Gratitude for our Anatomical Donors

Anna Quinlan '22
uvmmedicine blogger Anna Quinlan ’22

Written by Anna Quinlan ’22

This year, over 250 family members, medical students, physical therapy students, residents, and faculty convened for the Convocation of Thanks, an annual event to honor the anatomical donors who selflessly made the decision to donate their bodies to UVM’s Anatomical Gift Program. As a first-year medical student, I didn’t know what to expect leading up to the event. I was curious about who would come and what they would share about those who donated their bodies to science.

I sat down at the back of a packed ballroom, unintentionally right next to two of my anatomy lab partners. We joked quietly about the coincidence and then immediately returned to the seriousness of the event. I thought back to our time together in lab, and how we had to balance conflicting emotions. My lab mates had a keen sense of humor, yet laughter never found a comfortable place in anatomy lab. Anatomy introduced us to the collision of emotions that comes with working in the medical field.

Medicine begins with curiosity, and anatomy lab was no exception. Every day, I listened, looked, and learned until my head ached from the intense focus. It was fascinating, however it was also sad to confront death so directly and personally. There were days when I just wanted to push my sense of humanity deep down inside of me. But my group decided on day one that it was important to recognize our donor in her fullest, and I am so grateful that we did.

Each day before beginning our work, my group had a moment of silence with our donor to remember her life and recognize her gift. In these moments, I thought about how my donor didn’t know me, yet she trusted me. I tried to imagine that level of trust in another human. I’ll be honest, it was hard. In this way, my donor taught me humility. Over the course of months, I grew to know her in ways that she didn’t even know herself. I am so grateful for her and the learning that she made possible.

The Convocation of Thanks was a chance for us to express this gratitude, from medical students, physical therapy students, residents, and faculty alike. It gave us the chance to celebrate our donors with their families. For the most part, students chose to express themselves through artistic means. Some recorded music and some performed on stage. Many volunteered their time planning the event, from preparing food to setting up decorations.

The best part of the day though was learning more about the lives of the donors. The entry way to the event was lit with luminarias in honor of each individual. The hallway fed into a collection of photos of donors provided by family members. A slideshow ran with quotes and memories. Family members and students quietly and slowly progressed down the hallway, stopping at each photograph. It was incredible to finally have a space to fully acknowledge the donors’ generosity. Some family members even took the stage to share stories. I listened intently, curious to learn more about the experience of donating from the opposite perspective. I learned that acknowledging each person’s donation was only a small subset of a much larger grieving process for family members. Each donor led a unique life that touched the people around them.

The ceremony concluded with a mingling of family members and students. As the last few parties drifted out the door, I felt a sense of calm set over the event. The uncertainty had washed away and had been replaced with gratitude. I will always remember my donor and her gift. Just as my anatomy group decided on day one, I will never shy away from acknowledging humanity.

What are your thoughts about this topic?