Outside the University of Vermont's Medical Education Pavilion, next to a weeping cherry tree, a plaque reads, "In gratitude to our greatest teachers." The tribute refers not to the medical faculty who instruct future physicians, neuroscientists and physical therapists, but to the silent but no-less-vital participants in the learning process: the individuals who donate their bodies to science.
Last Saturday, the UVM College of Medicine held its annual Convocation of Thanks to honor and pay tribute to the individuals, and their families, who participated in UVM's Anatomical Gift Program — the primary source of cadavers used in the university's medical education.
A UVM medical student whose own grandmother willed her corpse to medical research created the event in 1993. What began as a small and intimate ceremony has evolved so it's not just students, faculty and staff who attend, but also kin of the people in the program. More than 80 people came to last Saturday's event in Ira Allen Chapel, including at least 30 friends and family of the "donors" — now the preferred term for cadavers.
As family members entered the chapel, students in formal attire greeted them at the door, offering gifts of wildflower seeds and wind chimes. Once inside, luminaries lined the chapel's stage, representing the 37 donors being honored in what turned out to be a 90-minute ceremony.
Every first-year med student takes anatomy class. Working on a real human is an essential part of the course. In the fall, teams of between four to six students are assigned a body, which they share for the entire year. Unless the donor's family chooses otherwise, the students have no information about their cadavers other than age, gender, cause of death, and occasionally, former profession. It's not until the Convocation of Thanks that they learn who these people were in life.
As music by Yo-Yo Ma played, photos of the donors appeared on large projection screens: a smiling grandmother; a black-and-white photo of an Air Force officer; an elderly man seated on a bench in the woods; a young female athlete in the prime of her life.
According to several staff who've attended many of these events, each annual celebration is unique, as they're planned almost entirely by the medical students. Some feature live music; others, original poetry and personal reflections. This year's ceremony began with an introduction by Dr. Sarah Greene, a UVM anatomy professor who's run the anatomical gift program for the last four years. Early in her remarks, Greene choked up briefly — a testament to the strong feelings the event evokes.
As Greene explained, this year's donors hailed from 12 states and two countries. They included professional musicians, physicians, business managers and former educators. Twelve were military veterans; two were husband and wife.
Next, Brian Till and Hillary Anderson, both med students in the class of 2017, shared additional details. One donor was a Vietnam veteran, another a teacher of the blind, still another sacrificed her own college education to raise and care for younger siblings. One was described as "gregarious," another as possessing "a childlike sense of wonder." All were characterized as people with a deep and abiding desire to help others and give of themselves, literally, to the very end.
Later, Dr. Rod Parsons, who ran the anatomical gift program for several decades, reflected on the privilege of getting to know many of these donors before they died: answering their questions, calming their concerns and giving his advice about how to ensure that family members would honor their final wish.
All, he said, wanted reassurances that, as he put it, "They could do something special as their last act." To that end, he said he'd often tell them about his own plans to be an anatomical donor, and how his three children eventually accepted his decision.
Although most of this year's donors were in their 70s, 80s or 90s when they died, that wasn't the case for Tracy McPhail. In the spring of 2010, Tracy was "pretty much your typical twentysomething" college student: young and seemingly healthy, living with her long-term boyfriend, and an "animal lover who couldn't say no to a stray cat," her older sister, Betsy, told the audience. She was the only family member who spoke at the convocation.
Tracy, a nonsmoker, was training for a half marathon when she was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Despite an aggressive treatment regimen of surgery, chemo and radiation, she died in March 2011, at the age of 25 — less than a year after her diagnosis. Up until two weeks before her death, McPhail remarked afterward, Tracy still believed she'd actually defeat the disease. But once her fate became clear, she told her family of her desire to donate her body for medical research. McPhail said it was a difficult decision for her mom to accept, but one that reflected her sister's fighting spirit.
Some of the 20 to 50 donors who will themselves to UVM each year wish to remain anonymous; their identities are never made public and, like most other donors, they are cremated when their teaching "tenure" is over. In other cases, the identities of the people are known, but relatives choose not to participate in the Convocation of Thanks.
Afterward, all of the attendees proceeded to a reception next door, where some of the donors' photos and bios were on display. There, I ran into Mandi Bechtel, who works as the embalmer for the Anatomical Gift Program. Among the many bodies she's handled over the years was one of an elderly woman she'd actually known in life. Bechtel, who met the donor several years ago at a Burlington nursing home where she volunteered, had never discussed the nature of her work at UVM. Neither had the woman ever revealed to Bechtel that she planned to donate her body to science.
Echoing a sentiment expressed by many of the students that afternoon, Bechtel said the Convocation of Thanks was a time when her friend's passing "came full circle" and she could express two final thoughts: good-bye and thank you.