Gross Anatomy Hackey Sack

So today out first year Medical and Dental students took their first big exam in gross anatomy. For longtime readers, you’ll remember that each year I give out these little stress dolls to the students to keep them loose:

He doesn’t look like ME at all. But isn’t he cute? Scrubs, big teeth for the dental students and he’s seriously helpful.

So why do I do this? Well, I know my role as the chaplain of the gross anatomy lab is basically to keep people calm and loose. All of these students have been the smartest student in their class since they were like…well…five years old! And let’s face facts, each time I walk in there I know that this is the closest I’ll ever be to the admissions office of a Medical or Dental School.

But we all have gifts and I know that I have something to offer everyone I serve–even these super smart medical and dental students.

I disarm them with the stress guy–he’s goofy and fun. I chuck them to them as they pass by and it gets them to calm down and simply relax. Once in awhile someone takes things way too seriously and says “no thanks” or “I’m good” and they dive back into their notes. And that’s cool too. For me, the experience is a serious study in human behavior. Some folks have their iPod in ears and they don’t want anyone to get in their zone. Others are mixing it up and telling jokes. Others are drilling each other with names of muscles and arteries. It’s amazing to watch.

Today, I really felt like the chaplain when the second wave of Medical Students showed up for their test. They have to wait for the first section to finish and they get really antsy. So stress guy is a big help to a good deal of them. Last year one student set up a little game where they tried to knock one stress guy doll down with another one. But this year’s group took the cake with stress relieving creativity:

We had Jugglers
We Played Hackey Sack with Stress Guy
He even became a fashion statement in Scrubswear

All in all, it was so much fun. But at the same time, I knew my role and served the needs of the students creatively. And it gets them to open up a bit more to me as well. It even opens them up to one another. One dental student decapitated his stress guy when we were running low on them so that his colleague could use the head while he used the body. He looked at me and said:

“See! I shared! We’re really a team here!” I laughed heartily with them and it brought everyone’s stress level down even further.

A female student who I won’t name to protect her anonymity, started to worry as the time got close to the test. I stood with her for a few minutes and simply comforted her fears. I reminded her that she’s really smart and always has been and just because everyone else here is smart it doesn’t mean that she won’t be successful. The first test is very comprehensive, but it’s not incredibly difficult, according to the other students I’ve been with. I reminded her of that and made her take a deep breath and made her squeeze the heck out of the stress guy who she just loved.

At one point I entered the exam area and she was sitting at a rest stop. She gave me a knowing glance and then a small smile. At the test’s conclusion, she was one of the first people I saw and she thanked me for helping her stay calm. She had thought that she had done pretty well. And I’m proud to just play a small role in that.

Kevin, who works in the lab, was watching the Hackey Sack game break out. An athlete himself, who knows how important exercise is to relieve stress, looked at me and said: “Y’know, anything you can do to help them de-stress is awesome. That little thing was a great idea.”

The lab’s director, Dr. Dannenhoffer is a big fan of “those little cupie dolls” as he calls them and has praised me for the idea before. But today, he said to me, “OH good! You’re here, calming them down today!” That really made me feel like a necessary part of the team. Dr. DiLugos another member of the staff said, “Hope you don’t have to pick anyone up off the floor today–but I’m glad you’re here just in case you do!” Then we laughed a bit.

There’s an old spiritual maxim that I try to live by and it is simply this:

“Ministry is about doing small things with great joy and thoughtfulness. And then praying that God provides the rest.”

And today friends, God did just that.

For them… and for me.

This is my body

I’m sitting in the medical school building keeping vigil as the first group of students take their gross anatomy final. They’ll be three sections today on an incredibly cold and snowy day.

It dawned on me today that the students gratitude towards the people who donated their bodies to the school has made an overwhelming impression on me. They all wear pins that say “our greatest teachers” on their scrubs. And indeed that is who these people have been for them.

It dawned on me that these donors are giving them a gift that no M.D. or Ph.D. could offer them, at least not while they still have a heartbeat.

It is another moment of Eucharist, a word that means thanksgiving. These teachers continue to cheat death, just for a moment longer, giving their body to another to learn and become able to cure and heal and save. Perhaps someone here makes a huge discovery that cures some fatal disease? It is here with these first teachers that it all starts to take shape.

For we Christians we hear the words “this is my body” and it has a very definite connotation for us. But today, I hear those words with a new kind of sweetness, where the consumption is based on knowledge and technique. All is grace and a free gift.

