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As computer simulations of anatomy and surgery become more sophisticated, leading institutions find that the marriage of technology with cadaver dissection makes body donation even more compelling. From medical students who struggle to relate two-dimensional radiographic films and computer images with three-dimensional structures, to residents and faculty who learn, practice and devise new surgical procedures, cadavers take on added importance. Consider the modern surgeon who looks at a two-dimensional screen while moving instruments inside a three dimensional patient. Surgeons must “see” the flat image as three dimensional in their mind’s eye; they must know what lies just outside the tunnel vision view provided by their camera lest they injure it. Should the computer screen become murky as bleeding obscures their view, the anatomy they learned in the dissection lab determines life or death.
But what about the social and religious issues surrounding death and dying? Much as we would like clinicians to cure all disease, they are often in the position of helping ease the transition to death. Human dissection is an emotionally charged endeavor. Students often confront their own mortality and experience conflicting emotions that stem from violating societal norms. We encourage students to explore and share their emotions with colleagues and faculty from diverse social and religious backgrounds. We discuss the nature of the donation. We refer to the cadaver as the “donor” to constantly recall the gift, freely made to those they will never know, and to recall the trust that the donor placed with the students to be diligent in their studies. Students speak in awe of this gift and the responsibilities it imposes. The course ends with a Service-of-Gratitude where students share their reflections through prose, poetry, music and art. Their artwork is displayed in the anatomy suite as a constant reminder to integrate our spiritual and academic development. Students who come to understand themselves in this way are better able to empathize with, understand and help their future patients.