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Anatomy Donor Celebration

Reflections by the Class of 2022, Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University

November 14, 2018

Image by Dan Reiners, LKSOM 2022

More than a dozen family members of donors attended the Anatomy Donor Celebration of Life and Learning in November at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine. All of the students were asked to write a reflection about their experience in anatomy, and so many were filled with gratitude toward their first patient.

What follows are some of the reflections read at the donor celebration ceremony or shared in the event’s program.

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Final Practical

By Phil Delrosario

Final practical day. 65 students spread out among 35 cadavers. All wanting to pass.

1 minute per body. Look, identify, write, ring, move on. Next. Brisk walk. Look, identify, write, ring, move on. Next. Look, puzzle for 50 seconds, guess blindly, write, ring, move on. Next. Ten bodies later. Look, identify, write, change an answer from 10 stations ago, ring, move on.


Then, a pause.

I find myself at a rest station. It’s one of the rare moments in which I’m actually resting instead of calculating which lung lobe a penetrating knife entered. My eyes explore the room in front of me: bodies clad in blue peering into a sea of gray. I notice a few folks on stools, their heads craning into cavities and peering into pouches. Some so absorbed, I swear that the tips of their noses are 5 centimeters from touching bowel.

I imitate the posture of my classmates. I bring my head to my right shoulder — or should I say, I laterally bend my cervical spine. The world tilts into a new view. The students above the horizon of the lab are now on my left; the cadavers below, now on my right. I sit in the moment, struck by the peculiarity of it all: of humans looking into corpses; of students facing their teachers; of life mirrored by death; two sides separated by an invisible window, which we call many things: dying, traveling to a better place, passing.

The timer rings. The moment breaks. We’re one minute closer to finishing, to completing, to passing.

I walk. I arrive at the man we dissected. Table 3. I peer in. I identify his left gonadal vein, which joins his left renal vein. From my angle I look at his face. Barely visible beneath our dissection, he bares half a toothy grin, as if to say, “yes, you’ve got it.” I write my answer. I say thank you, and then goodbye. I wonder if he knows just how much his death could teach me about my life.

The last few bodies in the exam whisper their own lessons as I pass by:

“This is how you run, jump, and skip on warm, summer days,” “this is how you grin when you hear your favorite song,” “this is how to not pee your pants during a scary ride,” “this is how your nose gets stuffy after you’ve cried for hours,” “this is how your brain can tell your heart to flutter when you see her walk into the room,” and “this is how you laugh at a pitch so much higher than your normal voice.”

Eventually, I finish. We anxiously shuffle out of the lab, and I look back one last time.

I say thanks, again. Silently, they seemed to say:

Remember, all this is how you’re alive. Smile, because you are alive. Breathe, stay alive, alleviate suffering, and help all those who are also alive. You’re welcome.

•   •   •


By Jessica Gude

I have held so many knives. My brother and I are standing in the kitchen. He has been cooking professionally for a year or so and he loves teaching me things. He shows me how to hold the knife, how the cutting motion should be continuous, and most importantly how to curl my fingers so that only my knuckles face the blade, so that I don’t cut myself.

At my own restaurant job, years later, I learn to always announce the fact that I have a knife by shouting “sharp around the corner” or “knife behind you” and walk with the blade down, held tightly to my side, so that I don’t cut someone else.

I learn that sharp knives are safer than dull ones. You have to wrestle with dull ones and you’re more likely to slip. Serrated knives are best for cutting citrus fruits because the teeth give you traction. Limes are safer to cut than lemons, lemon seeds like to jam up the blade. Always use the smallest knife you can for a task, if a paring knife will do, don’t use a chef knife; save your shoulder and your fingers. Even after years of working together, the chef always watches my first few cuts and implores me “please don’t cut yourself.”

