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Medical students honor body donors

Donors help to advance medical education, research

by Kristina Sauerwein & Diane Duke WilliamsMay 15, 2018

Matt Miller

Medical students never forget their first patients.

The introduction occurs during first-year anatomy class in a well-lit, sterile room where rows of cadavers wrapped in muslin lay on metal tables.

“Meeting the first patient — a donor human body — is considered such a seminal moment in becoming a doctor,” said Connie Gan, president of the Class of 2021 at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

On May 10, Gan and her peers publicly honored the generous gift body donors and their loved ones had made to advance medical education and biomedical research. Hundreds of people attended the ceremony at Ellen S. Clark Hope Plaza on the Medical Campus, which included personal reflections, musical performances, a moment of silence and a release of 300 dove-shaped, environmentally friendly balloons, each representing a body donor from the past year. Medical students, who held the balloons during the ceremony, formed a circle around the plaza’s fountain before sending the balloons into the bright blue, cloud-specked sky.

Linda Harris, who attended the ceremony to honor her mother, Ann Loree, said the event surpassed her expectations. “It was lovely and graciously done, and it provided some closure for our family,” she said. “I think it’s a great tradition that should continue.”

In years past, medical students have held private appreciation ceremonies. “But after speaking with my fellow classmates during and after our anatomy class, we realized what we have learned from our first patients is invaluable to our education and future practice,” Gan said. “We wanted to extend our gratitude to the family and friends of the body donors, as well as the general public. We thought the symbolism of a dove would be appropriate in terms of peace, love and new beginnings.”

Before Gan met her first patient, she recalled feeling “excited and apprehensive, like a runner would feel before a big race. However, once I met my first patient, I immediately felt calm with the knowledge that my donor would teach me immensely in a few short months. I felt grateful and reverent for the sacrifice that the donors and their loved ones had made for our education and the service we will provide our future patients.”

Gregg Velligan attended the ceremony in recognition of his father, Frank Velligan, a musician and teacher who donated his body to the school. Several years ago, Gregg Velligan’s mother, a stained-glass artist, also donated her body. A performance by a string quartet was one of the highlights of the ceremony for Velligan, who also plans to be a body donor one day. “I know how much my father would have enjoyed the music,” he said.

The university’s Body Donor Program, coordinated through the Department of Neuroscience, has helped provide thousands of cadavers to medical students, resident physicians, clinical fellows and other trainees to gain in-depth understanding of human anatomy.

“The appreciation ceremony at the end of the anatomy course allows students to reflect on the gift the donors have made for the purpose of their medical education,” said Amy Bauernfeind, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Neuroscience and director of the university’s Body Donor Program. “The students realize how much they have learned from a single person, which is a very powerful experience for them. They feel humbled that one person can impact their own lives so profoundly without saying a word.”

Matt Miller
First-year medical students at Washington University School of Medicine hold a ceremony and release balloons to honor those who donated their bodies to the school. The ceremony was May 10 in Ellen S. Clark Hope Plaza on the Medical Campus.
Matt Miller
First-year medical student and class president Connie Gan shares a story about her first patient, whose body was donated so she and other students could learn. A ceremony to honor the body donors and their families was held May 10 in Ellen S. Clark Hope Plaza on the Medical Campus.
Matt Miller
A string quartet featuring first-year medical students Sophie Evans (left), Caroline Snowden, Debanjan Saha and Clara Kao performs as part of a ceremony to honor body donors. The event was May 10 in Ellen S. Clark Hope Plaza on the Medical Campus.
Matt Miller
Medical student Cyrus Zhou talks with Sandy and Al Hauser after a ceremony May 10 on the Medical Campus to honor people who donated their bodies to the medical school. Al Hauser said he had decided long ago to donate his body, but his wife Sandy had been “on the fence” before the event. The students’ compassion and seriousness changed her mind, though, she said.
Matt Miller
Amir Kucharski, an MD/PhD student, talks with Susan Simmons (from left), Barbara Magill and Mike Magill after a ceremony May 10 to honor people who donated their bodies to the medical school. Susan’s and Barbara’s mother donated her body.
Matt Miller
Dove-shaped, environmentally friendly balloons are released as part of a ceremony May 10 on the Medical Campus to honor those who donated their bodies to the medical school.

Kristina covers pediatrics, surgery, medical education and student life. In 2020, she received a gold Robert G. Fenley Writing Award for general staff writing from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), and in 2019, she received the silver award. Kristina is an author and former reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Los Angeles Times, where she was part of a team of journalists that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for breaking news. Additionally, she covered the 2014 Ferguson unrest for TIME magazine and, for eight years, wrote a popular parenting column for