During one of my substitute-teaching assignments, at the last minute I was asked to cover a class in the vocational area of the high school. All I was given was a room number, so I was surprised to find a classroom with a hospital bed, examination table, and other medical equipment. It was a pre-nursing course, for which I was not prepared. But I figured as long as they didn’t want to practice autopsies on me, I’d be okay.
Which begs the question, how do medical students practice autopsies, other invasive procedures, and generally see what’s inside the human body? They experiment with bodies, all right, but (fortunately) the non-living kind. The generally accepted term is cadaver: a dead human body. An estimated 20,000 bodies are donated for medical research and education each year. It’s a grim but very necessary part of the process.
And the medical profession greatly appreciates the donations. In the late 1970s, Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons began hosting a donor gratitude ceremony, and the idea has spread. It’s a way of marking an experience that “is very difficult for some students and really transformative,” said Paulette Bernd, who runs the school’s clinical gross anatomy course.
These events can have all the elements of a traditional memorial service, although the details vary. Sometimes the donor’s relatives are invited. At other schools, the ceremonies are only for students and faculty members, and much of the donor’s information is kept confidential. For example, at Brown University, only the donor’s age, cause of death, marital status and occupation are shared with students, and the donor’s hands and faces are covered for much of the process. “The bodies go through this whole process of being de-identified,” said Nidhi Bhaskar, a first-year medical student at Brown. “And this is a really great way to re-humanize them. We take into account the very real gift they left, and the family members who are still processing their loss.”
The ceremonies are typically planned by students, but they also give faculty members a way of relating to the people who are responsible for the donations. “I feel a great sense of gratitude and responsibility and honor every time I’m around a donor,” said Dr. Topping, of the University of Florida. “It’s a very sacred thing for me.”
In other words, it is a ceremony of gratitude in every respect.
From “Honoring the Body Donors Who Are a Medical Student’s ‘First Patient’” by April Rubin (https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/31/science/donor-bodies-medical-school-appreciation.html?)