We had just arrived in Guben or Gubin, depending on which side of the border your feet settle. It is a quaint little town on the border of Germany and Poland. Guben, Germany is also home to “The Plastinarium”, which is where Gunther von Hagens originated the world-renowned traveling exhibit “Body Worlds”. Our students were about to embark on a journey through the human body that they would never forget; the week-long workshop entails an anatomical and physiological exploration unmatched to any experience we could offer back home. Eighteen UWGB Human Biology students were about to become acutely aware of what a career in the health sciences might entail. After gowning and gloving up, they participated in the removal of thoracic and abdominal organs during a fresh autopsy, cannulation of femoral arteries for perfusion, extraction of nervous tissue in observation of cranial nerves, and dissection of preserved human cadavers.
As I watched our students immersed in positioning human joints, I began to wonder if the concept of being in another country was lost on them. Had they become so enthralled in these hands-on activities that traveling to another continent was secondary? My fleeting concern was quickly dismissed when von Hagens appeared with his dog, Bella, and began shuffling down the museum towards our students. Due to his battle with Parkinson’s disease, von Hagens has difficulty in communicating. However, our students embraced the silent communication as von Hagens pulled up a chair, inserted a scalpel blade, and began assisting with their joint dissections. It was clear that his presence was awe-inspiring. It was also clear that our students signed up for more than a dissection experience; they were embracing the culture of Germany through interactions with the staff at The Plastinarium. This was duly noted by the exchange of contact information before boarding the bus on our final day in Guben.
As the trip continued, I witnessed students enjoying a currywurst and a pint of German beer at a local pub in Berlin. I watched students order potato-filled pierogi in the Krawkow town square shadowed by the impressive Wawel Castle. I patiently observed students process the use of the euro and Polish zloty. While our four-hour visit to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Birkenau) was eerily quiet and deeply unsettling, the conversation among the group that ensued that evening regarding the field trip was exactly what I had hoped this trip would encompass. Then there were the fleeting moments where students sought familiarity; this was evident by the excitement that came from the back of the bus when the golden arches appeared. However, even the menu at McDonald’s reminded them that we were far from Wisconsin.
As we paraded through customs in Chicago and I began reading the student journals, it was clear that the concept of being in another country had not been lost on them. Although they had only held a scalpel for part of the trip, their most intense dissection was not in the lab…it was of the cultures they had been immersed in.
Associate Professor, Human Biology