One week after biochemist Clive Slaughter taught first-year medical students why a paper cut grows red and puffy as it heals, they couldn’t remember the specifics. So the associate professor at Medical College of Georgia’s new satellite campus in Athens ransacked medical databases looking for vivid photos that would help make lessons on wound healing unforgettable for next year’s class.
Finding none, Slaughter took an unusual step: He enlisted a dermatologist to slice a thin layer of skin off his right forearm. And he engaged a photographer and a medical illustrator to record the healing process.
“We taught the students about how cells divide and heal, but they didn’t make the connection because they didn’t see pictures,” said Slaughter, who earned his doctorate in Britain and taught medical students at the University of Tennessee before joining the Athens campus in 2009.
He understands why his action may strike some as archaic. The history of medicine is rooted in stories about men and women who used themselves as experimental models. Two Nobel Prize winners are famous examples.
Werner Forssmann, a young German doctor, pioneered cardiac catheterization in 1929 by threading a tube through a vein in his arm and into his heart, a procedure that many doctors at the time feared would be fatal.
Marie Curie, a Polish-born French chemist and physicist, carried radium in her pockets, thinking that it improved her health. Unfortunately, the dangers of radioactivity were not understood in the early 20th century, and Curie’s death in 1934 at age 66 is attributed to the effects of radiation.
An illustration, not an experiment
The three shallow wounds on Slaughter’s arm “don’t qualify as self-experimentation,” he emphasizes, because a true experiment has an unknown outcome. He never doubted that these superficial injuries would heal, and he was right.
Photographs of the healing are being edited into a time-lapse sequence that Slaughter will use when he teaches a new crop of first-year medical students next fall. This is the kind of creative thinking that Slaughter and his colleagues have been doing since 2009, preparing for the opening of the new medical campus this past August. They wrote a new curriculum that intertwines real patient cases with the basic science—such as biochemistry and genetics—that all medical students must master.
Like other medical schools, the MCG-UGA Partnership uses visual teaching aids from a peer-reviewed online resource called MedEd Portal, sponsored by the American Association of Medical Colleges.
“I can’t imagine why someone would inflict a wound on themselves, because a lot of information about wound healing on a biochemical and cellular level already exists,” said Erica Friedman, an associate professor and associate dean at Mount Sinai Medical School in New York. “In the early 1900s, physicians tried these things out, but this is the 21st century.”
Slaughter agrees that there’s a lot of information available, but that wasn’t the problem.
He found lots of illustrations of how deep surgical wounds heal, but his search for images of the body repairing a surface wound was fruitless. And that’s what he needed for his particular lesson on how cells and molecules interact, he said.
Visual instruction increasingly important
Friedman addressed the New York Academy of Sciences this past summer on how medical schools everywhere can improve their course of study. What matters most, she said, is showing how science applies to patient care, and visual tools help make these connections.
“Medical animation is very big right now,” said Friedman, who is also an associate editor for MedEd Portal.
A medical illustrator worked closely with Slaughter to animate the cellular activity that repairs a skin wound. Slaughter plans to submit the animation and his time-lapse video to MedEd Portal. If it’s published there, students at other schools can also benefit.
This month, for the first time, Slaughter looked at all the photos of his wounds, which are now nothing more than tiny red circles. He’s less interested in what happened on his individual forearm than in talking about how cells interact to marshal resources needed to fix the damage.
When students ask Slaughter questions during small group teaching sessions, he is excited to explain, said Hammad Aslam, a first-year medical student at the partnership.
“He’s such a great teacher. It doesn’t surprise me at all that he’s doing this,” Aslam said.