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Preserving Humanity

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2014 - Autumn


“I’ve never met a physician, no matter what age, who does not remember their first dissection,” said Lawrence Rizzolo, Ph.D., whose job it is to introduce students to the human body. The audience, including, for the first time, families of those who donated their bodies, had gathered in Harkness Auditorium on March 31 for the annual Service of Gratitude. Each year after anatomy lab ends, nursing, medical, and physician associate students use art and expression to explore the emotions that come from working with donors. Rizzolo, associate professor of surgery and one of the course directors, explained that students enter the lab naïve and emerge the health professionals they will be, having learned so much about life by probing death.

For students who begin the class knowing only their donors’ age, sex, and race, the six months of anatomy provide ample time to examine the human body, and perhaps leave with more anatomical knowledge but also more philosophical questions on the donors’ selfless gesture. “Because of their gift you have acquired a vast amount of knowledge. You have traveled the path of their blood vessels, traversed their nervous systems,” said Linda Honan, R.N., Ph.D., associate professor of nursing, in her closing remarks. “Concepts that were incomprehensible became clear … and thus your clinical life begins.”

After opening remarks by Anna Reisman, M.D., director of the Yale Program for Humanities in Medicine, the two-hour program began with a meditation and breathing exercise led by medical student Rahil Rojiani. Students then performed original music compositions, read essays and poems, and sang songs. Jes Minor, an M.D./Ph.D. student, read her original poem. “What about the bird inside / that flutters,” she read, “Please, ask me only about the cage.” She knew all about the heart’s anatomy, Minor explained, but nothing about the soul of the woman she dissected. The Ultrasounds, the medical school’s a cappella group, performed “For Good,” from the Broadway musical Wicked. “I’ve heard it said / That people come into our lives for a reason / Bringing something we must learn,” the group sang. Near the end of the service, a trio of physician associate students performed the John Hiatt song “The River Knows Your Name.”

The final presentation was “What We Give,” a video by medical students Max Farina and Tejas Sathe. For their documentary the students asked classmates, faculty, and relatives of the donors to reflect on the nature of the donors’ gift.

After the ceremony, the crowd mingled over wine and snacks outside the auditorium, where student art installments were on view. Medical student Katherine Epstein knitted a replica of the heart and other organs. Sue Xiao, also a medical student, displayed about 15 self-portraits in charcoal titled, “Atlas.” She was attempting to dissect the different stages of learning, grief, and acceptance she felt during the course.

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