior at Normal West High, said there’s another advantage to being in the program.

“Actually this is the only high school experience you can put on your medical school application, so that’s amazing, and then if we were to actually go through the physiology and anatomy during class, we would know more than most students in the class, which would be pretty cool,” she said.

Man shows book to students
Credit Kristy McLemore
Administrators regularly invite medical professionals to the lab to present to students about their work, and offer advice on applying to medical school, choosing a career path and more.

LeRoy School District Superintendent Gary Tipsord said the students aren’t the only ones gaining valuable experience in the lab.

“You have teachers in our high schools who are teaching anatomy to students who, when they proctor in that lab, they get some of the best professional development available anywhere,” he said. “So they can translate that over to 40, 50 60 kids that they’re teaching in their classrooms. So there are so many layers to the impact of trying to do things like this that have a much more significant benefit than what you just see inside the lab.”

Tipsord noted teachers who serve as proctors, as well as the dozen or more professionals that visit the lab to talk about their specialty, do so on an entirely volunteer basis.

Tipsord said to his knowledge, the lab in LeRoy is still the only program in the nation that allows high school students to dissect cadavers. He credits the lab’s singularity to the innovative partnership between Dr. Pliura and the school district.

Dr. Pluira works with the McLean County Medical Society to buy the bodies. Tipsord and the school district build the curriculum, recruit area students and secure proctors for the lab. The district also contributes money from a special “innovative programming” fund to support the lab.

“When you bring those two things together, so a business and industry that’s willing to do something nontraditional, and an education system that’s willing to do something nontraditional, all for the benefit of young people, that is what made it possible,” he said. “And that’s not—not everybody embraces this idea.”

Tipsord said he continues to hear from educators looking to start their own lab.

“Tremont has hosted one in the Peoria area, and we continue to talk to people in the Champaign area about the potential of hosting one in the Champaign area, and we’ll see where those things go, but our hope would be that we simply open the door of opportunity so that we’re no longer the only one,” he said.

After their final lab, the students turned in letters they had written to the families of the deceased. Mitch and her classmate Michael McKee explained the letters are meant to show their appreciation to the families for supporting their loved one's decision to donate their body.

“It was basically just, ‘Thank you for helping us with this opportunity to learn about the human body,’” Agustin said.

“Yeah, we couldn’t get like really detailed or like too personal, because this is like someone’s loved one, they are actual people, so it just had to be very careful with what we said but at the same time show our appreciation for the opportunity,” McKee said.

“And we also told them what we’re going into to show like, this was not a waste and we actually used what they gave us,” Agustin added.

Dr. Pliura said he hears similar feedback from students that show they understand just how unique an opportunity they've been given.

“I haven’t had one single student say, ‘No, I’m unhappy that I took the class,’ not one,” he said. “They all just are enamored by it. So I’m confident that we’re doing the right thing.”

The students are confident as well. Several have gone on to medical school to become nurses, veterinarians, and yes, doctors.

WGLT depends on financial support from users to bring you stories and interviews like this one. As someone who values experienced, knowledgeable, and award-winning journalists covering meaningful stories in central Illinois, please consider making a contribution.

Breanna Grow is a correspondent for GLT. She joined the station in September 2018.