The first guest to arrive was an elderly man with a cane. He was by himself, and he arrived 45 minutes early. He entered the chapel downstairs, where my fellow singers and I were doing some last-minute polishing of our performance for the annual Convocation of Thanks at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. My classmate, Vic, jumped out of rehearsal mode to welcome the man. She took the elevator upstairs with him and, after helping him find a seat, she returned to where we were singing with a changed look on her face. “That man’s wife was a donor,” she said. “I don’t think I realized how emotional this might be.”
Many of us shared Vic’s revelation as we observed Ira Allen Chapel fill up with guests, and watched the youthful faces of the donors appear before us in a slideshow. Their photos showed them playing music, flying airplanes, and enjoying moments with family. It meant a lot to me to see each one of them smiling, and to see their family members smile back at them from the audience.
Since we first met our donors in the anatomy lab, back in October, many of us have wondered about who they were. What were their lives like? Who were their loved ones? Why did they decide to donate? The Convocation of Thanks was a meaningful opportunity to have some of these questions answered. The decision to make an anatomical donation is made by a special kind of person. It is not a coincidence that many of our donors were described as teachers and caregivers. Only some pursued education or health care as a profession, but all of them seemed to play these roles informally in their families and communities. In this context, it made sense that each wanted their final act to be one that provided an educational opportunity for others.
It can sometimes be overwhelming to receive a gift that seems too big to re-pay. How can we really show thanks in proportion to what we have received from our donors? I feel like it may be many years into my medical career before I am able to match the magnitude of giving shown by our donors. But the Convocation of Thanks was the first of many chances that we will have in our careers to show our gratitude. We each had a different way of doing it: some shared their artistic talents, some wrote and shared their reflections on working with the donors, some organized flower donations and other logistics for the event, and many conveyed their thanks directly to the families in conversations that neither the students nor the families are likely to forget.
The first year of medical school can feel lonely at times. I am the one who is ultimately responsible for whether I am mastering the basic sciences of medicine, and my performance on exams can easily start to feel like it is the most important measure of my worth. But the Convocation of Thanks was a beautiful reminder that we are part of a bigger world. We all depend on others to teach us, to support us, and to remind us of the things that matter most at the end of a long life. I am grateful for the communal experience that we shared at the Convocation of Thanks, and I realized that our donors haven’t finished teaching us yet. In fact, the lesson I took away from the ceremony in April was one of my favorites.