Because cutting through our flesh is inconvenient. It leads to blood that needs to be cleaned up, knives that need to be sanitized, cutting boards that need to be bleached, and medical attention that needs to be received. Cutting flesh is some sort of inherent violation. Skin is a boundary; it keeps your body in and the world out. But when we need to see the body and bring the inside out, the entire premise is flipped on its axis.

This all goes through my mind as I pick up the scalpel and intentionally cut through flesh. I have held so many scalpels, cut open dozens of frogs, helped college freshmen skin sharks, performed an ovariectomy on a mouse, but this is different. Of course it is not actually different. The sensation is disturbingly similar; the blade glides through, like it does for frog bellies and focaccia bread. There is also a similar sense of intention, a calculated and known reason for the cut. It represents another task to be completed, another item checked off the prep list, another step in the lab guide. But on some emotional level that transcends the physical and cognitive, this is a different experience. There is an integral wrongness, a sense of doing something you know you’re not supposed to. But it is accompanied by a strange feeling of special permission; a feeling of privilege. In the interest of our education, someone gave their body so that we could see things that we would normally only see in dire situations. We reverse the order of nature so that in the future we know how to maintain it. So I accept this temporary upending of everything I know about knives, finish the cut, and ask “now what.”

•   •   •

How to Thank a Teacher

By Daniel Yusupov

You were a person. You were a person. You were a person.

I kept reminding myself of this as my anatomy group stood there in our fresh blue scrubs preparing to meet you for the first time. The smell of formaldehyde in the air. A mix of uneasiness and excitement in the room. We opened up the bag, and there you laid.

Your skin discolored. Stitches lined your body. Your face, hands and feet covered. The parts that made you most human were hidden from us. Before we really got a chance to get to know each other, we had to begin with the first task of the lab: flipping you over onto your stomach. Your body was rigid and cold, but you were kind and did not give us any trouble. Each person supported a different part of your body; the six of us wanting desperately to treat you with the respect you deserved. And with that, our lessons began.

You were the best teacher I’ve ever had. You put yourself into your work and gave your all so that your students could learn everything they needed about human anatomy. I did not know much about you besides the fact that you were 93 years old when you passed away of colon cancer. But as our lessons together progressed, I learned more about your quirks and interesting traits. Did you know you had a double ureter and triple renal arteries in your right kidney? You were famous! Students came from across the lab to see the woman with the amazing kidney. You were a truly unique and beautiful person.

And as I learned more about you, it felt like you were learning about me too. You felt my hands shake when I picked up the scissors to make my first incision. You saw my doubts, fears, and insecurities more clearly than anyone else in that room. I couldn’t hide anything from you. But you reassured me along every step. You took my hand and you guided my blade to find anatomical treasure troves rich with knowledge.

I wish there were some way I could thank you. I hope passing anatomy is a good start — Although there were times when I was cutting it pretty close. I could not have done it without your generosity. You were a person. One of the golden ones. I am forever grateful for the immense part you played as my teacher, my mentor, and my first patient. And, I will forever remember the lessons you taught me as I prepare to join the next generation of competent, caring physicians.

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Everyone Enjoys Beauty

By Gena Topper

My parents always encouraged me to find the beauty and divinity in synagogue, but the concept of God never clicked for me the way it does for most. What clicked for me was the imperfection of the human body; how each delicate structure adds up to an animated being. I was baffled at how the ability to breathe depends on two tiny strands of nervous tissue, almost invisible to the naked eye. It was so gratifying finding the smallest of blood vessels, and learning how each was important to how the whole body functions.

•   •   •

Mystery Woman

By Chi Chi Akpunonu

I stared at the cloth on your face,
Wondering what expression was hidden underneath.
I hovered over you as you laid still, like you were sleeping.
My hand hesitated as I brought the scissors closer.

Snip. Snip. Snip. Snip.
Wow, I thought, cutting through skin was easy,
So effortless.
Like cutting through paper.
I expected a shout, or a scream,
or even for you to grab my hand to stop me.

