There's a panic button inside the refrigerator where eight bodies are stored for scientific study at Orange Coast College.
"If the door closes and students get the heebie-jeebies, then they can just push it--like this," said Kathleen Conroy, faculty coordinator of the student cadaver team that dissects human remains daily.
When she hits the button, the door opens swiftly, allowing a hasty exit.
Passersby unfamiliar with the college's dissection lab--seeing a body laid out on one of the stainless-steel tables--almost always do a double take, said Sharon Daniel, a professor of biological sciences.
"Most ask, 'Is it real? Are the bodies real?' " said Daniel, who with the help of associate professor Ann Harmer has made the class a success among science students interested in medical occupations.
This is an independent honors class, the only one of its kind at an Orange County community college. Students can study damaged kidneys, blackened lungs and swollen livers in training that goes beyond what a textbook can provide.
After examining body parts over the years, Conroy, 32, has come to an optimistic conclusion: "It's amazing what can go wrong but doesn't. It's amazing how many healthy people are walking around."
Paloma Robbins, 23, a newcomer to the 17-member class, is thinking about becoming a physician's assistant.
Rey Mojares, 23, has his sights set on medical school.
And 19-year-old Garrick Owen, fresh from Orange High School, said that genetic research could be in his future.
Then there's Tammie Keller, 22, a former Orange Coast College student who took the class and is now rewriting syllabuses for graduate students in physical therapy at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. She also helps dental students by exposing the cranial nerve system on human specimens so they can get a look at where all their numbing injections are going.
"If it weren't for the class, I'd be nowhere," Keller said in a telephone interview. "You can't get the same experience anywhere around. There's nothing like it. I took 500 hours and in the end it was so interesting, I couldn't keep away from it. It was a way of keeping my sanity."
Not just any Orange Coast College student can register for the cadaver prosection class, as it is officially known. They must be invited by professors, and a five-unit human anatomy class is a prerequisite.
"Dissecting preserved cats is a good preamble, but you don't really start learning until you've prosected a human body," Daniel said.
The bodies are provided by the UC Irvine and UC San Diego medical schools, which have willed-body donation programs. Autopsies are not performed on the bodies, and once the dissection and study are completed, the medical schools pay for cremation and the scattering of ashes at sea.
What type of people donate their bodies for student exploration?
"They come from all walks of life," said William Collins of UC San Diego's medical school. "Men, women, even entire families will donate, but you really don't know when your time is coming, so it's better to plan ahead."
Collins said older donors often remark that they have had such healthy lives and good medical care that willing their bodies to science is their way of giving something back. He said the donor program has two requirements--that donors be of average weight and height and that they do not die of a communicable disease.
But do the donors know that community college students, in some cases, will be performing rudimentary dissections?
"Oh, yes, we're upfront with them," Collins said. "But most people who sign up for the program don't care; they just want their bodies to be used."
The donors remain anonymous, but students give the bodies nicknames. One is called "Jacques" because he was an oceanographer; another is "Master Poe," for no reason at all. A third is called "Vanna" and a fourth, is called "Tiny." But students say they mean no offense; disrespect, it is just their way of identifying the specimens, which is easier than using numbers.
"Every student in this class is serious and appreciates and respects the human body," Conroy said.