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May 31, 2012

Medical students learned on the bodies, now honor the donors

Nancy Linn attended a memorial service for her husband, Arnold, last week. It was organized by people who never met him or knew his name and yet were connected to him in the most intimate way.

For months, medical and nursing students at Georgetown University had explored his body and those of 64 other donors in the anatomy lab. They searched for nerves, prodded muscles, laid bare major organs. They learned about disease and about complexities of the human body.

Now classes were over and the school was holding its yearly anatomical donor Mass, to say thank you. In a classroom auditorium, about 135 family members watched as a procession of 160 white-coated students walked down the aisles on either side of them. Each placed a glass-held candle on stage with a gentle clink, creating a seemingly endless chain of light.

From Linn's front-row seat, her eyes reddened as she listened to the readings, hymns and remarks by students, a priest, a rabbi and the dean for medical education.

The donors, they said, were the students' first patients. And students were the donors' final caretakers.

"They knew nothing about us, and yet they dedicated their final act on this Earth to share their most intimate possession with us in the hope that we could learn from them," said Mark Norton, 27, class president of the first-year medical students.

"Our donors taught us to celebrate life and to never forget the need for humanity and compassion in medicine — a lesson that could never be explained in any textbook or on any app."

As the Mass drew to a close, the Rev. Salvador Jordan asked family members to step forward. Leaning on her cane, Linn, 75, joined about 20 other people, including a couple with a young boy, in the front of the room. Three students presented them each with a creamy white rose.

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