This test is not merely one of knowledge for the students but it is more of a test of grace. That measure, where one can respect the very body of another, placed before them as grace, as offering for their learning must indeed be a great motivator to learn, to consume all that they can. These people have said those same words that we hear in the Eucharistic prayer, “This is my body, given for you. Now do this in memory of me.”

We ask God’s blessing on the brains of these students today. May they become what they have received this semester.

Med School Mornings

I’ve been avoiding heading back to the gross anatomy lab the past few weeks, not because I was uncomfortable around dead bodies, but more because I was uncomfortable around the live ones.

It makes me feel awkward to not be a doctor and to be around med and dental school students who are learning about the human body. I often would feel useless, especially when students don’t “get” what it means to be a Campus Minister. That first day one student asked me if he was making the right kind of cut into his cadaver. Another asked me “Is this a ligament or a muscle?” Fr. Pat, the priest and director of our North Campus Newman Center, has it a bit easier. He actually took the class for a year. He gets a scalpel out and makes cuts! When I’d tell them that I’m not a doctor one or two, actually looked at me like “Well, what the hell are you doing here, then?” And that’s an understandable reaction.

So I had to think about how to be involved with the students beyond the “I’ll catch you if you pass out” phase. Or even the “I’m here if you need to talk phase.” I had to consider my own gifts and talents. I had to consider the students needs.

And I had to not be a pain in the ass to anyone.

So I made “stress guys.” What are stress guys?

Isn’t he cute? And he doesn’t look like me at all! =) He actually has a tuft of purple hair, but mine fell off recently. You can make these yourself with your own logo at National Pen.

He’s a doctor too! See his scrubs! Big teeth for the dental students. And he serves a purpose! He’s a stress ball.

This past Friday, the students had their first exam. So I woke up at the God awful hour of 6:30 (I recognize one 6:30 per day–that one is not it!) to get over to the lab before the students were lining up at 7:45 for an 8AM test.

As they walked in notes in hand, fast-paced and tight as all hell, I threw or handed them “the stress guy.” Reactions were all positive! They ranged from “He’s so cute!” (mostly the females). To “Wow that’s such a great idea!” One dental student said, “This guy is awesome! It’s a shame I’m going to destroy him!” Many laughed. One female student had the best line, “These are so great and they are really helping all of us! Way to go, St, Joe’s. Mike, we have another test on Tuesday. Candy might work there! I’m just sayin!'”

Now that’s a student that I’d like to get to know better. Snarky and smart. And I already bought the candy!

Even the head of the lab, Dr. Dannenhoffer had a positive reaction. “Hey, they like these Cupie dolls!” he bellowed.

My favorite comment came from a student who is involved with us in Campus Ministry already. “Thanks for getting up so early just to give these to us! That means a lot to me. We need your prayers today too.”

I had to replenish my “stress guy stash” after the first section had gone into their exam. I walked across the campus back to my office and as I did an overwhelming feeling of peace came over me. The sun was still rising over the campus and I just stopped and felt such gratitude. It was a feeling of being useful and sharing a bit of my own helpfulness and support. It was also goofy enough to break the tension. I’m sure the students who don’t remember my name will at least remember me as “The Stress Guy.” The counselor/spiritual director side of me knew that sometimes students don’t need an hour of sitting down with me. Some just need a bit of a tension release. The preacher in me felt the spirit of St Francis (or whoever said) say “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words!” I felt smart, and amongst medical students who are obviously brilliant people, I felt amazingly intuitive and intelligent.

But it’s not about me, it’s about these students.

Being on a secular campus is tough. Nobody goes to UB for the Campus Ministry as they might at Notre Dame or Fordham or Catholic U. So it’s up to me to get them to discover us. Numbers at mass are up this year. So that’s a plus. But it’s not about numbers, it’s about influencing a campus with the spirit of the living, breathing God. The God who breaks our tension. The God who occasionally makes us laugh. The God who is restless and cannot bear to not reconnect with us. The God who stretches out his arms in love and calls us to do the same.

Today, pray for all students and campus ministers that they might be able to influence one another and live in the dynamic tension of University Life.

Would You Donate Your Body to Science?

