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Jan 26

They Learned From Their Bodies and Today They Remember

Today was the memorial service for the donors to the gross anatomy lab at the medical school and so, I was asked to offer this opening prayer:

They could not see, but yet their eyes gave you insight.
They could not speak, but their voices whispered to you to learn all you could.
They could not move, but their generosity moves even the most jaded hearts.

That first day, I walked among you as an observer, a rube, a non-student and a non-scientist. This is the closest I will ever be to medical school and I am not envious of one of you. I watched you uncover and meet these unnamed people that day and make your first clumsy cuts. I watched you cut through the layers of skin and fat and eventually open body cavities. I grew in respect for you as medical students and for those who have gone before you, like my colleague Fr. Pat, who was brave enough to take the course himself some years ago.

But most of all, I began to respect and even, like these donors, these teachers, who cheat death just an moment more, by giving you an opportunity to learn from their now stilled bodies. I asked myself if I might have that same spirit of generosity? After all, as a campus minister, I often call on people to give back–to the poor, to the homeless. Why would I not encourage an even more intimate gift to the students we serve?

The lab is often a stressful place, especially during exam time and I watched as you entered those tense exams fluttering from station to station–or, better put today, from teacher to teacher. Each donor, provided a glimpse into the glorious human body. It was during that time that I hoped that an after-exam meal, or a stress aid might provide a moment of relaxation for you. But as I kept vigil in the halls or the lounge during exams, I knew down deep, that these first teachers had given you all you would need. Their gift is more than enough, more than any staff member, be they Ph.D, M.D. or even campus minister could ever provide–at least while they still have a heartbeat.

They even sacrificed their privacy, allowing you to probe and touch their most intimate parts. They have given every inch of their bodies to you as gift.

Their deaths are now no longer quiet ones, no they rescind a quiet and tasteful burial in favor of hope, the hope that they have served you in this initial journey with their body that has now been given for you and they ask for you to simply do your work in memory of them. Perhaps you’ll remember your first teacher’s ear when a child has an earache, or recall their hand when you treat an athlete with nerve damage or an old woman with arthritis.

But this semester, I believe, has not merely been a test of bone and tissue and nerves but rather, it has been a test of grace. And you have had great models of grace for your first teachers.

As our time together closes,

“Now there is no body but yours. No hands but yours. No feet but yours.
Yours are now the eyes which will look on with compassion for the sick;
Yours are the legs which will walk to places you may not wish to go–to burn victims and car accidents and little kids with leukemia. Yours are the hands with which will heal and dare I say, bless the lives of those who seek your healing–especially the poor, the lonely, and the dying.” (paraphrase of Teresa of Avila)

May these first teachers, now merely a memory, continue to inspire you to become that gentle graceful presence to your future patients and, especially to one another.

And thank you for letting me be just a small part of your journey this semester. And as we remember these first and greatest teachers let us join together in a moment of silence.

Dear readers, please keep these donors, students, staff members and future donors in your prayers. Eternal rest grant to all the faithful departed, let perpetual light shine upon them and through the mercy of God, may they rest in peace. Amen.

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1 comment

  1. Wendy Haylett

    Thank you so much for this post. It is beautifully written and expresses giving, gratitude, and looking inside for both (like Naikan practice I practice in Jodo Shinshu Buddhist style). This giving, and our call to gratitude, is all around us from everything and everyone that helps us – not just in this situation as medical donors and physicians – but in all of life. We are rarely aware of it in our busy lives.

    This post was especially meaningful for me. My father donated his body to a medical school in Ohio, on his death in 2006. I have decided to do the same thing.

    A deep bow to you and Amen to this post.

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