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May 31, 2012

Medical students learned on the bodies, now honor the donors


Her decision to donate her husband's body had not been difficult. The couple had agreed to be organ donors. But seeing and hearing from the medical students was comforting.

"I feel so much more at ease," she said. "I think Arnold would be very pleased."

Each year, 19,000 medical students in the United States dissect cadavers as part of their introduction to medicine. It is one of the most sensitive rites of becoming a doctor because it is often the students' first encounter with death.

Many medical schools hold some type of memorial service at the end of the school year to honor donors. At the George Washington University medical school, family members spoke, and students sang and performed original dance. The service ended with a reading of the donors' first names and a release of butterflies.

"Gross anatomy is a very challenging course in many ways," said Christina Puchalski, director of the university's Institute for Spirituality and Health and one of the speakers. On the science side, students must memorize the location and function of hundreds of anatomical structures. But they also need to acknowledge their emotions.

A challenge in medical education, she said, is to help students achieve competence without losing compassion.

"Gross anatomy is the first place where students start to encounter that tension," she said.

At Georgetown, the formal Mass has been in place for at least 25 years but has grown so large that it is now held in a classroom auditorium instead of the medical school's small chapel.

The Mass is the coda to a year that began in late fall.

Orientation included a video of medical students describing what happens. On the first day of class, before the body bags covering the cadavers were unzipped, 196 students listened to interdenominational prayers. Letters from donors were read aloud.

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