Today I had the opportunity to attend a memorial service for the body donor programme my anatomy and dissection courses are affiliated with.
When I’m dissecting, I see these donors in their physical entirety. I see their scars, their disease ravaged organs. I find every deformity, variation, and imperfection in their bodies. I find surgeries that suggest medical history: apendectomies, coronary bypass, hysterectomies. I find tumours. I can’t help but wonder: What pain were they in? How was their disease managed? How did this happen? How long were they tormented by this? Were they glad when it was over? Sad to be gone? This person is someones son or daughter. How did their family handle everything that happened?
I know this donor very intimately in a physical (and I feel also spiritual) way, but I still know nothing about them aside from a reverse engineered medical history. I don’t know who they are. I don’t know what this brain thought, what these eyes saw, or what these hands did. I can’t help but wonder – I know the tremendous educational work this person is performing in death, but what did they do in life?
After both the dean of the school of medicine and the head of the emergency medicine residency programme had spoken and shared experiences about the value of having body donors, it was open mic for the donor families.
Family members shared stories that answered the burning questions I had. These strangers I’ve been bonding with at the dissection table were civil rights activists, esteemed professors, physicians, nurses, lawyers, veterans of wars, and other just plain good people who wanted to do some good after their body is no longer of use to them.
Many of the donor families don’t know exactly what we’re doing, but through the various speakers during the service and side conversations at the reception that followed, I hope they learned one thing: When we walk out of that room that contains their loved ones, that we are better for it. We’re smarter, more skilled, more experienced clinicians. As someone who learned anatomy with a human cadaver lab, I cannot imagine the course without it. I remember one day looking at a textbook illustration, then at a photo, then at a model, and understaning how these various representations worked together to communicate an idea. Then I went to the cadaver and had to relearn it because these were abstractions of the reality on the table.
Every one of us is special and unique. I believe I first learned that lesson in grade one. However, without the generous gifts of body donors, and the incredible sarcifice of their families, medical students (paramedics, physicians, nurses, etc) would not have the ability to really see and feel how different we each are – and more importantly how those differences can affect the care we will later provide.
So today I say this – thank you body donors. Thank you for you generous gift. Thanks to your families for their sacrifice. They’re giving you up for two years. They’re putting off receiving closure for my benefit. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
To the familes, your loved one’s time is well spent. I love them and care for them knowing they are someone’s son or daughter, husband or wife, father or mother, sister or brother. They give me a tour of the marvelous human body. I get the chance to see and make connections between things that other people will only ever see in artist’s renditions. I get to connect the dots when I interact with a patient – I know what’s really going on under the hood, and it makes all the difference.
Know that for as much as your loved one has affected me in the last two semesters I’ve had the privilidge of working with them, that the experience they’ve given me will touch the lives of every patient I encouter for my entire career.
The military medevac motto is “so that others may live.” Your loved ones have died by some means – perhaps tragic and unpreventable such as a disease that currently cannot be cured. Through this donation, their death has new meaning. While they may not cure the thing they died from, they are arming me to save lives for the rest of my career. Your family member died, and now others may live.
Body donors, I salute and thank you. To the donor families, thank you also. Please sleep well at night knowing the difference you and your family are making in my life and the lives of those who I will care for in the future. Please know that I love and respect your family members. To me they are people, and I want nothing more than to know them better. Thank you for sharing them with me. Thank you for sharing the details of their lives. Thank you for helping me connect the dots.
Thank for you making me better. Thank you from me, and from every patient I will ever touch.