In poignant tradition, medical and health students honor anatomy donors and their families

Each year, the Ceremony of Gratitude at the Warren Alpert Medical School pays tribute to the lives and generosity of those who volunteered to donate their bodies to enable medical education and research.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Every year, future medical providers gather around dissection tables in the Warren Alpert Medical School’s anatomy lab, examining organs, bones, muscles and nerves, and traversing blood vessels across the landscape that is the human body. 

These medical students engage in a particularly intimate educational experience that provides vital knowledge beyond textbook sketches. And yet the experience would be simply impossible without the selfless gifts of those who choose to participate in Brown’s Anatomical Gift Program. Through the program, people over age 18 can arrange to donate their bodies, after death, to the school to enable medical education and research.

And at the end of each academic year at the medical school, a Ceremony of Gratitude brings donor families and anatomy students together to honor the generous spirit of the donors.  

“Anatomy is a really big part of our first year, just because it’s a very unique experience that is shared among people in medicine,” said Emily Franco, a first-year medical student at Brown who spearheaded a committee of 12 students that organized this year’s late-spring ceremony, a years-long tradition.

The event did not happen in 2020, given the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and was held virtually in 2021. This year, donors’ families and students were again able to convene in person. Students in M.D., biomedical master’s and physician assistant programs read aloud letters about their personal experiences with anatomy. They also offered musical interludes featuring instrumental and vocal performances.

The students’ reflections were grounded in sentiments shared by most of their classmates. The words, “grateful,” “thankful” and “honored” were featured prominently in a word cloud project meant to capture and share medical students’ feelings toward the donors.

“We are part of a very small population of people who have been granted such intimate access to an experience so human,” Nouran Ibrahim, a member of the M.D. Class of 2025, told the audience. 

An essential part of medical education

The ceremony enables students to gain closure on their time studying anatomy and to contemplate the value of the donors’ decisions, the event organizers said. At the same time, families can celebrate their loved ones’ memories and appreciate the significance of their contributions, said Dale Ritter, the anatomy course director at Brown’s medical school. 

In her letter, Franco reflected on questions about her donor.

“When we studied the brain, I felt like I was holding [the donor’s] whole lives in my hands — all their memories, thoughts, feelings,” she read. “I wondered what those memories were. I wondered how we were so fortunate to be the recipients of such a selfless gift and sacrifice.” 

Each donor’s gift "is a testament to their character, to their passion for education, to their selflessness,” she added.

In the 50 or more hours medical students spend in anatomy class, they become well acquainted with the physical attributes of the bodies they study, Ritter said, but they don’t learn about the donors beyond basic information like age and cause of death. The ceremony, he said, is a time to acknowledge the donors’ character as well as their experiences and lifetime impacts. 

The Anatomical Gift Program provides invaluable education not only for Brown medical students but also those in the physician assistant program at Bryant University, the physical and occupational therapy programs at the University of Rhode Island and those in an undergraduate course at Providence College, according to Ritter.

“I hope I can say we’re all humbled by [these gifts],” said Olivia Nyberg, member of the M.D. Class of 2025 at Brown. She added that her grandmother donated her body to a similar program and acknowledged her “spirit of generosity, sacrifice and humility with which every individual had given their gift.”

Honoring tremendous generosity

Each of this year’s 52 donors was acknowledged by their first name as students passed in front of the audience and placed roses into designated vases. While the ceremony can be sad for families, Ritter said he hoped that for most relatives, hearing remarks from the students, “reinforced their feeling that what their loved one did was a good thing.” 

For ceremony attendee Katie Gallogly Lowell, the event was a way to honor her mother and father-in-law, both of whom chose to become donors. They were both family-oriented and selfless people, she said. Lowell’s mother had been unable to receive a wake and funeral because of the pandemic.

“Having this ceremony, in a way, is a huge part of the closure,” Lowell said. The ceremony “was so much more than I was anticipating. It was very lovely.”

Lowell also was reunited at the event with her mother’s hospice physician: Dr. Edward Martin, the chief medical officer at Hope Health and a professor of medicine and clinician educator at the Warren Alpert Medical School. In an address during the event, Martin talked about the value for medical providers of knowing patients as whole people, not just as their illness, and the lessons on gratitude that he’s gleaned from some of his patients.

He reminded the audience to “let the people close to you — your family, your friends — know how thankful you are for having them in your life. For those family members who join us tonight, we can’t thank you enough for this tremendous generosity...You should be so proud of your loved ones.”

In addition to keeping the memories from the celebration, family members could take home letters written by other first-year medical students in which they expressed the meaningfulness of the donors’ gift.

Toward the end of the ceremony, several family members recalled their relatives’ excitement about contributing to the program, their involvement in health care during their lives, and how much they’re missed, evoking laughter, smiles and tears from the audience.

“I’m so glad that the families were willing to come up and share stories, because I think that’s what everyone needed to make it all very real,” Franco said.

Alex Philips, a graduate of Brown’s Program for Liberal Medical Education who is now a first-year medical student, said that “having a ceremony that honored the sheer amount of learning that took place, and dedication and generosity that our body donors had, was incredible.”

As the evening drew a commemorative close to the donors’ final roles in education, students viewed the experience as one essential but early step in their own lifelong journeys in medicine.

“When it comes to your loved ones’ impact in the world, our future patients can assure you this moment is far from the end,” said Soneida DeLine-Caballero, a student in Brown’s Gateways Program biomedical master’s degree program. 

“I hope you find solace in the fact that your loved ones will be saving lives in the future,” Franco said. “They have laid the foundation for our entire medical careers.”

The story is adapted from a Medicine@Brown feature by Emilija Sagaityte, a Brown Class of 2022 graduate who will begin studies at the Warren Alpert Medical School this fall.