Friday, May 16, 2014

Honoring Body Donors: Medical Students and Families Commemorate Anatomical Donors.

The auditorium at UMass Medical School in Worcester, Mass. was packed. Families were there to remember loved ones who had donated their bodies for medical research. Medical students, class of 2017, who had learned from the bodies of these donors, filled the upper balcony.

As a show of their appreciation,  the medical students had organized this donor commemoration. In the photo below, after a reading of the names of donors followed by a moment of silence, the medical students gave donors  a rousing round of applause.

My wife Barbara and I were at the invitation-only event because a dear friend had donated her body, and I myself am a future donor. Way back in 2000, after discussing it with Barbara, I trooped down to the UMass Medical School and signed up to be a donor.

When I die, Barbara will place a call to Dianne Person, Associate Director of the Anatomical Gift Program. If my body qualifies, and not all do, Dianne will set the process in motion and oversee the pickup of my body.

She will also tend to Barbara's emotions. She will walk hand in hand with her through the Anatomical Gift Program experience. And the body of the late George Francis Pollock III will become available for anatomical studies for from one to two years.

However, as Dianne well knows, I have ambitions to be, shall we say, a different kind of cadaver. The current practice is strict anonymity, which I fully respect -- except that I like attention. I would like medical students to know my name, who I am, why I donated my body. I'd love pictures of me all over the anatomy lab.

Dianne, I'm working on a video of my life that could be shown to medical students before they delve into my innards. Can we discuss?

My cadaver ambitions are laid out in my E-book, I,Cadaver, available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.


In 2000, Dianne Person had been on the job only five months. But in the years since, I have interviewed her for stories and we have become good friends -- though for some reason that is beyond me, she does not always take me seriously. Oh, well, Barbara and I still feel a part of the UMass Medical School family.

Arriving just as the program was about to begin, I spotted Dianne and an important looking gentleman standing down front and to the side of the auditorium. I brashly went right up to her.

Hugging, laughing, we forgave each other for not calling or writing. Then she introduced me to the gentleman, Dr. Douglas Cotanche.

"This is my new boss," she said.

We shook hands. "I'm a cadaver in process," I said.

To my surprise, he laughed.

"I know you're getting ready to go on, so I'll go," I said to Dr. Cotanche.  "Where is the cadaver section?"

He laughed again, harder.

Dianne's new boss has a sense of humor.

Then, as the memorial began,  I learned something else about Dr. Cotanche, pictured at right: he is a caring, emotional man.  Reading  a remembrance that a donor family -- at the last minute -- had begged him to read, he was deeply moved.

His voice broke. Tears welled up.

"Sorry," he said. He took a few moments to compose himself and then he went on.

The first donor family speaker was another old friend, Marybeth. Her mom -- Mary H. in the donor directory, for privacy, last names are not given -- died last year at the age of 98. As she wished, she became a body donor to UMass Medical School. Dianne handled it, comforting Marybeth every step of the way.

Marybeth, left, spoke of her mom: of her love of life, her caring, her sense of humor, and -- perhaps most unusual of all -- her utter rejection of standard thoughts about old age. Mary was forever young, not just in her way of thinking, but in her daily life.

At the age of 68, she took up skulling or competitive rowing, Marybeth said. She was also a serious long-distance runner. Marybeth told the gathering that her mom still holds the 85-and-older Senior Olympics title for the fastest ten miles.

Marybeth said that being a donor made her mom happy. She ended her commemoration saying: "Not only did she get to go to college, she also got to go to medical school."

With that, Marybeth left the podium to smiles and chuckles throughout the auditorium. For more about Mary, her values, active lifestyle, and additional photos, see this story.

Marybeth was followed to the podium by five other family members reflecting on a donor: Mary Warbasse, Colleen Turner Secino, Nora Keil, Heather Allston and Judy Hallee.

They told why their family member was a donor. They described what the family member was like in life: their humanity, individuality, quirkiness, and, yes, sometimes told in funny anecdotes. 

When they were done, there was not, as they say, a dry eye in the place.

Next up were reflections from medical students, class of 2017, Robby Martin and Kate Singer. (Robby's reflections were read by Courtney Temple, class of 2017.) They had just finished their first year in which dissecting and learning from cadavers is critical to their understanding of the human body.

A medical student's first intimate encounter with the human body can be intimidating, even traumatic.  But, judging from their remarks, the students handled it remarkably well. Also, to them, their cadavers were clearly not  lifeless blobs of tissue.

They were human beings, people who had lives and families and histories. In donating their bodies, they had done a caring, generous, and wonderful thing. To these medical students, it was clear, their cadavers were heroes and heroines to whom they will always owe much to as doctors.

