UCLA emeritus pediatric neurosurgeon passes on his love of anatomy.
Under the glare of operating-room lights, six UCLA neurosurgery residents embarked on a rare adventure into the human body. As they started cutting into three bodies, Dr. Warwick Peacock, professor of surgery, encouraged them onward. “That should be the linea alba,” he said in his gentle South African accent. “There are some adhesions. Always stick your finger in to make sure you’re not cutting into the bowel. It spoils the day.”
Incisions made, the residents approached the spine from the front, sawing through the sternum, moving beyond the lungs and following the rib head to the pedicle, then removing a thoracic disc on each body — in two hours.
Completing a discectomy in two hours on a living patient would be extraordinary. But this was no OR. The bodies are cadavers, and the bitter and antiseptic scent of embalming fluid, not blood, fills the air. In UCLA’s Surgical Science Laboratory — one of the few of its kind dedicated to the training of surgical residents — the fledgling surgeons can practice and make mistakes. They bubble with excitement, viewing anatomy rarely seen in this era of minimally invasive surgery and computer modeling: lungs, the front of the spine, the aorta.
For Dr. Peacock, an emeritus pediatric neurosurgeon — who developed new techniques for treating children with cerebral palsy by first trying these techniques out on cadavers — teaching residents and exploring the human body on a daily basis has been “one of the most fascinating parts of my life. It is a novel experience every time.”
Engaging and passionate about his subject matter, Peacock is a born teacher. In 2013, he received the first Distinguished Service in Education Award from the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Colleagues called him a “master educator” and a “visionary,” who is “revolutionizing surgical-anatomy instruction.”
“The most important aspect of teaching is not the transmission of fact,” said the tall, thin man with blue eyes. “It’s the transmission of enthusiasm.”
That enthusiasm, it turns out, is infectious among his students. “Dr. Peacock is an amazing teacher,” said Dr. Rich Everson, a neurosurgery resident. “He includes just the right amount of detail; it’s clinically oriented. He was a practicing neurosurgeon. There’s nobody better to teach us than someone like that.”
Medical students learn the basic structures of the human body, but a surgical resident must know how to reach his or her target without damaging anything along the way. Surgeons “are athletes of the small muscles,” Dr. Peacock said, and it takes hour upon hour of practice and repetition to train those muscles to perform the way they must.
At UCLA, they do that — and more — in the Surgical Science Laboratory, which opened in April 2012 under Peacock’s direction.
“I don’t think anyone has anything quite like what UCLA does and what Dr. Peacock does,” said noted pediatric and fetal surgeon Diana Farmer, chair of the Department of Surgery at UC Davis Medical Center. “It’s brilliant and it’s clever, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it becomes the standard throughout the country.”