A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

‘Life is Cool’ demos give youngsters an
inside look at how body’s organs function

 (Photo by Tammy L. Lane)

Pig organs are effective teaching tools. Statewide, Landsdowne Elementary in Lexington is the 31st school that ‘Life is Cool’ has visited since 2008. (Photo by Tammy L. Lane)


By Tammy L. Lane
Special to KyForward

For fourth-grader Riley Speck, learning alongside classmates about the body’s organs reminded him of the generous Chattanooga family who gave him a new heart.

At 15 months old, Riley was diagnosed with restrictive cardiomyopathy – his heart beat normally but did not relax properly, so he was at risk for sudden death. Three months later when that Chattanooga family lost their baby girl, Riley received a priceless gift.

“Our thanks go out to donor families – that’s the only reason we have Riley with us,” said his mother, Brandi Speck.

 (Photo by Tammy L. Lane)

A cloth vest with detachable stuffed organs illustrates how 12 people can benefit from individual organ donations. (Photo by Tammy L. Lane)

Riley’s school, Lansdowne Elementary in Lexington, scheduled the “Life is Cool” program because of his close connection with Charlotte Wong, the public education coordinator with Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates.

“He’s a normal, healthy, active little boy because a donor family, in their time of loss, made the decision to share life with him,” Wong said.

Wong lined up more than two dozen volunteers to spend the day at Lansdowne, showing fourth- and fifth-graders how various organs function and reminding them to make smart choices to stay healthy. The students rotated among 10 stations led by local doctors, nurses, transplant specialists and recipients, and others from the medical field.

“They can hold that heart and put their finger into the arteries or veins and feel that valve,” Wong noted. Nine-year-old Isabella Persaud described it as squishy, saying, “It was cool to look inside.” Classmate Tytus Weldon also liked the heart best, and both youngsters cited the hazards of fried and fast food.

“If we eat a bunch of fat, it blocks the blood vessels to the heart,” Tytus said after seeing a test-tube sample. “If you eat wheat and salads and run and work out a lot, it makes your heart stronger.” Isabella admitted that chicken nuggets and cheeseburgers are tasty, but said it’s best to stick with apples to avoid straining the heart. “If you start now, you can be healthier and it will be easier,” she said.

As some students watched a portable ventilator fill a set of lungs with air, others jogged in place and then listened to their own lungs and hearts with stethoscopes. Nearby stations focused on the blood, liver, bone and tissue, and cornea; and a cloth vest with detachable stuffed organs illustrated how 12 people can benefit from individual donations.

 (Photo by Tammy L. Lane)

At one stop, youngsters jogged in place and then listened to their own lungs and hearts with stethoscopes. (Photo by Tammy L. Lane)

The real-life heart, lungs and liver on display – kept on ice for preservation – actually came from an animal. “Pig organs are the closest-looking and the closest-functioning to human organs,” Riley explained.  

Some of the other props were basic but effective, such as rubber bands to represent tendons. One volunteer used a glass measuring cup, kitchen strainer and coffee filter to illustrate how salt hampers kidney function. She also referenced the movie Finding Nemo, comparing the human body to a fish tank and the kidneys to the tank’s filtering system. Those kinds of connections resonate with elementary students.

Jennifer Rodabaugh, the school’s STEAM lab teacher, also overheard several children making connections between their classroom lessons and the culminating hands-on sessions in the gym. “Life is Cool” had provided material and workbooks for five lessons, which the students covered in their specials period in the preceding weeks.

“The curriculum teaches the kids how different organs in the body work, how nutrition plays a role, ways to donate the organs and tissues in your body, and how physical activity affects the body,” Rodabaugh said.

She was excited about the ripple effects. “They’ll realize the impact of their lifestyle choices on the way they physically feel. There’s a reason you need good nutrition, don’t smoke tobacco and exercise. It’ll connect the ideas they hear over and over and have some application they can use.”

Wong agreed the bottom line was encouraging students to make good choices, saying, “Every decision we make every day – in food, in movement, in just daily lifestyles – affects some area of our body.”

How to help

To join the Kentucky Donor Organ Registry, visit www.donatelifeky.org.

Tammy L. Lane is communications specialist and website editor at Fayette County Public Schools.

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