UNC medical students hold memorial service for donated cadavers

Thursday, January 28, 2010 — On Friday, Jan. 22, first-year medical students in the UNC School of Medicine held a memorial service for the cadavers donated to their anatomy class. More than 300 people attended the service, which is a long-standing tradition at UNC.

On Friday, Jan. 22, first-year medical students in the UNC School of Medicine held a memorial service for the cadavers donated to their anatomy class.

The service, which is a long-standing tradition at UNC, was held in the auditorium of the Medical Biomolecular Research Building. More than 300 people attended the hour-long service.

Each year, 160 medical, physical therapy and dental students use 40 cadavers to learn about the human body in their anatomy class. Half of the cadavers are used by medical students, who take the lead in organizing the service.

“The students have spent the last semester studying anatomy, and the cadaver has been essentially their first patient and their first experience dealing with death,” said Kurt Gilliland, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology and co-director of the anatomy course.

Gilliland says the memorial service serves three purposes: it celebrates the lives of patients who donated their bodies to UNC, it’s a way to say thanks to the donors and families for the sacrifice they’ve made, and it’s an opportunity for students and families to draw closure.

A Celebration of Life

The first-year medical class presidents organize the ceremony each year and call upon fellow students to participate.

“We asked them to access their inner space, their creatives, to reflect on how this process changed them, to show their thanks to donor families through music, through poetry, however they thought was appropriate, really,” said Jacob Wang, a first-year co-president.

This year, there were seven performances by medical students. Many of them were musical. The MedUNCedoos, the medical school’s a capella group performed “One Sweet Day” by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men. Several students played instrumental pieces on keyboard, flute and violin. Many of them performed more than once. One student, Brittany Johnson, read a poem entitled, “A Lesson in Gratitude.”

In addition to the student performances, Gilliland gave a short speech and read a letter written in 1983 by a donor to UNC. Shirley Massey, a chaplain at UNC Hospitals, gave the closing remarks.

“I make a point to go each year because it’s actually very moving,” said Edward Kernick, D.P.M., an assistant professor in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology and the second co-director of the anatomy course. “I’m always impressed with the medical students, their talents and the collegiality of the event.”

After the ceremony, a reception was held in the lobby. Much of the crowd gathered around a particular item – a bulletin board that held photos of several donors – all smiling and very much alive.

One of the photographs was of William Medford. His wife, Becky, who works in the School of Medicine, said her husband loved Carolina and loved sports. In retirement, he worked at Finley Golf Course. Becky said she and her husband made the decision to donate 30 years ago, and chose to give their bodies to UNC because they loved the school. “He was the type of person who just wanted to help people in any way he could,” she said.

A “Thank You” to Donors and Families

If there was one overwhelming sentiment at the memorial service, it was gratitude. “The opportunity to do this, to learn in this way that’s so profound and so significant – it’s something every doctor says sticks with them,” said Nancy Wang, the second first year class co-president. “You always remember the cadaver that you learned from. It was your first teacher.”

Anatomy is a required class for medical students. It is taken the first year of medical school and is the foundation for knowledge of the human body. And while there is a lecture portion of the class, books and overheads can only go so far. Cadaver dissection is a learning method as old as the practice of medicine, and it is looked upon as a rite of passage for future doctors. Every muscle, organ, tendon, nerve, and bone is studied. At UNC, eight students dissect one cadaver for the eight – nine weeks they are in lab.

“The amount of knowledge that they learn from [the donor] is incredible and probably unparalleled and unmatched in their future education,” said Kernick. “[The service] is a way of saying thank you to the family and the individual for that tremendous gift.”

Closure for Students and Families

Gilliland and Kernick say that the students are often very apprehensive about dissection at first, but grow very comfortable over the course of the lab. Nancy and Jacob agree. Some students, they said, were excited and eager from the beginning, while others never dissected the cadavers at all, and chose to learn by seeing and touching rather than cutting.

“For me, walking into the lab for the first day and realizing that these are, you know, people,” said Nancy, “these are people’s grandmothers and daughters and husbands, it was really kind of overwhelming. I felt like I didn’t deserve it. ”

“You kind of look at it as a cadaver and not a donor because you need to study,” she said. “You’ve got to let the science take over,” she said.

So the ceremony is a time for the student to reflect on their experience – the hours they spent with each donor. “The students very quickly entered the anatomy course in October and they probably had very little opportunity to reflect on death because they were so immersed in academics,” Gilliland said.

For the families who had gone for months unable to lay their loved ones to rest, the service was especially a point of closure. All the donors have been cremated, and the families will now be able to have inurnment ceremonies in their hometowns.

The students are not given any personal information on their cadavers. But sometimes, aspects of their lives were still apparent. One woman’s fingernails were painted. Another woman’s left hand had a mark where a wedding ring had been.

At the ceremony, the humanity of the donors was made especially poignant by the presence of many of the donor’s families. If any of the students hadn’t yet considered the cadavers as people – people with children, grandchildren, spouses – then the memorial service was the time for that.

Media contact:Ginger Moore, (919) 962-0168, gmoore2@unch.unc.edu