The New York Times – Life / Style – A formal meeting at Columbia University in the US last month presented the characteristics of a traditional funeral service. Students and teachers played music and made speeches. The university chaplain thoughtfully concluded the ceremony.
But there was a fundamental difference: No one in the room had ever met the people whose lives were being honored. All participants were students and faculty members of the university’s medical school and they met Thank those who donated the body to the autopsy lab. “Who were they? Father, son, co-worker, friend? What books have they read? How are the family members now? Do they know how much their loved ones gave us?” said Bree Zhang, a first-year dental student.
There have been similar scenes across the country recently as medical, dental and physical therapy students gathered to honor body donors and their relatives. At the festivities, students play music, light candles, read letters, and share art. (A heart sketch of Chang’s anatomy studies was shown, superimposed over her extravagant drawings of books, tree roots, and human figures as she spoke at Columbia.) An ecumenical spiritual leader is often in attendance. Sometimes this includes setting up a tree or giving flowers to the donor’s family.
It is unknown how many people in the United States donate their bodies to medical research and education, although it is estimated that around 20,000 people or their family members do so annually. Standards vary by program and country; Generally, Anyone over the age of 18 can become a donor., but those suffering from certain infectious diseases such as hepatitis B or C, tuberculosis, HIV or AIDS are usually excluded. Many programs also reject cadavers that have been autopsied or have their organs removed for donation.
Even with the introduction of elaborate 3D visualization software, for centuries anatomy has been the mainstay of medical education for most first-year students, who spend months systematically studying the structures of the body, including organs, tendons, veins, and tissues. This experience is richer than the basics of medicine. Treating the donor, seen as the physician’s first patient, with respect and care provides students with an ethical and professional foundation, explained Joy Balta, chair of the American Anatomy Society’s Human Body Donation Committee.
Acknowledging a sacrifice
Body donation is an altruistic act by the donors, as well as their families, who can wait up to a few years to receive the ashes. Funeral ceremonies, often called thanksgiving ceremonies, acknowledge the sacrifice.
“You think about the donor you work with. This is someone who donated their body, and wanted to use it to improve science and health care,” said Palta, who is also director of the Institute of Anatomy at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego.
Columbia University’s Vagelos School of Physicians and Surgeons began hosting a donor appreciation ceremony in the late 1970s as a way to highlight an experience that was “very challenging for some students and truly transformative,” noted Paulette Bernd, director of the school’s primary clinical anatomy course.
Donors’ families are invited to events at some schools. In other cases, the ceremonies are restricted to students and teachers, in order to keep the anonymity of the donors guaranteed. At Brown University, for example, only the donor’s age, cause of death, marital status, and occupation are revealed to students, and the hands and face remain covered for most of the process. The bodies go through the whole process of de-identification. And this is a great way to humanize them. We consider the benefit they have provided, as well as their family members, who are still dealing with the loss,” explained Nidhi Bhaskar, the first-year medical student who helped coordinate a final thank you ceremony at Brown.
d said Daniel Topping, MD, clinical associate professor in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at the University of Florida College of Medicine.
‘I knew she was helping someone’
Among the guests at the gala at the University of Washington was Regina Dunn. She was too distraught to plan her own funeral when her mother, Louise Dunn, died in July at the age of 90. She said the tribute to the benefactor was Louise Dunn’s first memorial. “They comforted me,” Regina Dunn said of the students. “And a lot of people need this result.”
He added, “My mother, who opened a school of modeling for black women in St. Louis in 1960, was always eager to help people. So it was not surprising that she wanted to continue to help others after her death, even if some relatives had to overcome some fears because of her decision.” By donating her body to science.”
A black student told a friend who accompanied her to the party that having a black donor in the lab, when most donors are white, had a profound effect, Regina Dunn said. “I felt really honored, because I knew it was helping someone.”
For the family of Michael Haass, who donated his body to Indiana University College of Medicine, the Thanksgiving ceremony was a complete moment in many ways. His wife, Molly Haas, said he was euthanized on April 16, four days before the anniversary of his death. The ceremony took place on the campus of the university in Bloomington, Indiana, where the couple got engaged in 1970. Family members received white and red carnations; Molly Hass remembered that her husband always gave her red carnations.
Both decided to donate their bodies in 2012, around the time Michael Haas was beginning to show symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. For him, who was a social worker and Episcopal priest, being a benefactor was a way to expand the mission of service, his wife explained: “His values and ethics always prioritize generosity.”
Great feeling of gratitude
Thanksgiving celebrations are usually planned by students, but they also give faculty who run anatomy labs a way to address their relationship with donors. “I feel a huge sense of gratitude, responsibility and honor every time I’m with a donor. It’s something sacred to me,” said Topping of the University of Florida.
Nirusha Lachman, chair of the Department of Clinical Anatomy in the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science, attended her first honors ceremony in nearly 40 years as a student in South Africa, and has since spoken on several occasions. They serve, according to her, to show that donors are still alive through the education given by their bodies. “You want everyone, including relatives, to understand that death is not the end for your loved one.”
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