Now classes were over and the school was holding its yearly anatomical donor Mass, to say thank you. In a classroom auditorium, about 135 family members watched as a procession of 160 white-coated students walked down the aisles on either side of them. Each placed a glass-held candle on stage with a gentle clink, creating a seemingly endless chain of light.
From Linn’s front-row seat, her eyes reddened as she listened to the readings, hymns and remarks by students, a priest, a rabbi and the dean for medical education.
The donors, they said, were the students’ first patients. And students were the donors’ final caretakers.
“They knew nothing about us, and yet they dedicated their final act on this Earth to share their most intimate possession with us in the hope that we could learn from them,” said Mark Norton, 27, class president of the first-year medical students.
“Our donors taught us to celebrate life and to never forget the need for humanity and compassion in medicine — a lesson that could never be explained in any textbook or on any app.”
As the Mass drew to a close, the Rev. Salvador Jordan asked family members to step forward. Leaning on her cane, Linn, 75, joined about 20 other people, including a couple with a young boy, in the front of the room. Three students presented them each with a creamy white rose.
Her decision to donate her husband’s body had not been difficult — the couple had agreed to be organ donors. But seeing and hearing from the medical students was comforting.
“I feel so much more at ease. . . . ,” she said. “I think Arnold would be very pleased.”
Introduction to medicine
Each year, 19,000 medical students in the United States dissect cadavers as part of their introduction to medicine. It is one of the most sensitive rites of becoming a doctor because it is often the students’ first encounter with death.
Many medical schools hold some type of memorial service at the end of the school year to honor donors. At the George Washington University medical school, family members spoke, and students sang and performed original dance. The service ended with a reading of the donors’ first names and a release of butterflies.
“Gross anatomy is a very challenging course in many ways,” said Christina Puchalski, director of the university’s Institute for Spirituality and Health and one of the speakers. On the science side, students must memorize the location and function of hundreds of anatomical structures. But they also need to acknowledge their emotions.
A challenge in medical education, she said, is to help students achieve competence without losing compassion.