Friday, June 12, 2009

Remembering Body Donors and Families: Thank You, Thank You, Thank You in Poetry, Music, Food, Photos, and Song

It's hard to believe that medical students could find the time and energy – and would care enough – to do this: plan and carry out a first-class, emotionally powerful Memorial to body donors and their families.

But UMass Medical School students, class of 2012, did it. This was a Memorial that deserves the capital M. My wife Barbara and I attended the Memorial held at the UMMS Worcester Foundation Campus in Shrewsbury, MA.

It was Saturday, May 2, my 71st birthday. Since I am a future donor, we went to the Memorial more out of obligation than anything else. Knowing how busy medical students are, our expectations were, to say the least, modest. It was to be a drive-by nod on our way to celebrate my birthday with lunch and then on to a party at our daughter Misha's in Connecticut.

Well, the Memorial turned out to be the main event of my birthday (especially since two of our nine grandkids, Mia (7) and Max (2) were also celebrating birthdays, and completely upstaged me. Me! The patriarch! )

The large auditorium was filled to overflowing with the families of people who had donated their bodies. With every seat filled, people stood in back and along side walls. I thought: How can everybody in town know that this was the in place to be today except for me, the birthday boy!

The students demolished the first-year-medical-student stereotype of emotionless sleep-walkers exhausted from a year of “ingestion and expurgation” of medical facts. Their empathy for the donors whose bodies they had learned from was on full display in music, song, original poetry, and personal reflection.

The Memorial started with music, Sara Barmettler on the violin and Elizabeth Herrup on the cello, playing “Twelve Duets for Violin and Cello,” by Mozart. Next, Megan Furnari welcomed the packed auditorium, saying that we were there “celebrating the memories of people no longer with us.”

The Memorial was in two parts. In the first, medical students reflected on their experiences with the donors, what they learned from them, and how they thought it would help make them better doctors. In the second part, donor family members shared memories.

Megan Furnari told how the death of her brother allowed her to see grace and, after profound sadness, find peace. “Those no longer with you in body, leave us many gifts,” she said. In his poem, “Firefly,” Joel Bradley said that “we see it best with eyes closed.”

Joel Bradlee thanked UMass Medical School for encouraging medical students to “think about the lives of donors.” He said that “not all schools do.” He read his poem, “A Mistake,” speaking to a woman whose body he is about to dissect. He marvels at “what these hands have to teach me.” He sees her as so alive that he “cannot but wonder if there was a mistake and your eyes suddenly snap open.”

Kara Keating-Bench spoke of appreciating relationships and how the “white lady” she dissected reminded her of her grandmother. She said that in anatomy lab, shared memories of her grandmother became all mixed up with cranial nerves and her white lady. She could not separate the two.

Then the lights were dimmed for a candle-lighting ceremony. While Staci Edelstein read off the names of donors, 77 in all, a candle was lit for each while their likenesses appeared on the auditorium's giant screen. 28 medical students, each holding a lit candle formed a solemn procession as Karen Billmers performed her own composition, “Slow Air.”

Next came remembrances of donor family members. Elizabeth remembered her dad, Edward, saying that “he broke the mold for the things he said and did.” She read a poem she had written in honor of her father, “In Memory of Edward.”

Tina said, “My mother was a pisser,” using a colorful expression that brought Barbara's hand to her mouth in shock but which mostly brought understanding smiles. “She was 89 and still getting her nails done, lime-green,” Tina said. “I hope you had fun with the old bird with the lime-green fingernails.”

Dana spoke of her father, a family-practice physician who had donated his body. “He was an old-fashioned country doctor that everybody called 'Doc,'” she said. “He came to the office after hours. He made house calls at all hours of the night. He shared all the heartbreak and grief with patients.” 'Doc' was the author of “Where Does It Hurt? Life of a New England Country Doctor.” She said that of all that her dad achieved, “he was most proud of his final gift.”

The closing song was the sweet “Seasons of Love,” directed by Kristy Webster and sung by a chorus of 12 medical students and with Eben Lichtman on piano. Like everything that had come before, it was beautiful, heartfelt, and music befitting a moving Memorial with a capital M.

“That was just beautiful,” I said afterwards to Dianne Person, Director of the Anatomical Gift Program. “It was like watching a professional production. I can't believe you were able to pull this off.”

“The medical students did it all themselves,” she said, firmly declining to take any credit.

After the Memorial, we were all invited into an adjoining large reception hall for “refreshments.” I expected coffee and a few donuts and pastries that I would prefer to do without. Instead, I found a banquet fit for the Queen of England – and fitting tribute to the donors whose photos and bios were displayed along one whole wall.

