How the science of anatomy teaches the humanity of healing
Penn State College of Medicine students are told to put emotions aside when they enter the anatomy lab. It is about the science, not the humanity. They quickly realize that is just not possible.
That was evident a few weeks ago in Hershey, as the future physicians honored the people and families who generously donated bodies for study by the students. Through an annual ceremony they organize, students reflect on the people who once were, not the bodies in a lab.
Some conveyed their feelings through song, others through poetry, and all shared their unending gratitude to the donors and their loved ones. “It’s an intimate opportunity for the students to convey to the families of the donors what they learned and what they gained from the experience,” said Michelle Lazarus, Ph.D., assistant professor of neural and behavioral sciences. “It also provides an opportunity for the families to better understand how their family’s gift impacted students.”
Students like class of 2016 president Steven Cornelius, who spoke of the importance of these gifts. “We learned a great deal of information in the lecture hall,” Cornelius said. “In reality, the primary place where we learned something was in the cadaver lab.”
Nelson Onyango, class of 2016, shared his ups and downs with the teary-eyed crowd. The oath of ‘do no harm’ caused him mixed feelings during the eleven-week course, as he cut and dissected. He struggled with expressing his gratitude and shared the lessons he learned in his own verse. “When you invited me to know you, to be a guest in the house that your spirit left, you forever altered my life,” he said.
Other students shared their personal reflections as well.
John Picard spoke of a strong, proud woman of only 47 with the pink nail polish who he came to see as a mentor. His group prematurely said an emotional goodbye when her abdomen, fraught with cancer, made it impossible to learn anything further from examining her body. “You made me a doctor in spirit far before name,” he said.
Matthew Fanelli expressed his gratitude for the unique opportunity provided by these extraordinary donors, citing anatomy as an “irreplaceable course.” “It is my hope today that you will gain an even greater admiration for your loved ones in realizing the magnitude of the gift that they’ve given to 150 young students and the positive effects that this will have on the health of patients for generations,” Fanelli said.
John Hilton, incoming class president, remarked on the special relationships they form with the donors. “They are truly our first patients on our long journey to becoming physicians,” he said. “Your loved ones have taught us more than just the layout of the human body; they taught us to become better doctors.”
Family members are also welcome to speak at the annual event.
Pam McCorkle expressed her gratitude to the doctors who cared for her husband during his care after a ruptured brain aneurysm. Her husband Steven donated his body to education and his corneas for a live transplant. “I thank God for all of you because it is such an honorable way to live, to help people like my husband, like all of them who rely on you,” she said. “My husband would be just thrilled to know he’s playing a part in your education.”
Edward Kipp talked about his mother, V. Lorraine Meashy, who, like many, had strong ties to the Hershey. “She ran with the Hershey ambulance before the Medical Center was built,” he said. “She was one of the first EMTs in Hershey.”
Multiple sclerosis ended her ambulance service and kept her wheelchair bound for at least thirty-five years. It was her hope that the future physicians can learn from her body and help others in future.
Graduate students Ann Nixon and Kristy Pugh know first-hand how vital donors like Meashy are to education. They find it hard to believe that some schools attempted to change their curriculum to virtual anatomy sans cadavers. “There’s only so much learning you can do from a book,” Nixon said. “Once you see something in a body, it’s very different.”
Students learn that no two people are the same internally and that there are no perfect bodies like those depicted in textbooks. “When you’re in there with the real human bodies, you get to feel the difference between everything in there,” Pugh said, adding that the program is why many students chose Penn State to “get the whole experience.”
According to Lazarus, schools that had gone virtual have now gone back to cadaver-based, hands-on anatomy.
Lazarus also counsels families who may be struggling with the idea of donating about the need for gifts. It is one of the reasons she believes the ceremony is important. Afterwards family members often approach her and say, “I understand now.” “For every single gift and donation that we receive, the impact on these future physicians is a hundred fold,” she explained.
Lazarus believes this first patient experience affects every single patient that a physician sees.
While the Hershey Cemetery will serve as the final resting place for some donors, others are returned to their families.
Barbara Fogle, who attended with her husband, Charles, said the two have had burial plots since they got married, but now will be buried in Hershey. They attended to remember her mother-in-law, Eva Buckley, who had donated her body when the family “signed up” together.
Fogle hopes that Eva’s generosity as well as their future gifts can help her descendant’s generations.
The Fogles used the ceremony as a learning experience. They planned to share what they learned with relatives who are concerned about not being able to visit them after they pass. Now she knows she can tell her children: “You can come and see me, under the maple tree.”
For information on how to donate your body to science, visit the Humanity Gift Registry website at hgrpa.com or contact Dee Clarke at 717-531-0003 x287626 or firstname.lastname@example.org to donate directly to Penn State Hershey.