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Students Share Reflections at Anatomy: Service of Gratitude

October 05, 2023
by Abigail Roth

Second-year MD student Lenique Huggins told her classmates that she chose to draw the hand of her body donor, in part because the hand was the most emotionally difficult part of the dissection for her in the anatomy lab, where students first encounter donated bodies that are essential to their education. So she took the most time with it. She had expected the donor’s neck or face would have been the most difficult, but “there was a surprising amount of intimacy for me” with the hand, “it held a special place for me.” Huggins shared these remarks, as a beautifully detailed drawing of a hand and forearm was on the screen in Mary S. Harkness Hall. Her reflection was part of the Yale School of Medicine (YSM) MD Class of 2026 Anatomy: Service of Gratitude, held on September 29.

Second-year MD students Jasmine Jiang and Sadde Mohamed planned and led the emotional ceremony. Jiang told her classmates that it was framed around musical, visual, and written art that “our infinitely talented classmates have generously submitted for the purpose of this gathering. As we move between each piece, try to keep at the forefront of your mind the honor, respect, and gratitude we mean to bestow on our donors.”

87, An Accountant

Enthusiastic applause accompanied Jiang’s introduction of anatomy instructors Charles Duncan, MD, senior research scientist and professor emeritus of neurosurgery, and William Stewart, PhD, associate professor of surgery (gross anatomy). In brief remarks, Duncan described how each donor had decided to give their remains so that the students could learn, adding “I expect their decision will reverberate with you for years to come.” Knowing students are curious to know more about their donors, Stewart shared the ages and professions of several of them: 87, an accountant; 93, a secretary; 86, a physician; 73, a beautician, frequently adding editorial comments, such as “81, a teacher. You will soon become a teacher to your patients.” Sharing the donors’ professions poignantly demonstrated they were all individuals who had had full lives.

Classmates Lucas Kim, George Sun, Kaitlyn Xiong, and Grant Young led off the artistic contributions, beautifully playing a String Quartet No. 2 (1881), by Alexander Borodin, a doctor and chemist by profession. The ceremony then shifted to visual arts. In addition to Huggins, works created by classmates Agnieszka Brojakowska (The Giving Hand), Hye Young Choi (Layer by Layer), and Josef Alavi (untitled) were displayed.

The Giving Hand

Students silently read the words of gratitude that Brojakowska paired with her image:

“Each of our unique journeys has led us to a career focused on improving the quality of life for individuals and populations. This path constitutes a life-long commitment to selflessness. Yet, taking the time to thank others whose contributions supported our growth is imperative. Mainly, I ask that we remember and honor the donors who have perhaps performed the most selfless act. They have gifted and entrusted their vulnerable bodies, the reservoir of their life, simply for our learning. While we could do no direct harm, we respected the individual in front of us, appreciated the diversity and beauty of the human anatomy, and forever will seek the guidance of their gift with each patient before us.”

Prose Reflections

The prose readings reflected the intensity of students’ experience in anatomy. For example, in The Observation of Something Pink, Morgan Brinker shared how seeing bright pink painted toenails on her body donor, in the otherwise sterile anatomy lab, led to her mind racing with questions, such as who painted them and why the donor had chosen to get them painted. Brinker wondered if perhaps the donor’s grandchild painted them, imagining the two of them laughing together, or someone at a salon. Thinking about her donor in this way led “the sheer significance of this person’s gift” to sink in. Matthew Ponticiello (Reflections on Anatomy) and Hannah May (The Donor and Daycare) also read their powerful pieces.

The ceremony included a reflection exercise. Students listened to two classmates’ pre-recorded music (Christina Waldron playing Brahms’ Intermezzo Opus 118, No.1 and Matt Anderson playing Chopin’s Nocturne in E minor) as they quietly wrote responses to questions, such as “What have you learned from interacting with your donor?”

The Most Precious Gift

Mohamed closed out the ceremony, first with his own reflections. “I think regularly about my donor and the kind of person she was. I’ll never truly know her, her family, or how she spent her life, but in some ways, I know her in a way most people in her life can’t. When I picture a heart, I see hers. When I hear the phrenic nerve mentioned in class, I picture hers and how I ripped it accidentally.”

He continued, “She had no way of knowing how indelicate and ungraceful our dissection would be, as was the case for most of us. Still, she sought to make this sacrifice for the sake of my own education. Your donors made the same courageous decisions.”

Mohamed then shared remarks from Deputy Dean for Education and Harold W. Jockers Professor of Medical Education Jessica Illuzzi, MD, MS, “Having met with some of the family members of donors to the Yale’s Willed Body Donation Program, I have learned that they find great comfort and pride in hearing about the profound respect and appreciation that you all, as learners, have for the privilege of learning anatomy in this way.” As Mohamed spoke, an image of the memorial stone at Evergreen Cemetery, where body donors and their families may choose to have cremated remains interred, appeared on the screen. In 2022, YSM had the stone engraved, as well as four small markers; students and some body donors’ family members collaborated on the language. The large stone is engraved with: “With deep gratitude, we thank those who gave the most precious gift. Their generosity to medical education will be cherished for generations to come.”

Jiang and Mohamed expressed their gratitude to classmates Tyger Lin and Matthew Andersen, for their help distributing programs and serving as ushers.

Submitted by Abigail Roth on October 04, 2023