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The ultimate gift: Honoring the donors who gave their bodies to medical education
Medical students holding candles at the Ceremony of Gratitude.

The ultimate gift: Honoring the donors who gave their bodies to medical education

The Wertheim College of Medicine students held a ceremony of gratitude for those who made possible their training in the anatomy lab

March 8, 2024 at 10:25am

The evening's theme was "light."

FIU medical students gathered this week to pay tribute to the anatomical donors who gifted their bodies to advance science and education by lighting the path to knowledge.

Traditionally referred to as a doctor's first patient, whole-body donors play a pivotal role in shedding light on the mysteries of the human body while shaping medical students' ethics and professionalism. The first patient is also one of a budding doctor's first teachers.

Human dissection is indispensable for a sound knowledge of anatomy. For students in their first two years of medical school, it is an experience that transcends what any textbook, lecture or technological advances can offer. Medical student Christina Taragjini described her first encounter with a body donor in the anatomy lab as an unforgettable, "raw experience." 

Dr. Juan Cendan, dean of the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, described it as "a privilege" to learn from donors who made the ultimate gift to science. Dissection is an intimate experience, which he noted can reveal extremely private details about the donor. "Together, as a community dedicated to the pursuit of health care, we honor the memory of these extraordinary donors who have forever shaped our professional identity," Cendan said.

The Ceremony of Gratitude thanks donors and their families — who may wait years for the return of their loved ones remains — for their selfless sacrifice. Most medical schools hold similar ceremonies. They are solemn and moving events. 

FIU medical students lit candles, sang, played the piano and shared memories of their first experiences in the anatomy lab, prompting silent reflection and tears among their fellow students, faculty and staff. "We will never be able to repay the sacrifice that you have made, but we will carry on the lessons of your beautiful lives by healing those who come to us seeking care," expressed medical student Raghuram Reddy. 

Dr. Tracy Cassagnol, who helped organize the event, founded the Innovation Anatomy Lab at the College of Medicine and introduced a 3D printing lab to teach anatomy. Despite promoting technologically advanced teaching tools, she holds the utmost reverence for the invaluable contribution of human donors.

Cassagnol shared a poignant quote from Albert Schweitzer, the physician, philosopher and Nobel Prize-winning advocate for peace: "At times, our own light may dim, only to be reignited by a spark from another individual. Each of us has ample reason to reflect with profound gratitude upon those who have ignited the flame within us.”

The new $4.4M anatomy lab under construction at the College of Medicine will accommodate 17 cadavers. Out of respect, their faces will be covered except during the study of the head. The students will not know their names or life stories. But they will come to know a lot about the their deceased patients. Knowledge to help the living.