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Ceremony Honors the Donors Who Provided the 'Foundation' of Students' Medical Education

News January 30, 2024

S. Jay Hirsh, MD, MED '70, pictured as a Temple Med School student

The Medical Gross Anatomy course is a cornerstone of the first-year curriculum for each new class of medical students.

Each Lewis Katz School of Medicine medical and physician assistant student begins their classroom journey with the Fundamentals of Clinical Anatomy and Imaging course. This fundamental eight-week course entails systematically studying and dissecting human cadavers. This moment when the students come face to face with their cadaver – or donor, as the professors and students refer to them – can be filled with a spectrum of emotions. Closing out the course is Donor Remembrance Day, a student-organized ceremony designed to honor the donors' memory and contribution and, in doing so, help the students process their experience with the course.

For the most recent Donor Remembrance Day, held on January 22, faculty and first-year students gathered in the MERB auditorium along with several donors' relatives both in person and virtually. On this day, the ceremony reminded many just how much human donors really mean to the student's success.

During the ceremony, Steven N. Popoff, PhD, Chair and Professor of Biomedical Education and Data Science at the Katz School, noted how the dissection of human cadavers remains vital to medical and physician assistant students' education, even as many digital simulations have become more sophisticated.

During his remarks, Dr. Popoff also spoke of the real-life experience that students experience "The students' first encounter with the human donor establishes the reality of a human life and connects them to their ultimate objective, the living patient. By confronting them with the tremendous responsibility they will assume in treating that patient as their care provider, the donor-student interaction also affords the opportunity to be introduced to the concepts of humanistic care and the comprehension of death and dying."

Following his message, Amy J. Goldberg, MD, FACS, the Marjorie Joy Katz Dean of the Lewis Katz School of Medicine and George S. Peters, MD, and Louise C. Peters Chair and Professor of Surgery, said how critical these lessons are the "foundation" of the school's mission. "We educate physicians who learn how to move medicine forward, not just to create better outcomes for their patients, but to make healthcare better for everyone," she said.  "Their very first patient, what your loved ones teach, will be inextricably woven into every facet of these students' experiences in medicine and beyond, from this year forward, wherever their careers may take them," Dr. Goldberg continued. "That is a tremendous gift and an incomparable legacy."

Students also reflected on the importance of the ceremony "This remembrance ceremony serves as a solemn reminder of the interconnectedness of humanity and the profound impact that individuals can have on the collective wellbeing," said first-year medical student Sneha Anmalsetty, who served as the ceremony's host. "May we approach our studies and our practice with the same spirit of selflessness and dedication demonstrated by those who, in their passing, have illuminated a path to knowledge and healing."

Anmalsetty and three fellow students read essays and poems describing their revelations at the dissection table.

"We opened his body to learn the endless barrage of anatomical terms and physiological phenomena and every possible pathology afterwards," Anmalsetty said. "But I think I often spent more time in awe."

Ayse Guvenilir, a first-year medical student, read from a poem she wrote for the occasion: "I loved anatomy, and yet I never got used to it, searching through her skin, limbs, insides, picking her mind, hoping for her thoughts. This is a person, and I knew nothing about her. No, not nothing. Gender: woman. Age: 79. Profession: teacher. Cause of death: sepsis due to staph."

Fatema Hashem, whose profound account of her first weeks as a medical student trying to come to grips with the startling reality of gross anatomy was voted the audience's favorite at the Narrative Medicine Story Slam in October, poetically described the intimate nuances through which she came to know her donor. "However deep we thought we delved, there always was more and more to a human being," Hashem read. "In an effort to reconcile with this, I chose to acknowledge my cadaver's genesis and his finality as perfectly intertwined stages. And how beautiful it was that every single structure we studied was once a nothing and now it was something. Everything we saw and touched and held in the anatomy lab was one tiny Infinity of the universe that was your person. But as [author] John Green contends, some infinities are indeed bigger than other infinities. And the soul is no doubt more divine than the vessel. Even so, how fortunate are we to have come to know one small Infinity of the people whom you shared the universe with."

As First-year medical student Taara Prasad took the stage, said she was prepared, to an extent, for what she encountered in the anatomy labs. She had worked in palliative care, which forced her to confront death in its "rawest, cruelest form." But she wasn't ready to "navigate the space that lingered between our gloves and our donor's body, that space occupied by questions about what this person must have been like and what they would have shared or not shared about their lives."

For that, Prasad needed to find her own way. To her surprise, she did so not by confronting death but by engaging living. "What I hadn't anticipated was the humanity that I'd be forced to reckon with, asking questions about what it must have been like for him to live," Prasad said. "But that only happened once as I was standing with somebody who was already gone.

"I felt very deeply about what it must have been like for you and your loved ones to make the decision to donate a body to us," she continued. "The informed consent, the implications, the gravity of what it must mean for you to stand here today, the sacrifice and really the gift that you gave my classmates that allowed us to work with our very first patient. And I want to thank you for giving us the ability to learn, to heal and to become doctors. I want to thank you for showing us how to marry humanity with science, humanizing our patients. And I want to thank you and your loved one on behalf of our future patients."

Homaira Azim, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Education and Data Science is responsible for the oversight of the cadavers from the moment they arrive at the Katz School until their cremains are returned to their families, a process that can take up to several years. She also noted the emotional process. “By delaying their emotional closure for that long, she said, the generosity and selflessness of those involved is made even more inspiring.”

Following Tachycordia's acapella performance of "What a Wonderful World," student representatives ended the ceremony by placing white roses in vases at the front of the auditorium as the names of 51 donors were read aloud, one by one.