Summer 2008

Giving Thanks

Students hold service for body donors

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Body of Knowledge Alumni make the ultimate donation—themselves—to the School of Medicine’s Body Donor Program

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By Paige P. Parvin 96G

It’s seven o’clock on a warm evening in early June, and Cannon Chapel is filling rapidly, buzzing with the low hum of hushed voices. On a table near the door, a candle burns and white squares of paper invite guests to write a brief note. One comment reads, “My world changed in a semester of discovery impossible without your generosity.”

This is the annual Service of Gratitude, where 130 first-year medical students, as well as physician assistant and anesthesiology assistant students and faculty, gather to honor the human bodies that they have worked on throughout the academic year. Through music, poetry, spiritual readings, and personal reflections, the students—who plan the service themselves—sought to express the gratitude they feel for these unknown people who chose to donate their bodies to Emory’s School of Medicine.

Stephen Vindigni 11M recalled the first time he walked into the anatomy lab. “I knew this was more than a medical school requirement—that it would be one of the most life-changing experiences I would ever have,” he said.

Brittany Hill 09PA said she began the program eager to learn to care for others, so she at first had difficulty accepting that she could not help or heal these bodies. She remembered spending late nights before exams in the anatomy lab. “I began to have this bizarre sense that they were rooting for me, in a way,” she said. “I know they were human beings I would have been privileged to know. . . . It was not my time to comfort or heal them, but rather, quite the reverse. They were teaching me, comforting me.”

Bobby Beaulieu 11M wrote a poem for the occasion—the first he had ever written and, he speculated, probably the last. It was titled “My Favorite Teacher: Ninety-one-year-old female, Alzheimer’s disease.” Like his classmates, he could not help but contemplate who she really was. “There’s more to your cadavers than their bodies, just as there is more to your patients than their illnesses,” he said.

Several students gave musical performances, revealing talents quite unrelated to anatomy labs and medical textbooks. And at intervals during the service, each student filed by a table to light a candle for the dead.

The Reverend Bridgette Young, senior associate dean of the chapel, ended the service with a blessing. Near the evening’s conclusion, Professor Emeritus John Stone shared a poem he had written for a past Service of Gratitude.

Elegy and Affirmation / by John Stone

Together we are grateful, for we know
The privilege it is to touch another
Whether in the name of science or love.

The touching here has been made up of both.

By their extraordinary gifts
These dead have taught the living how to touch.

Through them we touch the body of the world.

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Summer 2008

Of Note