Memories

I’ve come up for a breath of sweet cold Oregon air, and thankfully have some free time over the holidays to share with you all what has happened in the last several weeks. The event that stands out the most is a memorial service our class put on two weeks ago for the body donor’s families. All the families that had a relative donate their body to OHSU were invited to send in pictures of their family member, and to attend a memorial service in the donors’ honor. Our amazing class president Jessica as well as a committed group of students, took on the grand task of organizing the whole event, and they did an amazing job.

The ceremony started with introductions from the Dean of Students, the director of the Oregon Donor program, and wonderful speeches from two of our favorite anatomy professors, Dr. Schmidt and Dr. Ciment. It’s very difficult to put into words the gratitude we experienced using the donors bodies to learn anatomy, as well as the intensity of that undertaking, to an auditorium full of people that are still mourning the loss of their loved ones. Dr. Schmidt read a passage a doctor had written many years ago, about how he always felt the presence of his donor throughout his lifelong practice, as if the donor was there holding his hand and whispering in his ear the secrets of the body. Dr. Ciment then told how he tried to quantify the gift by attempting to calculate just how many lives are impacted when one person donates their body. He estimated that for 150 students, who each got to learn from 30 different donors’ bodies, and who then went out to practice medicine for an average of 20 years, and who saw an average of 3 new patients every day….an astounding 1.7 million people benefit from the gift of a donor’s body.

After the professors spoke, members of our class had the opportunity to express their gratitude in any way they saw fit. I got up and read a poem, Jessica sang a beautiful song, Mini played two concert pieces on a baby Grand piano (she was stunning, none of us knew she was a master pianist, she played a Chopin piece with so much passion and perfection we were all astounded), a group of students sang the song somewhere over the rainbow in perfect harmony, and Michael sang a sweet John Denver song with just his guitar and the voice of a born performer. I don’t think any of us knew how much talent we had in our class, and more importantly how much heart we all have!

We then passed around the microphone to the students and families in the audience to see if anyone wanted to share stories of their experience, or of their loved ones. The men of our class stood up, with tears in their eyes, to thank all of the families, and to describe the profound experience they had in the anatomy lab. At this point something in the room really shifted, and all the families started opening up with stories of their loved ones. The microphone was passed around for 45 minutes while we heard about their grief over losing their loved ones, as well as funny stories about the donors’ personalities. In addition, we got to watch a slide show of the pictures that were sent in of the donors, and this was enough to break us all wide open. To see the smiles and light in the eyes of the donors that we had previously only seen without the spark of life in the lab, was so moving. The pictures and all the sharing that my classmates and the family members offered reminded what I am really in medical school for – to care about people, to spread love and hope and kindness.

Many of the family members stated that they didn’t agree with their family member’s decision to donate their body, in fear that the bodies would be treated disrespectfully. After seeing the response of our classmates, many in the auditorium stated they were relieved, moved, and even considering donating their own body to OHSU upon their own deaths. After going through lab myself I thought that I would never donate my own body, but after that afternoon’s experience, I can’t think of a better way to spread the love than to donate my own body. What I also now know is that I will always remember Larry, and hope to hear him whispering in my ear as I continue learning how to be a physician.

Here is the poem I read:

Blackwater Woods
by Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting
and floating away over

the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its

name is, is
nameless now.
Every year everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

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