Fall 2016
Decision to Change Career Benefits Anatomy Lab

synapse: University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine

Pat Elder

Preservation and Embalming

Pat Elder in the anatomy lab at UNR Med. Photo by James Rutter.

Story by Monica Gomez

Pat Elder was in her early fifties when she decided to start a new career.

"I worked for a utility company in Michigan and when I turned 50, 25 years in, I guess I always thought I would make a good funeral director," said Elder.

One of Elder's coworkers knew about her desire to work in a mortuary and connected her with a woman who worked at a local funeral home.

"I called her and she was very discouraging," Elder said. "She told me ‘don't do it. You work hard, you don't make any money.' When I hung up I thought, ‘well this wasn't good,'" Elder said.

Despite the negative feedback, Elder went back to school and obtained her degree in mortuary science from Wayne State University in 2010. Following a year-long internship, she moved across the country five years ago to work at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine.

"I may be the only anatomical embalmer for a university in the state. For a while, we were even supplying for [the] Las Vegas area," said Elder.

Anatomical Embalming Explained

Elder had been trained in the embalming process for funeral homes, which is different than anatomical embalming. In the first years of her new job, she spent a lot of time visiting other institutions to learn the trade.

"With a funeral home, the idea is, you just want to make the body presentable for family and friends, so it doesn't require a lot of fluid or a lot on the physical side making the body look good," said Elder.

"In anatomical embalming, you want to be able to preserve that body almost on a cellular level so the process is much longer."

The anatomical embalming process requires up to 12 gallons of fluid to permeate the body to preserve muscles and keep the bodies limp. This process is why the bodies are called cadavers. And unlike other embalming procedures, Elder doesn't use formaldehyde.

"We use an embalming fluid formula that we got from the University of Maryland and it uses phenol as a base. The smell is very different, it's less dangerous and it leaves the body a lot more pliable," said Elder.

The Cadaver Donation Process

Unlike an organ donation program, the anatomical donation program at UNR Med uses the entire body for student training.

"Those [donors] who apply indicate they want to give something back. We'll have retired doctors or people who are highly educated that think there is still something to give back to the world upon their death," said Elder.

The average age of the donor at death is 70.

"But I've had them over 100 years old, and I think the youngest I've had is 50."

Brains and uteruses are harder to come by and considered commodities in this practice, according to Elder.

"Part of the embalming technique [for brains] is you have to really push that fluid and it has to go down to a very deep level. The first year I was here I did not have good results embalming brains. It is a learning process that is much better now," said Elder.

Inside the Anatomy Lab

First-year medical students dissect the cadavers in teams of four.

"I think that when the medical students come in, they have one goal and that's to heal. It's hard for them to focus on the death side because it almost looks like a failure," Elder said.

"They may be out here in the lab dissecting, learning anatomy and thinking about the future of their patients, and I may be in the back doing an embalming."

At the end of the year, students host a memorial service for families of those who donated their remains to the program. Students prepare poems, play music and share what they learned with loved ones present at the service.

The bodies are cremated and the remains are spread in the foothills of the Sierra.

Elder found that working in the mortuary science industry has been a way for her to cope with the loss she's experienced throughout her life.

"The last ten years has really been a whirlwind. I wouldn't trade it for the world. I'm doing for the first in my career, life - I'm doing exactly what I feel I'm called to do," said Elder.

For more information on anatomical donation at UNR Med, please contact Joyce King at (775) 784-4569.

Editor's Note: Monica Gomez is a student at the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. This story was originally produced as part of Next Generation Radio Nevada, a partnership of NPR and the Reynolds School.