It's a rite of passage for all first-year medical students — a course in human anatomy, in which they dissect the dead to understand the living. But after their hands-on experience with mortality, the students organize a ceremony that provides closure to their first brush with the fragility of the human body.
This year, 96 students at Alpert Medical School dissected and studied 24 donated cadavers, said Dale Ritter, who directs the human anatomy course at Brown. Students are given little identifying information about the cadavers, he said — nothing more than their cadaver's official cause of death and age at expiration.
"Especially early on, we tend not to focus on the other information," Ritter said, adding that additional information makes it even more difficult for beginning medical students to dissect their first human body.
The student-organized ceremony — a tradition that began almost 20 years ago — commemorates not only the cadavers' lives, but also the contribution to medicine they made after death, he said.
The ceremony was once an hour-long affair held in a large lecture hall at the end of the course. But in recent years, it has become an informal, quiet event that takes place in the course's anatomy lab, Ritter said.
Amanda Westlake MD'12 helped organize this year's ceremony, which took place in February. After her brief introduction, students lit candles for the cadavers they had worked with for the length of the course. They also had the opportunity to sing, read poetry or simply speak and express their thoughts.
At the ceremony, Wei Song '08 MD'12 read a poem she had written earlier in the year. It focused on "the interaction between life and death" and struggled to reconcile the contrast between cutting open bodies and the physician's ultimate goal of healing.
"I wanted to recognize the value of what these people gave," Song said.
In the anatomy course itself, there was a sense of discovery, Westlake said. She said she found a stent in her subject's aorta, and classmates uncovered prosthetic knees, joint replacements and other anomalies beneath the cadavers' skin.
The students organize the ceremony to take "a moment to reflect the trust they had in us," she said. "Medical education depends on people who don't know us at all trusting us."
"I didn't want it to be solemn," Westlake said. "Serious, but not solemn."
The commemoration is the first time students are told other biographical information about their cadavers, Ritter said, such as their careers and life achievements, collected from obituaries and the anatomical gift program. Westlake learned that some of the donors had even attended Brown, she said.
This aspect of the ceremony brings the students full-circle, Ritter said, by taking them back to their first day in anatomy when they were introduced to their cadavers by age and cause of death.
"It's a reminder that this was a person — they had a life," he said. "They made an incredible gift."
Westlake said dissecting the bodies was a desensitizing experience for many students.
"You quickly become acclimated to tearing through them with scalpels," she said, adding that the ceremony was a reminder that the cadavers had once been living humans.
After the ceremony, the cadavers were cremated and returned to their families.
But the medical students seek closure, too. Traditionally, they sign the walls of the anatomy lab at the ceremony's end — unexpected graffiti from hundreds of medical students.
"Anatomy is a major event for medical students," Ritter said. It's when they realize that medical school is "something different," he added.
The ceremony gives them a sense of relief, he said. "There's a certain release to it."