“Who am I?”
“My name is Tim. I was 67. I worked as a traffic controller for the railway. I could not make a mistake.”
“My name is Grete. I was 90. I was a nurse. You will come to rely on nurses in many ways.”
“My name is Edna. I was 97. I spent my life taking care of my family.”
Associate Professor of Surgery (Gross Anatomy)William Stewart, PhD, read these statements, along with a dozen others, at the annual Service-of-Gratitude organized by second-year MD anatomy students. The service honored the individuals who, through their wills, donated their bodies to Yale School of Medicine (YSM) to train students.
Stewart shared that about 15 years ago, a student asked him if he could provide more information about the donors, since students know very little about the individuals who donated their bodies to medical science. Students spend a significant amount of time engaged in dissection, which often is emotional for them.
In response to the request for more information, Stewart now provides a few details about some of the donors. He decided that since many people describe who they are by their profession, a good way to honor the donors was to share their name, age, and profession, and “put words in their mouths,” with a reflection on their career/life path.
As Stewart was reading his remarks, reflective music played in the background and students were creating symbolic thank you cards, with messages or reflections for the donors.
Stewart and student organizers welcomed any student who wanted to share reflections to speak. Students’ comments reflected the intensity of dissection and the immense gratitude the students feel toward the donors. One student described how their donor’s tattoos, which their dissection group of four assumed were of family members, drove home that this was a real person with loved ones, which made dissection hard. The student added, “we are grateful for him teaching us.” Others described how they thought about what their donor’s life was like based on physical characteristics. For example, students who had a donor who was older and a bit heavy, explained it gave them some relief to envision he had had a full life and enjoyed eating.
One student turned to a poem she found, Dear Sir Learning Anatomy, by Sarah Cross, MD, to express some of her emotions:
With my chisel I removed the petrous portion of your temporal bone to discover the tiny, majestic malleus attached to the tympanic membrane—its hanging no less or more marvelous than vibration. These are the deepest parts. I cut the heart from your chest, opened the thunderous wall of the left ventricle to touch the billows of the aortic valve— three smooth leaves, a pale blooming parachute.
So, we have been intimate, But I do not know you, only imagine the work you once did in the world as I peel the sinewy skin from your palm, its soft pads finally giving way. I grasp each finger—from smallest to thumb— as I loose and then take the muscles of fine motion which you may have used to hold those that you loved."