This past month we said goodbye to our donors after seven months of learning with them. In a truly moving ceremony we thanked them for their gifts and we welcomed the family members of those who have donated their bodies to Elon’s Anatomical Gift Program. We were reminded that for our donors to make the decision they did required trust—trust that we would be good stewards of their remains, learning all we could from them and treating them with the reverence and respect they deserve.
We were also asked to think back to January, when everything was still new to us, and we were first introduced to our donors. Over the course of a few months, these silent teachers have taken a batch of timid new PA students and inducted them into a fellowship of the select few privileged enough to study human anatomy. This method of learning anatomy dates back centuries, and it was awe-inspiring to be a part of this tradition. When modern medicine was still in its adolescence, the study of human anatomy was a difficult and sometimes dangerous endeavor. For a long time, the general public considered dissection of human cadavers to be a desecration of their remains, and medical students wishing to study anatomy were met with contempt and, in some cases, active resistance. Change began in England when Parliament passed the Anatomy Act of 1832 that legally permitted medical students to dissect and study bodies that had been donated to the school, and this tradition continues today.
Though we were not able to learn anything about our donors beyond their names, we were able to hear about some of the donors who will be the subject of study for the next class. Several family members stood up to tell their stories, and we learned that one of the donors made beautiful jewelry and crocheted, remaining positive in the face of a cancer diagnosis, while another enjoyed water skiing and the outdoors, even while severely disabled as the result of a subarachnoid hemorrhage. It was incredibly inspiring to hear about the courage and perseverance of these people during their lifetimes, and their desire to continue changing lives after their own had ended. Hearing these stories make me think about the incredible responsibility given to me, namely the task of carrying my donor’s work to completion by learning as much as I can and applying this information in my career as a PA.
The event was concluded with a beautiful performance by some of the PT students and a candle lighting ceremony, during which the family members, faculty, PA, and PT students all shared the light from candles with our donors’ names on them.
I hope to see many patients throughout my future career—based on statistics, I can expect to see thousands of patients within my first few years of practicing alone—but I will never forget my very first patient. I will never forget the first time I saw my donor’s heart, or the first time I held a human brain in my hands. Our donors were with us for all these momentous “firsts,” and they will be with us for the rest of our lives.
–If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants