OPINION: Memorial service casts body donation in different light

The Medical Sciences building at Western University, where doctors of tomorrow are learning anatomy and surgical techniques thanks to the gift of donor bodies. Photo courtesy, Western University

Phil Egan

It was two hours that melted the heart and shattered preconceived notions.

Terry Huggins had been upset, and resistant, when he learned that his mother, Virginia, intended to donate her body to medical science.

But Virginia was not someone you argued with when her mind was made up. “She was determined to do it,” explains Terry’s wife, Maria. “Her brother, Fred, had done it and she wanted to be a full-body donor too.”

Terry and his family’s misgivings about Virginia’s decision were swept away by the solemnity, reverence and respect displayed by the University of Western Ontario’s medical school and its students at a recent event. The Memorial Service of prayer and thanksgiving “honouring those who gifted their bodies for teaching and research” had a profound effect on all 500 attendees.

“It blew me away,” Terry said of the hauntingly beautiful ceremony. As classical music from a string quartet softly played and the donor’s names were read aloud by 20 participating medical students, a continuous succession of photos of donors appeared on the massive auditorium screen.

Referring to the donors as their ”teachers” and the anatomy lab as a “sanctuary,” the medical students enthralled the donors’ family members as they spoke sincerely of the “gift” the donors had provided them and the deep respect in which they held them.

Sarnia medical student Melissa Chopcian participated in the memorial service, which she described as “beautiful and meaningful.” On stage, students placed a white rose in a vase; one for each donor as their names were read aloud. Melissa explained that a similar ceremony had taken place before the students’ first work in the anatomy laboratory as they prepared to “meet” their donors for the first time. Once lab work began, the atmosphere of reverent respect continued, with only the donor area being worked on exposed to view.

People who know their history are familiar with the 18th and early 19th century tales of medical students in old England dealing with grave robbers to secure bodies for anatomical study. The entire concept seemed unsavoury. Those days are long gone. Donors in modern times appreciate the incredible value their gifts represent to medical research and instruction.

Dr. Michele Barbeau, Head of Western University’s Department of Anatomy, explains that today’s medical students learn practical anatomy with 80-100 bodies donated each year – a supply needed and reliably met by donors.

Dr. Barbeau says the university’s grad students have been able to make some impressive medical advances through their work with those who willed their bodies.

Terry Huggins now sees his mother’s gift in a whole new light.

Got an interesting tale? Contact Phil Egan at philegan@cogeco.ca