Still, while respecting and observing the privacy of donors -- no last names, the rigorous anonymity -- the medical students can't help but be curious about them:  who they were, where they came from, how they lived, what they were like ... and on and on.

After the memorial, we all repaired to a large adjoining area for lunch. I immediately noticed an elderly couple sitting alone. The gentleman was holding a big bunch of flowers. Curious, I went over to their table.

"Great flowers," I said. "What's the occasion?"

"Nothing," the man said. "They just gave them to me, that's all."

Albert, 94, is donating his body to UMass Medical School. His wife Ann says she has not yet decided. At only 100, she said she is in no hurry. 

And then who did I run into next?  None other than Mike Doyle, Dianne's colleague and for nearly eleven years the Manager of the Anatomy Lab -- where my body will be going some day. He is also a friend. It was nice seeing him while I am still alive and kicking.

Mike spends most working hours in the  secretive, public-not-allowed chamber where medical students dissect human bodies. You would expect him to be suspicious, slightly weird, maybe a little ghoulish, and certainly close-mouthed.

Instead, having known Mike for several years now, I can tell you that he is none of these.  As you can see in the photo at left, he is warm and friendly. He laughs at my fantasies of having my time in the anatomy lab be all about me and my life.

Mike is a family man and the proud father of three  daughters whose photos he readily shows off. There is nothing weird about Mike Doyle.

He is, however, just as passionate as Dianne  about protecting the dignity and privacy of donors. Once donors arrive at his anatomy lab, they become “patients,” following the example of Dr. Sandy C. Marks, founder of the Anatomical Gift Program.

For the first-year medical students introduced to a cadaver for the first time, it is their “first patient.”

Mike tells future doctors that these patients deserve the best possible treatment. How they treat this first patient is a good predictor of how they will treat patients later when they are doctors, Mike says.

Take care Mike. Great seeing you while I'm still vertical! When you get my bod, I hope you change your mind about not playing my video in the anatomy lab. I'm sure the medical students would love it!

At the post-memorial luncheon, some medical students joined us at our table. All were warm, open, and quite willing to talk about their dissecting experience. Once again that deep respect for their cadavers came out, but so did their wish to know more about them.

One of them, Michelle Gillespie, in conversation with my wife about aging, happened to mention one of the donors being a 98-year-old woman whose body was in great shape. "It was incredible how fit her body was," she said.

Barbara perked up. "That had to be Mary," she said. "Her family is right there," she said, pointing to the next table. "Would you like to talk with them? I'm sure they would love to talk to you."

Michelle was wide-eyed. "Yes," she said immediately. "I'd love to."

Barbara brought her over, introduced her, and Marybeth and her family were overjoyed. What a lucky coincidence!  Enthralled, Michelle and Mary's family spent the rest of the luncheon exchanging stories about Mary, the wonderful mom and fit-as-a whistle cadaver.

The photo above shows medical student Michelle Gillespie, center, in blue dress, chatting with Mary's family long after the place had emptied.

Also at the memorial was Albert B. Southwick, an historian and writer with a regular column in the Telegram and Gazette. His latest column, on May 15, was about the Anatomical Gift Donors Memorial Service. His late sister, Sarah, 97, had donated her body.

Early in the column, Mr. Southwick wrote: "A remembrance and tribute to those who have contributed their bodies for medical research may seem macabre. Could any such occasion be uplifting, moving, respectful and almost spiritual? It was all that and more."

He ended the column with an answer to a question that he knew had to be on the mind of every reader: "And yes, I will donate my body. You can bet on that."

So long and keep moving.

NOTE: I have a new short novel, Something Tells Her. Jane is abandoned at birth and then placed in ever-changing, uncaring, and often abusive foster homes. At age 12, her latest foster father makes a sexual advance on her and, with something telling her this is not right, rears back and kicks him you-know-where. Leaving him grabbing his crotch and yelping like a hurt dog, Jane runs out the door. On the street, alone, no family, nobody, not even a last name, how is she going to survive?  The E-book, is now available on Barnes and Noble and  Amazon. 

                         Other Amazon 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 his being locked up for 23 hours with killers in a maximum security prison; "I, Cadaver" is about his 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 that literally saves his life. "Unlove Story," is the true story of a husband -- writing anonymously as "Elvis" -- who is dumped after 38 years of marriage and lets it all out on love, marriage, life, everything. A guy doing this? It's unheard of.

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At May 31, 2022 10:58 PM, Anonymous Briana said...

Great readiing


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