The buffet took up another whole wall of the vast reception hall -- a long color-splashed display of salads, fruits, sandwiches, veggies, dips and baked goods. It was a work of culinary art. All of the food was donated by large and small businesses alike in the Shrewsbury and Worcester area.

Dianne Person and Mike Doyle, the manager of the anatomy lab, remembered that it was my birthday. They presented me with a nice UMass Medical School tee-shirt. Dianne
took this picture of Barbara and me showing off my gift. Thank you, Dianne and Mike!

The banquet was also a time for donor family members and medical students to mingle. However, this was no surfacy social. People eyed each other intently. They asked pointed questions. Everybody was on a free-for-all quest for answers to questions they could not, as human beings, help having.

Medical students looked for their donors among the photos and for their families in the reception hall. Donor families looked for the medical students. Donor families wanted to reach closure for loss and medical students wanted to satisfy stubborn curiosity about the donors as people.

“That's her,” a female medical student said excitedly, pointing to a donor photo. “That's her. I know it's her. I can tell by her hair.”

And she soon hooked up with her donor's family. This happened frequently as medical students and donor families met, shared lunch, and spoke of their dramatic common bond. There were many hugs and not a few tears. Other family members preferred to remain anonymous.

A gentleman at my table looked vaguely familiar. I kept looking at him but couldn't place him. When we both got up from the table, I went over to him and said, “Do we know each other?”


“Skip, from the Worcester Tennis Club?”


“I didn't recognize you with a suit on.”

“I didn't recognize you with a suit on.”

Either we(you too, Skip) are losing it or context is everything.

Anyway, it was Skip Hall whom I see regularly at the Worcester Tennis Club. Skip was at the Memorial in honor of his sister Evelyn who had donated her body to UMass Medical School. He led me over to her photo and bio where he is pictured in the photo here. We started talking about Evelyn, her life, and why she became a donor. I was surprised to learn that she had been a teacher in Kenya for four years, 1970-74. I was also a teacher in Kenya, (1963-65). I found this to be an almost eerie coincidence.

My curiosity about Evelyn was piqued and I pelted poor Skip with questions. After a while, he said, “Tell you what. Let me put you in touch with my niece Elizabeth. She knows more than I do. I'm sure she will answer your questions.”

He did and she did. It so happens that Elizabeth Pollak, the niece of Skip Hall and daughter of Evelyn Josephine Hall Russell is a physician and pathologist. Except for the similarity of her name to mine, Dr. Pollak would seem qualified to answer my questions about her mom.

Dr. Pollak, who prefers that I call her Betsy, first dissected a donated body as a medical student in 1972. As a pathologist, she has done many autopsies and supervised residents doing autopsies for many years. She said she was very disappointed that she was unable to attend the Memorial for her mother and other donors. “I would have loved to meet the medical students and give them an old-timer's perspective, and hear what it is like for them to encounter the stories about the people they dissected and their families.”

Evelyn Josephine Hall Russell was born in Philadelphia, PA, on December 21, 1917 and grew up in Worcester, MA. She graduated from Mt. Holyoke College in 1940 with a Zoology. In 1941, she married Sargent Russell and they lived on farms producing all of their own meat, milk, poultry, and vegetables while raising seven children. In 1957, while pregnant with her seventh child, she received a Masters in Natural Sciences. The couple divorced in 1961.

Evelyn lived most of her adult life in Amherst, MA, where she worked as a research assistant at the Amherst College biology department for five years and as a foreign student advisor at the University of Massachusetts for six years. From there she went to Kenya, first under the auspices of the Bahai faith and then as a member of the U.S. Peace Corps. In her four years in Kenya, she was headmistress of a secondary school.

During the Vietnam War, which she vehemently opposed, she refused to pay taxes that would support the war. But when her tax protest got her in “serious trouble” with federal authorities, Dr. Pollak said, her mom went into “voluntary poverty.” She decided that she “just wouldn't earn enough money to pay taxes.”

Toward the end of her life, Evelyn lived in Orange and Greenfield, MA. She passed away of natural causes on February 8, 2008 at the age of 91. Since then, her body has been at the anatomy lab of the UMass Medical School.

An obituary, prepared by her children, summed up their mother this way:

“For her whole life, Evelyn loved all live creatures great and small. As a child she collected insects and butterflies, frogs and salamanders and hamsters and guinea pigs. She was an avid Girl Scout both as a member and later as counselor and leader. She enjoyed traveling anywhere, sitting by the ocean, fixing up used furniture salvaged from the dump, eating lobster, and visiting with her family both recent and remote. She was an avid genealogist and gathered reams of information about the family ancesters. Most of all, she loved music, and she continued to share her talents singing and playing her harmonica wherever she went.

