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Honoring Those Who Give Their Bodies to Science

POSTED ON November 21, 2019

The four first-year medical students stood in a tight semi-circle around Susan Young. With tears in most of their eyes, they listened raptly as Young shared memories of her longtime companion, Joseph Reiss. 

Up until now, the students had only known him as the donor they dissected and studied for seven weeks in their gross anatomy lab – they hadn’t even known his name. Now, thanks to Young’s stories and a photo she brought along, Reiss came alive before them.

“It was very emotional and almost overwhelming,” said one of the students, Clara Woods. “It turned Mr. Reiss into a real person for us.”

Woods and the other three students were just a few of the hundreds who attended the Lewis Katz School of Medicine’s annual Anatomy Donor Celebration, held in the Luo Auditorium. This emotional event honored the donors who gave the selfless gift of their bodies after death so that students can learn about the structure of the human body – the underpinning of medicine. Starting at noon, speaker after speaker described the donors as both their teachers and their first patients.    

“Although numerous computer-based platforms exist, the dissection of real human donors remains the method of choice for learning the structure of the human body in medical school,” said Steven Popoff, PhD, the John Franklin Huber Chair of Anatomy and Cell Biology at LKSOM and Director of Fundamentals of Clinical Anatomy and Imaging, the first course medical and physician assistant students take in medical school.

“A student’s first encounter with a 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,” he continued.  “The donor/student interaction provides the chance to see and feel real organs and their actual relationships to one another, and the opportunity to appreciate the degree of normal variability in human structure.”

The auditorium was packed for the celebration, which saw students come to the front of the room one by one to read essays, poems, haikus and even sing a song. Said one:

“My donor’s lessons went beyond human anatomy. He helped me to discover new levels of humanity, mindfulness and spirituality. He bestowed confidence in me, as a scholar, as a clinician, as a teammate.”

Related another: “For the first time in medical school, I cried. Alone in the locker room, my soft whimpers echoed, magnified to match the turmoil within. My tears were not a sign of weakness, but rather our shared humanity.”

And another: “When I went to make the first incision I hesitated. My hand trembled as I went to cut the stitches and open up the intimate secrets of a woman whose name I didn’t even know. What if I did it wrong? Would I tarnish the gift she had given? But this is my first patient. She gave her final gift to us so that we could learn and make mistakes so that our future patients would receive the best care possible.”

Halfway through the ceremony, the students descended the stairs to the front of the auditorium, organizing themselves by the anatomy table at which they worked. A representative from each table thanked their donor by name and lit a candle in their memory. 

Looking on from the front row were a handful of donor family members. A companion, two sisters, a son, a brother-in-law. All were profoundly moved by the celebration.

Said Kay Meyers, sister of donor David: “Many of our family members have donated their bodies to science over the years, but this is the first time we have been invited to a ceremony like this. Kudos to Temple. To be able to hear from the students and know that his gift is appreciated was so incredibly meaningful.”

The celebration was organized by a committee headed by first-year medical student Hannah Roach. In all, she said, 230 students worked on 43 cadavers over the course of seven weeks.

“Today’s event gave us all a chance to honor the donors, thank the families and say goodbye to people we came to know inside and out,” she said. “Organizing the event, you get caught up in the all the details. But then today…many of us got emotional.”

With only a handful of people still in the auditorium 30 minutes after the event ended, Young said her goodbyes to the students who worked on Joseph. She gave each a hug. 

“Now the students know he was a person,” she said. “Seeing how grateful they really were for the donors, that made today special. It was an honor to be here.”