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Students Remember Those Who Helped Make Their First Steps in Medicine Possible

News December 15, 2022

eight male and female medical students and one male professor and Amy J. Goldberg, MD, FACSOn Donor Remembrance Day, students and faculty at the Katz School of Medicine honored those whose human remains were donated so future physicians and physician assistants could learn the intricacies of human anatomy. It was also a time to personally thank the donors’ families and friends.

The ceremony that was held on December 2 was both a solemn and joyous affair, and a time for first-year medical and PA students to recall the wide spectrum of emotions they experienced when they entered the anatomy lab for the first time in August. The “Fundamentals of Clinical Anatomy and Imaging” is an intensive eight-week course, which involves systematically studying and dissecting the human cadavers assigned to the students.

“Every medical and physician assistant student comes to school thinking about their anatomy course, the first course of their medical and PA school journey,” said Amy J. Goldberg, MD, FACS, Dean of the Lewis Katz School of Medicine and the George S. Peters, MD, and Louise C. Peters Chair and Professor of Surgery, during the ceremony. “They wonder how they will feel when they meet their donor. After all, their donor is their very first patient.”

First-year medical student Olivia Pericak admitted that she was scared walking into the anatomy labs on that first day. Her donor was her first exposure to a deceased human body. As much as she tried to prepare herself, she couldn’t have known how she would react.

Ultimately, Pericak, one of the Donor Remembrance Day student organizers, says beneath her initial fear was a curiosity and reverence that grounded her.

“I was very curious about seeing what’s inside me and another person,” she says. “Above all, I tried to be respectful, not just my first time seeing him but the entire time we were in the lab. I was also very appreciative that we even had this opportunity.”

“Although numerous computer-based dissection platforms have been developed over the past two decades, the dissection of real human donors remains the method of choice for learning the structure of the human body in medical schools across the United States,”  said Steven N. Popoff, PhD, the John Franklin Huber Endowed Chair of Anatomy and Cell Biology and Chair and Professor of Biomedical Education and Data Science, Katz School of Medicine.

One reason for this, he said, is that it establishes the physician-patient relationship. In studying their donors, as they’ve known no other human, the students begin to appreciate the “tremendous responsibility they will assume.”

A highlight of Donor Remembrance Day is that it allows the students to remember and honor their donors as people, who once lived vibrant lives filled with family and friends. Some of those family members sat in the front of the auditorium, with the students filling in around them. A host of others watched the ceremony on Zoom.

Nicole L. Griffin, PhD, Associate Professor of Biomedical Education and Data Science, stifled her tears as she described each donor as “the person I believe was their main anatomy instructor.

“I will admit that I get very excited when a donor shows me a variation in arterial branching or an anomalous brachial plexus,” she said. “In all seriousness, every single donor I collaborate with improves me as an educator, and that certainly includes the loved ones we celebrate today.”

Emma Wilmeth, a first-year PA student, credited the course (which runs six weeks for the PA students) with bringing her and her new classmates closer together. Jahnavi Kishore, a first-year medical student, and Tara Selleck, a first-year PA student, read poems. Both were also part of the ceremony’s organizing committee.

Selleck prefaced her reading by saying, “I am so happy to participate in this. When my grandfather passed, he donated his body to a medical school. But unfortunately, with COVID, we were never able to have this moment to remember and respect and even meet with the students. It warmed my heart that I got to meet my donor’s family today – and give them a hug, which I never thought would happen.”

Tachycordia, the student acapella group at the medical school, performed “What a Wonderful World.” Then family members and student representatives placed a flower in the “vase of life” at the front of the auditorium as the names of 44 donors were read aloud one by one. In the background, photos of some of the donors were displayed on two large screens.

In addition to Pericak, Kishore, and Selleck, the organizing committee included Masashi Azuma, a first-year medical student, and Lauren Castillo Reyes, a first-year PA student. They worked closely with Marc Graver and Yvonne Hall-Richards from the Department of Biomedical Education and Data Science.

Pericak says at least 15 other first-year medical students made significant contributions to the planning of the ceremony. The motivation for her was the opportunity to acknowledge a difficult decision and assure those who made it that valuable lessons were learned.

“It’s obviously not a traditional practice to donate your body to science,” she says, “so it was very important that we showed our donors’ loved ones how much we appreciated their decision and let them know just how beneficial their donation was to us.”