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Medical Students Honor Those Who Gave Their Bodies to Science - 2002-05-11

Each year, medical students throughout the United States spend countless hours dissecting and studying human cadavers. Their work can make them forget their subject was once a living human being. In Chicago, Northwestern University's medical school is among several in the country where students hold an annual ceremony to honor those who gave their bodies to science.

Some students sang, others danced or read poetry, all to say thank you to the 36-individuals who donated their bodies to research and wound up in the anatomy lab at Northwestern's School of Medicine. Jonathan Newman was among the first-year medical students at this year's Anatomy Closing Ceremony. It is a large gift to receive as we grow into future physicians, and we are indebted to the donors who will be remembered here today," he says.

Anatomy professor Larry Cochard said a student suggested the school's first cadaver memorial six years ago. "Anatomy dissection is a very powerful component of the curriculum," he said. "It is a very powerful experience. It is a very important decision that people make to donate their bodies."

The ceremony is also a way of marking the end of the students' first year of medical school. Medical professor Douglas Reifler said the cadavers taught students more than human anatomy. "At the most physical level, you must learn not to flinch, vomit or pass out when you face vivid details of human anatomy or pathology," he said.

Several students offered memorials in the form of essays or poetry. Vivien Leung recalled her first human dissection. "So I watched someone else make the first cut into leathery skin, and I watched myself all detached and scientific," she said. "I wondered in the back of my mind: does this make me something of a monster?"

Curtis Jarrett read a poem he wrote, titled "The Staring Game." "We walk hand-in-hand to lands of unknown. As mine quivers, she steadies my uncertainty with her peaceful tone," he said.

He said this year of studying anatomy has been an amazing experience, and he is thankful for those whose donations made it possible. "It is kind of tough to learn this part of medicine from the textbooks, like other parts of medicine. So, this is a great deed that these people were able to do in order to give us this opportunity," he said.

At the ceremony, the students for the first time learned the names of the cadavers they had studied since last October. The ceremony closed with the students saying those names aloud, and placing flowers into a single vase on the auditorium stage.