I turned the corner on my tour of the gross anatomy lab at UB’s med school and there he was: a nude cadaver on a slab of steel in the back. He was an older man, a bit chubby, bearded and peaceful. I was less afraid than I thought I would be and after attending the student’s human gross anatomy memorial service, I was almost eager to head to the lab to see how someone like me could be of service to the students.

We talk a lot about how death holds no power over us as Catholics. We believe that Jesus indeed defeats death and opens eternal life for all of humanity with his passion, death and resurrection. But I do think that perhaps even our bodies might be able to transcend death, contributing to life even beyond our physical death.

Students talked about how they began touching the bodies almost fearfully, making that first cut anxiously before learning so much about every part of the body. For some it is a frightening experience and I’m sure some call it quits, realizing that they don’t have the stomach for medicine.

Others have a different experience: gratitude. The people who offer their body to the school have indeed given a great gift and perhaps it’s one that they are not all that comfortable with when they make the decision to do it. After all, their families can no longer touch and feel and experience being touched by them anymore. Why should someone else have that privilege? A daughter of a patient in a letter to the students mentioned her mother being uncomfortable with certain parts of her body and now they were all on display for some stranger to probe.

The students are impressive. Cadavers get named, perhaps not their own names, but the desire to interact with these people is strong and far from disrespectful.

Many of my colleagues and I have talked about where we’d like to be buried, or perhaps we’d prefer cremation. Another expressed a desire to be returned to the earth as soon as possible, so he could start contributing to the growth of the earth once again.

“Let those worms get at me!” he roared as the rest of us squirmed and I nearly lost my pasta.

Another sat quietly, eating his dinner over this unappetizing dinner conversation. We finally had to ask him directly,

“John, what would you like to happen with your body?”

He looked at us blankly and said without blinking an eye:

“I don’t give a crap what you do with my body–I’ll be dead!”

And that is more of where I fall on the matter of the subject as well. I don’t really care.

What I do care about is that someone remembers me as an altruistic person, someone who cared about life and who cared for students and other young adults and who loved his family and his church. Perhaps my letter will be read at one of these memorial services one day and I will be able to cheat death just one final time, living beyond that final breath, giving to another even when my heart ceases beating, healing the anxiousness of a newbie med student who needs to be able to touch me so that he or she may touch another and bring healing, cures and hope to others.

Let us pray for those who have given the gift of death, the gift of what we often think of as a useless dead body to students. May they be remembered for their altruism and for their love of education. I love that idea.

And it sure beats the worms.

Why Priests Should Wear Their Collars…and why lay ministers need something to identify themselves like it

Earlier this week I went to a campus function with Fr. Pat, the pastor of our North Campus. It’s rare that I see him without his collar on, as he wears it often, especially when on “official business.”

We walked into the gross anatomy lab, as I was getting a tour of the facility from Fr. Pat and a young man was getting ready to leave. As we were about to turn the corner the young man stopped us, out of the blue.

“Excuse me, Father…”

Fr Pat turned towards him and the young man broke down in tears within seconds.

“I just found out that my grandma died about an hour ago and I wondered if you would pray with me?”

I excused myself and let Fr. Pat and the young man sit together to talk and pray for a few minutes, sensing that he wasn’t inviting me to prayer but that “the collar” called him towards an identifiable minister.

We just happened to be there that day. But had Fr. Pat not been wearing his collar or had I been by myself, that opportunity would not have presented itself. That symbol of ministry, the symbol of priesthood, the identifiable sign to this young man that said, “I can ask this guy to pray for me…I NEED him” was welcomed and not abhorred.

I could have been the campus minister there all semester, but for those not readily aware of me, or of my position (which I fear is most students, especially in the med school–one because I’m new and two, because many aren’t regular churchgoers) would never have dared to ask me the same question.

Jesus asked us to “go out to all the world and tell the good news” and to “not hide our light under a bushel basket” but for the unaware, or the agnostic, or the sporadic attendee, we all need to be welcome signs of Christ’s presence. For priests an easy way to accomplish this task is to wear the collar. For nuns, a habit perhaps (although most have “kicked the habit”–however many young nuns are trying to be more intentional about wearing theirs and some like the Felician Sisters here wear a very identifiable pectoral cross) does the trick as well. But for us lay ministers…it’s more difficult. I’m pretty vocal about who I am, introducing myself to all I meet as the Campus Minister, but it’s not as easily recognized. I’m considering getting a golf shirt with “campus minister” scrawled on the crest, maybe with a cross? Maybe I wear a cross around my neck over my clothes? Deacons have an identifiable lapel pin, but even that “whispers” their presence, especially to the young. Many deacons like to keep their presence as lay people in a parish and have found that “looking like a lay person” outside of the liturgy often makes them “more approachable” to many. However, I would argue that this is true only to those who are already initiated into parish life. What about when you head off to do prison ministry, or head to the hospital? For deacons, I wonder if their diagonal stole might serve more than a liturgical purpose, even over street clothes?