“Evelyn lived by her adventure motto, accepting adversity with grace, energy, a chuckle and a song. She sacrificed physical comfort and material goods to be true to her goal to minimize her personal use of the earth's resources, and shared what little she had with those less fortunate than she with the rare generosity of one who gives until it hurts. There was integrity throughout her life of service to others, compassion for the underprivileged and a vigorous opposition to discrimination, hatred, and war. She always walked her talk, demonstrating for civil rights, going door-to-door fighting for housing rights, campaigning for peace candidates, and working with international peace efforts. She was a kind woman who had a goal, who lived for it and left the world a better place than she found it.”

Evelyn's adventure motto was: "An adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered.” In keeping with her motto, she up and went to Kenya to teach and do good. In the photo, she is shown in Kenya with a friend. No doubt Africa was inconvenient. Yet an eye-opening experience of a lifetime would seem to make her going to Africa “rightly considered.” (I can vouch for that. For how Africa changed my thinking and my life, click here.)

Following are some of my questions and Dr. Pollak's answers:

What kind of person was your mother?

“Fiercely independent, to a fault actually but as with many faults and good qualities, they are merely the flip side of each other. She lived her life the way she wanted to, which could be challenging for her children, especially near the end when she resisted assistance until she had been rescued by the fire department three times and they refused to go out again.”

Why did she donate her body?

“Well, I think number one, she had a drive to be useful in life and wanted to extend that to her death. Number two, she didn't want to be a burden on any of her family and that was a way to take care of the funeral/burial expenses quite expeditiously. Number three, going along with her independence, it was a way of staying IN CONTROL. My mother was a bit of a control freak. This way, there would be no discussion about burial vs. cremation or where to spread the ashes or whatever. SHE DECIDED!! And we decided to honor her wishes down to the last piece of dust. We are looking forward to attending the memorial at the burial site in October.”

How did her family react to her decision to donate her body?

“She told us ahead of time by several years of her decision, and gave us a chance to react, but not really object. I think most of us were extremely proud of her decision, and yes grateful because it did make things simple for us. We think it is entirely in keeping with who she is, and the fact that her name will be on a granite slab as a donee for all eternity ... well, that's pretty cool.... As a physician myself, I was especially proud of her, grateful and actually exhilarated by the idea of the gift going full circle kind of thing. My mother taught me dissection before anyone else did; she gave me the gift of the love of biology, living creatures, what's inside. I could think of no more fitting end for my mother's remains, and if her soul was nearby during the process, she would have guided the fingers and scalpels of her dissectors, and whispered the answers in their ears during their practicum.”

Evelyn was very close to her grandmother, Mary Cora Davis Winship. So special was their relationship that she kept words written by her grandmother close to her heart all of her life. The words that were a lifelong inspiration and guiding light for Evelyn Josephine Hall Russell, are as follows:

We should all endeavor to live so that when dead there will be something left to tell that we lived. How much unhappiness and degradation arise from idleness and want of a fixed purpose, God only knows. Why do we not, arousing the power which is slumbering within, fix our minds upon some object, then work earnestly and cheerfully for it. We should not think lightly of small beginnings, for they often lead to great ends. Flake by flake, this vast continent was covered with a mantle of beautiful snow. With stone upon stone, the pyramids, those monuments of ancient art were built. Thousands of examples come to us through the long ages of the past, bidding us to live for something. How much there is for us to do. How immense our fields of action, as we cannot even live without influencing others. Let that influence be elevating and beneficial. Tiny acts of kindness, attention to the wants of others will bring their own reward.

Let us be up and doing.

With a heart for any fate.

Still achieving, still pursuing.

Learn to labor and to wait.

Shhh, do you hear something? I do.
I may be hearing things...
but that sure sounds like a harmonica to me. Evelyn?

 E-Books by George Pollock

"State Kid: Hero of Literacy" is fiction based on his  real-life experiences  growing up in foster homes; "Last Laughs," is the true story of how five foster kids (he and four younger siblings) found their way in life and each other. "Killers: Surprises in a Maximum Security Prison," is the story of the author being locked up for 23 hours with killers in a maximum security prison;  "I, Cadaver" is about the author's postmortem adventures and mischief in the anatomy lab at UMass Medical School. “A Beautiful Story” demonstrates the art and process of creative writing as a 16-year-old boy goes all out to write a story good enough to get him into an exclusive college -- on full scholarship; and "A Long, Happy, Healthy Life," which lays out what to do (and not do)  to live the title every single day.

Labels: ,