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Respecting the Body, Honoring the Teacher

MED students celebrate donors to the anatomical gift registry

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Jin Xu (MED’12) (from left), Hilal Abuzahra (MED’12), Dana Liu (MED’12), and Anish Geevarghese (MED’12) speak with the daughter of their donor. Below; Marsha Kocherla (MED’12) reads a poem at the memorial service. Photos by Vernon Doucette

Last week, the School of Medicine’s first-year medical students held a memorial service for 33 dead teachers.

“They made an incredibly selfless choice when they decided to give themselves to our education,” Haig Panossian (MED’12) told the gathered crowd, which included loved ones of the deceased. “Today, we celebrate their lives and the gift that touched us all.”

That gift: their mortal remains.

For the past year, teams of eight first-year medical students have dissected human bodies donated through BU’s anatomical gift program, familiarizing themselves with skin, muscles, nerves, and bones in a way no textbook could match. Gross anatomy course director Todd Hoagland described the donors as “our silent but brilliant teachers.”

“The learning of anatomy through dissection is unique, irreplaceable, and a privileged part of a physician’s training,” the MED assistant professor added. “This rite of passage is something medical students look forward to with trepidation and reflect back upon with awe and thanks.”

The anatomy students organized the memorial service to honor their donors, weaving in musical performances, poetry, reflections, and a candle-lighting ceremony, before breaking bread with the families, whom they were meeting for the first time. The annual event was held in the Medical Campus’ Hiebert Lounge in the Instructional Building.

Robert Bouchie (SMG’92), BU’s anatomical gift coordinator and lab manager for eight years, encourages students to approach their donors as human beings, emphasizing respect and dignity: “If I see any hint of joking or any type of disrespect in the lab, although I never have, those students would immediately be asked to leave and learn anatomy somewhere else.”

Bouchie says between 40 and 50 people donate their bodies each year, and they remain at the medical school for more than a year. The bodies arrive within 24 hours of death so Bouchie, a licensed funeral director, can embalm them before deterioration sets in. After anatomy courses, bodies are typically cremated — again by Bouchie, who hand-delivers the cremains to the families.

The donor’s decision is an invaluable contribution to medical study, he says, and a great act of altruism. “But it’s the will of the families who follow through with that decision,” he explains. “Within a 24-hour period, I’m in receipt of their loved ones. In terms of closure, the family really doesn’t get to experience that.”

In her reading for the service, Tanya Donahou (MED’12) compared her team’s donor to a seed that bears fruit to nourish many.

“You are an exponential gift, from one man to eight future doctors to hundreds of patients to the multitudes that make up their family and friends,” she said. “You gave us access to the wonder that is human life and challenged us to discover all the intricate parts working together to make one man.

“You allowed us to know you in a way no one else ever has, not your best friend, your children, your wife, or even yourself. Your quirks and individualities reminded us daily of the complexity and uniqueness of each life, no two the same, each demanding its own respect. You embody the cornerstone of medicine — sacrifice for our fellow man.”

Although students are given scant, if any, personal information about their donors, Erkeda Derouen (MED’12) said the first meeting was more moving than she had expected.

“We wrapped her hands and feet because we’d be examining those later in the semester,” she said. “It was very emotional. We had to put lotion on her hands. It was like we were shaking her hands and her feet. It was a life-changing experience.”

The memorial serves in part to connect students with the lives of the donors. This is the second year families have attended.

“The service was just excellent,” said Buddy Ferreira, of Falmouth, Mass., the son of a donor. “I thought the kids did a great job. Today gives us closure.”

Dana Liu (MED’12) and her teammates worked with Ferreira’s mother. The woman in a sense became alive again, allowing her body not only to tell one final story, but to stimulate the students’ imagination. They wondered who she was, where she had worked, whether she had kids. Liu was glad to finally fill in some of the blanks.

“We learned the name of our donor and that she had worked in a hospital, and that really humanized her,” Liu said after meeting Ferreira and his siblings. “We spent months with this person, so meeting her family was really special.”

Ferreira was equally moved.

“I was an organ donor and now I’m going change it,” he said. “I’m going to donate my body here, no question. Witnessing the students today, and how important this is to them — that changed my mind.”

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

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