Dozens of students in the University of South Alabama (USA) College of Medicine celebrated their first patients last week — the cadavers they spent hours learning from in anatomy class.
Since 2010, nearly 2,000 people have donated their bodies posthumously to science through USA’s Anatomical Gifts Program, and every two years, the students whose medical education depends on those cadavers hold a ceremony honoring them and their loved ones.
Vaughn Lee, director of the anatomical gifts program at USA, told Lagniappe that despite many advances in medical technology over the years, there is still no way to replicate the hands-on experience of learning human anatomy from an actual human.
“We sometimes refer to donors as the silent teachers because they still remain the best way for students to explore and learn human anatomy when they’re beginning their career as medical students,” Lee said. “It’s truly invaluable, as there is nothing that can replace the uniqueness and complexity of design that the human body has.”
According to Lee, most students have their first experience with a donor in the anatomy lab during their first year of medical school, though upperclassmen, residents and full-time physicians also benefit from these donations as well. Some surgeons use cadavers to prepare for emergency procedures or to practice new surgical techniques in a controlled setting.
On April 25, dozens of students at various stages in their medical education packed the student center ballroom to host a memorial service for the family members of dozens of recent donors. These ceremonies, which are common at most medical schools today, are organized by students.
It acknowledges this gift donors gave and helps bring closure to their families, but Lee said the ceremony often provides a sense of closure for students, too. Working with a donor is “the first time that many have really dealt with the issue of mortality up close and personal,” he said.
“A lot of times we’re hung up on trying to save people, but medicine is beginning to look at facing death as a very different but important aspect of being a physician,” Lee said. “I think going through this process with a donor helps students begin that process as they go through their medical training and, eventually, as they have to deal with their own patients dying.”
Bonni Crowder, coordinator of USA’s anatomical program, said after 40 years in Mobile, the anatomical gifts program maintains a relatively steady stream of donations — mostly through word of mouth and recommendations from hospitals, hospice organizations and funeral homes.
“We’ve had generations of people who’ve donated because their parents or grandparents did,” Crowder said.
The program works with the loved ones of donors as much as possible. Families can hold a private memorial service before a donation is made, and in some cases, donors can donate useable organs to other causes and still donate their body through the anatomical gifts program.
After their service to the medical school, donors’ remains are either cremated and returned to their families or interned at a funeral plot owned by the university. More information about USA’s anatomical gifts program can be found at southalabama.edu.
The ceremony last week consisted of musical performances, reflections and readings from current medical students. It was hosted as a celebration of recent donors who came from all walks of life — welders, professors, ministers, veterans, doctors and even an FBI agent.
Some donated their bodies to medical science because they had a medical background, others did so in hopes that it could help find a cure for diseases they suffered from. Others were committed to education, and some just seemed to love USA.
Lagniappe was asked to not identify any of the donors or their family members, but several were either graduates of USA or professors. One was even a former department head.
The event was highlighted by letters from family members that were read by students. Lee said families are asked to write those letters if they’re comfortable doing to so to help students get a better idea of who the cadavers they spent hours working with were when they were alive.
“When [my mother] reached her 70s, she said to me as she gestured to her aging body: ‘I’d still like to be an organ donor, but who would want to wake up to any part of this?’” one letter read. “I know she’d be proud that we found a way to continue her spirit of generosity.”
One woman made the decision to donate her body 43 years before she passed away after visiting her oldest son during his first year of medical school. Another couple was married for 69 years before dying five weeks apart. In a letter read at the ceremony, the family described their joint donation to USA as a “last act of love and service to others in their community.”
Medical student Zack Aggen also spoke at the ceremony about the unique and personal impact the donor he worked with had on his life.
Aggen told the crowd he’d spent two years as an infantry medic in the U.S. Army and had served in some particularly dangerous parts of Iraq.
He said it was difficult being a medic in the field because he often wound up operating on friends — sometimes losing them.
He said one death, in particular, had “haunted” him for years.
“As he died my arms, I blamed myself for not knowing anatomy well enough. I knew he had a major blood vessel he was bleeding from near his pelvis, but I didn’t know where to find it,” he said. “I eventually learned there truly was nothing I could have done to save my friend’s life because of where this blood vessel was located. When I finally saw and felt that working with my donor, I felt an enormous sense of closure.”
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