A friend of mine was a volunteer down at ground zero after September 11th and he reported something similar. That symbol of the priesthood invited him to be a presence for many. When workers found two vertebrae in the wreckage, the priest was immediately found and a makeshift prayer service for those remains occurred–at the workers request.

So I’d like to hear your stories, priests and ministers…for those who wear their collars, tell me the good and the bad of wearing it. For women religious, how do you make yourself present to those you minister to? Campus and other lay ministers, how much harder is this for you? For those in the marketing or fashion field, what might you suggest for us lay Catholic ministers?

Maybe our friend Peacebang, whose blog should be on your must-read list might have an idea or two as well?

Don’t misunderstand….this is not about recognition in terms of haughtyness…but rather it’s about serving the needs of those seeking someone in their time of need. With few priests around and some not wearing collars, I wonder how many opportunities fall by the wayside?

Who will anoint the sick and the dying?

Deacon Greg asks this important question…and gives this example from the Washington Post

“He said ‘I’m a dying man, and I want to see a priest,'” Mary Baus remembered. “All they said was that they didn’t have one.”

Baus survived, but his wife said it was a traumatic event that left both her and her husband shaken.

“There used to be a chaplain available if you needed him,” she said. “Or you could get a priest to come to the hospital. Now it’s not for sure that you will see anyone.”

Finding a priest to be at the bedside of the dying is becoming harder and harder across the country. The shortage of priests has been a problem for years, but its implications become most clear at dire times for the ill.

I agree with Deacon Greg who says that Deacons would be great here to use as ministers of the sacrament. My thought is perhaps even a new clerical position intentionally called “chaplain” that could administer anointing of the sick and the Eucharist only–a bet a lot of Catholic doctors would sign up.

It’s an important position. I remember when I worked in Calvary Hospital as a volunteer with pastoral care, all people really wanted was someone to talk to and someone who could pray with them in their dark moments. It would have been great to have some kind of ritual that we could have done together on a regular basis at a moment’s notice or to be able to administer the anointing of the sick. I’m sure it’s a question that will come up at the med school with me often. It’s going to take the laity to really speak up about this.

So what are you waiting for? Start writing your letters to the local bishop or to the USCCB.

Memento Mori

At every cemetery’s entrance, Fr Pat Keleher tells me, these words are inscribed: Memento Mori (Remember the Dead). Today I went with the good Father over to the medical school for their Memorial Service for those who donated their bodies to the Human Gross Anatomy Lab.

Indeed it was a moving day filled with an outpouring of gratitude for these people who have allowed these students access to their bodies, so that they might better understand and learn about the intricacies of the human body.

Books and models just don’t tell the whole story when it comes to the human body. Being able to see a touch and probe an actual human body allows these students to gain not just hands on experience with the body but to examine and see how disease effects the body as well.

An anonymous letter from one student said it perfectly: “The gift of these bodies makes Human Gross Anatomy truly ‘human.'”

I’ve never really thought about this type of gift before, but it truly is one of the more altruistic things one can do. The overwhelming sentiment of the day was that these people had this type of altruism in mind. The letters read by students from family members expressed that very clearly. Their generosity went well beyond, heck, it even literally transcends the grave, avoiding it altogether. Truly death could not hold their gift of self, a gift that might transmit life to another.

I decided to be a donor of my organs some time ago, but now I think I have been inspired enough to consider the good I can do beyond this life with my old bag o’ bones.

Besides, it’s not going to be of any use to me once I return home to God.

Next semester I plan to volunteer at the lab as someone who assists the students when they get queasy or uneasy or even come to the realization that they’re not cut out for medicine. As a minister to medical students it provides me with an opportunity to help them get in touch with their own existential questions, which undoubtedly will come up when time is spent amongst the dead.

Pray for these students today and pray for those who help them be the best doctors they can be.

For even death cannot hold back our desire to give life. And in gross anatomy labs around the country, we see a place where “death delights in helping the living.”