Author’s note: Every spring, the University of Louisville School of Medicine holds a Convocation of Thanks to honor those who donated their bodies for our gross anatomy lab and to express our appreciation to their families. Students are invited to perform in a variety of ways: via music, singing, or reading pieces to express their gratitude. The following is my submission for this year’s Convocation.
In the four years prior to medical school, I served as a hospice volunteer. There were patients that I saw regularly, but I also sat vigil with several patients without family members while they departed this world. Even though it occurred multiple times, being present with someone as they transition through the final stages of life has never been easy for me.
I hope that it never becomes easy.
The final stages of life are just as important as the beginning and middle. In the time that I spent with my patients, learning about their hopes, dreams and favorite pastimes, I hope I helped give them a meaningful quality of life by being a friend and companion during the last phase of life. I had the privilege of hearing their stories of days gone by that brought smiles to their faces, stories they longed to tell someone who cared. Their stories were important, and those stories I will never forget. There will never be enough time to hear the full story for every patient I see, of that I am sure, but those stories are important nonetheless.
My previous experience as a hospice volunteer has already affected my interaction with patients now that I am a medical student. I thought that I had prepared myself adequately for dissecting in the lab by being present during my patients’ deaths, shadowing surgeons, and reading books like “Body of Work” and “Anatomy of Anatomy in Pictures and Words.”
I was wrong.
The anatomy lab had an entirely new meaning for me, one that I did not anticipate. Having been with so many people during the transition from living through death, all of the donors reminded me of my former hospice patients. My level of respect was heightened for these people, who at the end of life were still not done giving to others. I remembered my former patients during every interaction with our donors, and I wondered about their stories, their families, and why they chose to aid in my education. Their legacy in this second life as our taciturn teachers, our first patients, is a continuation of their stories.
And yet those stories are still not complete. When we learn new things in class or with standardized patients, I am reminded of something my body donor taught me in the anatomy lab. The amount of knowledge I gained from our donors is vast, and I use that knowledge nearly every single day. My husband and I will welcome our first child, a daughter, into the world this summer. Ten tiny fingers and ten tiny toes, fearfully and wonderfully made — as I have tracked her growth and development, I have again returned to the knowledge I gained in the anatomy lab, and it has an even greater personal meaning to me now.
Obtaining medical knowledge is a privilege; it is hard to earn. It is difficult on many levels. The gift we were bequeathed from our donors has tremendous worth and came with enormous responsibility. Words can convey great meaning and can contain great power, but there are times where mere words fail. This is one of them. There is no adequate way to say thank you for the generous gift we have received. I offer a “thank you” on behalf of my classmates and I, but those words are not enough to truly express our gratitude for our donors and what we have learned from them. Leonardo da Vinci is credited with the statement: “Dispel from your mind the thought that an understanding of the human body in every aspect of its structure can be given in words.” Thanking our body donors and their families is much the same.