The University of Virginia Health System has a small patient population who are silent. They make no appointments and have no further need of medical care. In fact, they arrive with a single purpose: to assist medical students. These patients have said their final goodbyes and exhaled their last breaths. Their parting gift to the world is to pass along understanding — by being an anatomical donor — so that our students may learn and grow as medical professionals, ultimately advancing the field of knowledge.
On April 29, the School of Medicine Class of 2019 hosted the Anatomical Donor Convocation of Gratitude to express thanks to these donors and for the students to acknowledge emotions they experienced while working with their very first patients.
First-year medical student Janice Park explains that it was more than just a traditional memorial service, which the School has held in years past. “We wanted to make it a more curricular and institutional event; something that could continue on into the future with the hope of inviting families of donors. We were trying to honor our anatomical donors in a space where we could process our fears and doubts — emotions we couldn’t process in the lab, because we were learning. Many people have visceral reactions to Anatomy, which they never deal with. This event gave them that chance.”
Meredith Johnson, also a first-year, explains that the Convocation of Gratitude brought together student and faculty presenters who discussed the process of being in the Anatomy Lab and how the donors contributed to the learning and growth of each medical student. “It was a reflective process,” says Johnson. In addition, she explains, “We invited students to bring in reflection projects based on their personal experiences and then displayed them in a gallery after the Convocation.”
The reflection projects included artwork in varying media, says first-year medical student Brittany Smith. “Paintings, poems, songs — all of which detailed an individual’s reaction to how they felt about the anatomy lab. It allowed students to express their feelings without having to say anything. The artwork also added a nice décor to the Convocation. It added something special to this dedicated time, as we processed not only the gift of anatomical donors, but also how we were feeling about the experience. In the lab, we go straight to work and memorization, without much time to think about our emotions.” The artwork from the Convocation of Gratitude is currently on display in the lobby of the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library.
At its core, the Convocation of Gratitude was a way for the medical students to impart their thanks to the anatomical donors. Hannah Carr, first-year medical student, says, “We don’t know who these people were or what lives they led, or why they chose to donate. We speculated. But even in our ignorance, we were grateful.” In the future, they hope that the Convocation of Gratitude will include an invitation to families of those who have donated.
The event — organized by Park, Johnson, Smith, Carr, Anna Tappel, Moira Smith, Elena Lagon, and Rick Vavolizza — brought together 15 volunteers, approximately 50 students, and many faculty. During the Final Thoughts moment of the program, attendees were asked to write down a thought or memory in gratitude to the donors. The slips of paper were collected at the end of the Convocation of Gratitude. Later, they were burned and the ashes were scattered in the UVA cemetery at the base of the stone marker that commemorates anatomical donors.
The Class of 2019 would like to thank the Mulholland Society, the Center for Biomedical Ethics & Humanities, the Sloane Society, and the Honor Committee, Kroger, Agape Florist, students who donated artwork and music for the event, faculty speakers, attendees …
… and, of course, the anatomical donors, their first patients.