News / Science & Technology

Med Students Honor 'First Patient' Body Donors

Medical student David Hankins, who helped organize the ceremony, shares his experience working with body donors. Cremation urns can be seen to the right of him. (VOA/A. Phillips)
Medical student David Hankins, who helped organize the ceremony, shares his experience working with body donors. Cremation urns can be seen to the right of him. (VOA/A. Phillips)
Adam Phillips
Since the dawn of modern medicine in the 16th century, people studying to become physicians have dissected human cadavers as a hands-on way of learning the intricacies of anatomy.

Given the heavy scientific focus of these dissections, the humanity of the deceased is sometimes overlooked.

Gift of knowledge

For 40 years, medical and dental students and their anatomy professors at New York’s Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons have tried to correct this imbalance with a gratitude ceremony honoring the gift of knowledge contributed by body donors.

First-year medical and dental school students and their professors gather with the families and friends of people who donated their bodies to the school for dissection.

During their clinical gross anatomy course, Zachary Feldman and the other doctors-in-training spent long hours revealing and examining the organs, muscles, nerves and bones of the cadavers they’d been given.    

“It’s nice to have a ceremony to acknowledge the large context and to see the real story and the human story outside the physical body, to sort of corroborate your data in the lab with real relatives and real people who loved that individual," Feldman said. "It puts you in touch with your own humanity.”

Paying tribute

Loved ones filed past a flower-covered table set with a row of urns containing the body donors' ashes. One by one, they stepped up to a podium to pay tribute and say goodbye.     

"My mother felt that the greatest gift was to contribute to the education of others and always expressed that she wanted her body donated to research," said the daughter of one donor. "By being here today, we know that her greatest gift and wish has been fulfilled.
 
The wife of another donor ended her remarks with a poem: "For 58 years I was his wife, through days of happiness and times of strife. I am gratified now for his body and soul donation. To aid and assist Columbia’s new generation. I hope you benefit from his demise, to learn at a level making all more wise."

Medical dissection of human bodies is an ancient practice. Medical dissection of human bodies is an ancient practice. "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp" was painted by Rembrandt in 1632.
Even with online resources and 3D computer rendering, the medical knowledge gained from hands-on dissection can't be acquired any other way, according to Paulette Bernd, who designed and oversees Columbia’s clinical gross anatomy course.

“There is manual dexterity involved in terms of learning to use the equipment that they will eventually be using in surgery as well," Bernd said. "There is also the idea that they are using for the first time, working in a situation where they don’t know that what they find is going to look like the textbook… and they need to be able to interpret what they are seeing.”

First cut

For many, making that first cut into a human corpse can be hard. Elizabeth Shy's cutting and dissection technique was tentative at first, simply because it is a normal human instinct not to hurt someone.    

"Even though you have a scalpel in your hand, you know your job is to cut into the body, it’s hard to really put enough pressure to make that happen," Shy said. "I found myself, through many, many labs, I’d just be holding the cadaver’s hand, and would find myself sort of rubbing the arm or the shoulder. It was my human reaction to try to comfort the patient. Even if the patient is not alive, they’re still sharing themselves with you and their illness and their body. It helps you learn how to form that connection with people.”

According to Feldman, who plans to specialize in psychiatry, medical students often report dreams in which they dissect a cadaver that suddenly comes alive and has the dreamer’s own face.
    
“I interpret that as, when you start medical school, your boundary between physician and patient is really blurred," he said. "When you see somebody else who is hurting or ill, it’s hard not to see your mortality and your own vulnerability and almost come to experience that pain with the patient, or in this case, with the cadaver."

Invaluable gift

Fellow medical student David Hankins finds it impossible to overstate the value of the body donors' gift.

“Because if you think about how many students there are who took the clinical gross anatomy course just this year and how long they are going to be practicing and how many people we are going to see every day of our careers, we have millions of chances to make a difference in someone’s life," Hankins said. "And that really is going to be possible only because of our strong understanding of the fundamentals of anatomy. And we absolutely couldn’t have gotten that without the benefit of the donors, and the tremendously courageous decision they made.”   

Once rare, medical school gratitude ceremonies like the one at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons are becoming widespread throughout the United States.

As one student put it, the anatomy course cadaver is really a future physician's “first patient,” and it’s best to begin how you intend to proceed.

You May Like

African States Push to Keep Boko Haram Offline

Central African telecoms ministers working with Nigeria to block all videos posted by Boko Haram in effort to blunt Nigerian militant group's propaganda More

Falling Oil Prices, Internet-Savvy Youth Pose Challenge for Gulf Monarchies

Across the Gulf, younger generations are putting a strain on traditional politics More

Philippines Call Center Workers Face Challenges

Country has world’s largest business process outsourcing, or BPO, industry, employing some one-million workers More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More