Dartmouth medical students hold memorial service

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For a few exceptional individuals, living a good life isn’t enough. The people who donate their bodies to medical colleges take it a step further.

Each spring, first-year students at Dartmouth Medical School hold a memorial service to show their gratitude for these gifts. It’s a way of honoring their silent teachers.’

VPR’s Susan Keese reports:

(Keese) Under the vaulted dome of Dartmouth’s Rollins chapel, the atmosphere was solemn but comfortable. The medical students wore skirts and heels, dress shirts and ties.

Also in the chapel were the relatives of the people who had donated their bodies to the class of 2008’s first-year anatomy lab. A student ushered them forward to light a candle. Students shared their musical gifts too.

With blended voices, they said thank you.

(Students) “I cannot put into words how much we have all learned benefited and grown from the contributions of your loved ones. We got to know these generous individuals in a truly unique and unconventional manner. And in many ways they have been the most influential part of our learning process thus far. Their gracious donations provided our class with unparalleled opportunities and we will honor their gifts by serving our patients with the same spirit of selfless generosity.”

(Keese) Dr, John Lyons teaches anatomy and surgery. He said that in this high tech age, the use of a human dissection cadaver to teach anatomy is considered antiquated by some.

But he said a human body teaches more than anatomic facts. Teachers can talk about anatomy he said.

(Lyons) “But my words could never match the clarity and power of the tactile and visual feedback that the students get from the actual dissection of a real body.”

(Keese) Lyons said cutting into a human body is almost always disturbing and difficult at first.

(Lyons) “In the long run, most physicians rate that traumatic day as one of the most unforgettable in their medical education. It provided their first experience with the laying on of hands and was a rite of passage into the world of medicine.”

(Keese) During the months they spend with their cadavers students know only their donors’ age and cause of death. In the spring, when the class is finished, the body donors’ cremated remains are given to the families. When the invitations are sent out for the memorial service, the students invite the families to reveal more.

(Students) He served with the U.S. Army as a translator at the Nuremburg Trails. She hand crafted braided rugs and fed the birds and visiting skunks. She laughed often and touched the hearts of those she knew.

(Keese) After the ceremony, the future doctors mingle and talk with the donors’ families.

(Woman) “I think you read about my father. Oh I did.
(Woman) I’m sure that she has felt privileged to be able to leave her body behind to you.
(Student) I hope so, because she has done an amazing service.

(Keese) First year student Christopher Jordan says the atmosphere in the anatomy lab is serious and hushed at first.

(Jordan) “And then, as the year goes on, and you begin to realize that the personalities of the people who tend to make these donations, these are the joyous people, the selfless ones. So you change from being reverent and stoic to celebrating it. And the lab goes from this quiet, focused kind of place to this joyous learning environment. And it’s a very busy, loud, happy kind of room.”

(Keese) But every so often, the students say, something brings them back – a remnant of red nail polish, or curls escaping from the covering that holds a donor’s hair back.

Anatomy Professor, Martha McDaniel, is the medical director of Dartmouth’s anatomic gifts program. She says it helps the students to know that this is something the body donors really wanted to do. McDaniel says the program often gets calls from people who have made the decision, checking that their paperwork is still in order.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese

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