I felt like I waited for a minute.
Looking at your face,
Waiting for a response to come,
Like the times when you hit your siblings as a child,
And expected to get in trouble with mom.

But, Agnes, you didn’t respond.
You laid still.
You laid still as we explored the cavities of your chest and face.
You laid still as we memorized the location of your muscles.
You even laid still as we turned you onto your stomach.

Your stillness made me wonder…
Did you once paint your nails like I did?
Did you hop around the room when something good happened?
Did you smile from ear to ear at the sight of your favorite food?

I know you weren’t always this still.
I think you were a strong woman.
The scars on and in your body told me so.

But your stillness makes me wonder…
Who you actually were before we met in anatomy.

Snip. Snip. Snip. Snip.
Maybe cutting through skin wasn’t as easy as I thought.

•   •   •

Answers I Won’t Get in Medical School

By Connor Hartzell

How do you tell your friends and family,
When they ask about the start of medical school,
And who you have met, who your friends are, and who you hang out with,
That the people you know best are dead?
That they died of lymphoma, renal failure, or dementia?
Or that everyday they wait patiently on the brightly-lit, pungent fourth floor
To welcome us curious students, as we withhold our emotions and wield stainless steel probes,
So that we may learn more about them then their friends and family ever did?
While we dissect grossly inflamed lymph nodes overwhelming an otherwise fit body,
Or see the evidence of major life events: pacemakers, coronary bypasses, missing appendixes,
And the absent body hair, a consequence of failed chemotherapy treatments.
Don’t forget the hot pink fingernails on hands sliced open,
Unveiling their otherwise hidden mechanisms.
How do you explain that the man on table 18 has taught you as much as any of your teachers,
Despite never uttering a word, never moving a muscle, and never learning your name?
Or that he brought together six strangers, who would not have been friends otherwise?
How do you tell others that without a room full of lifeless cadavers,
Medical school would be a more lifeless place?
How do you say all this to the man on table 18?

•   •   •

A Portrait

By Hannah Thomas

I stretched, trying to relieve some of the ache in my back, but it couldn’t do much to abate the damage done after years hunched over the keyboard, shorthand scribing Mr. Anderson’s meeting notes. With a sigh, I bring my arms back down, shaking my head to expel the lingering click-clack of the keys.

I smiled at the memory of a job well done, tidying my already organized desk at the end of the day, heading home to prepare dinner for my husband and four children and get ready to do it all again. Oh, the comfort of routine.

Where am I?

I blink. “Grandma,” I hear again. I turn to look at the young man. I used to be so good with names, but now, the face is nameless. I don’t want to reveal my ignorance, so I respond with “yes, sweetheart?”
“Sit down Grandma, you could fall again.” I sigh heavily as I’m led back to bed.
I know Grandma, but you’re safe here.” I pat his cheek.
But one day, I do fall.
Oh, the comfort.

Thank you, ‘Sheila’.

•   •   •

I Can’t Quite Remember

By Tara Holmes

I can’t quite remember my first incision into your body because I was too busy
Busy wondering about your life
Were you happy? Did you suffer? Who was your family?
You were self-employed, what does that mean? Tell me about yourself.
Where would I run into you? A coffee shop? Holding the door for you at the gym?
Laughing with friends at the bar?

•   •   •

Sherry Fox, the daughter of not one but two anatomy donors, was so grateful she and other family members were invited to the ceremony.

“I found the pieces presented by the students heartfelt and sincere,” she said, “and I was particularly moved by Daniel’s piece on “How to Thank a Teacher,” as Mom was a teacher by profession.

“I am especially impressed by the emotions expressed by the students, and this unique approach to getting them in touch with the human side of medicine, beyond the science.

“Thanks very much for including the families in this very special event- it was a loving tribute to both of my parents, alums of Temple, who continued their commitment to teaching even once they passed.”

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Michael Vitez, winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism at The Philadelphia Inquirer, is the director of narrative medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University.