For the first time in its history, the families of individuals whose donated bodies have been dissected by Yale medical students were invited to campus for a Service of Gratitude.
On Tuesday evening, students and faculty in Yale’s medical and nursing schools gathered in the School of Medicine’s Harkness Auditorium to honor those who had donated their bodies to the University for dissection. Tuesday’s service marked the time first in Yale’s history that relatives of donors were invited to join. Students, faculty and donors’ relatives all said the service served as an opportunity to learn from each other.
“[Donation] is not just what your organs can give to someone that’s living but what your body can give to someone that’s still learning,” said Nicole Primoff NUR ’17, who was one of the event’s organizers.
After opening remarks and an auditorium-wide meditation session, faculty and students of the medical school, nursing school and PA program shared reflections of their experiences dissecting cadavers. Original artwork lined the lobby outside the large lecture hall, and students shared poems, musical compositions and sound collages documenting how the donors had helped them in their personal and career growth. In the audience, relatives of the donors looked on at the presentations and their own contribution to the proceedings — excerpts of interviews they had taken part in as part of a short documentary.
Max Farina MED ’18, a student who helped film the documentary, emphasized the difficulty of condensing the wide range of emotions experienced by the donors’ relatives and students into such a short clip.
“You’re crossing this boundary that’s been in place our entire life,” Farina said of the act of dissection. “It’s a strange sensation, especially without express permission, since the person decided to do this, but they didn’t tell you that.”
Farina added that speaking with the families of donors as he produced the video provided him with an “incredible” insight into how different families of donors experience the process.
For Chris Cowles, an attendee, the service was particularly moving. Just the day prior, he celebrated the first anniversary of the death of his mother,whose body was donated to the medical school after suffering a severe stroke and becoming increasingly frail. Cowles was initially surprised by his mother’s decision, but said he soon came to understand that it was part of her giving nature. When the time came for her body to be dissected, he was far less anxious than he thought he would be, he added.
“It seemed right. I thought that it would be harder and it was not at all,” he said.
On the receiving end of the donation process, Tafadzwa Chaunzwa MED ’18 had a far more difficult experience conducting his first dissection. When he was only 23, Chaunzwa lost his father. His father’s corpse was the last dead body he saw before facing his cadaver, he said. Though he appreciated the opportunity to learn anatomy in an interactive way, he said he was “initially very overwhelmed” when he found himself facing a second dead body and tasked with dissecting it.
According to associate professor of surgery and Director of Medical Studies Lawrence Rizzolo, it is not uncommon for both students and donors’ families to struggle with the concept of dissection.
He gave the example of a man who found it so difficult to reconcile his father’s decision to be dissected that his father’s body was eventually returned to him. The students who had been dissecting the cadaver were also conflicted about what to do with the request of the donor’s son, Rizzolo said, adding that they felt that stopping might go against the donor’s wish to contribute his body to scientific research.
But according to Rizzolo, that case is not typical. While some relatives are uncomfortable with dissection, others — such as those who attended the service — view it as honoring their deceased relatives’ wishes to contribute to scientific knowledge.
Melissa Spinner and her brother Christian DeMusis fell into the latter category. Their mother had “long conversations” about the prospect of donating her body before eventually deciding to do so. Spinner said that accepting her mother’s decision was not difficult “even for a moment,” as they understood it was their mother’s way of honoring her own father, a physician.
DeMusis, who plans to donate his body to science when he dies, like more than 10,000 other Americans do each year, said he enjoyed the service and was grateful for the respect the medical school afforded him throughout the process of his mother’s donation.
Cowles shared Spinner and DeMusis’ sentiments.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about it since mom died and this is kind of the clincher,” Cowles said as a smile spread across his face. “I think I will donate my body when I die too.”