Manik Uppal was largely unmoved when he began working in Weill Cornell Medicine's anatomy lab last fall. Although aware that he was studying the body of a real human being, the first-year medical student found himself emotionally detached from the task. That is until the very last lab session, when he was suddenly overtaken by the deeper implications of his work.
"I came out thinking with a vivid appreciation for just how brief and precious life is," Uppal recounted during the institution's annual Gross Anatomy Memorial Service on Dec. 16. "This was the moment when I truly began to cherish the charity of our donors. I'm sure that each of them, in their own way, were inspired by what they felt was the beauty of life, with all its oddities and frailties. And they expressed as much in their final acts of empathy."
For many medical students, gross anatomy is a crucial point in their path to becoming physicians. It is when all of the textbook diagrams and descriptions become real; students are finally able to fully conceptualize the human body in all of its complexity and fragility. The donor is at once the students' first patient and their most profound teacher.During the ceremony, Uppal and 106 of his fellow classmates paid tribute to the 48 men and women who gifted their bodies to science. In groups of four and five, students in the class of 2019 descended to the podium in Uris Auditorium and thanked — through song, speech and poetry — those who bequeathed their bodies to advance medical education, as well as their families and loved ones who facilitated these generous acts.
"In promoting the donor program, we follow the example of those we are honoring today," said Dr. Estomih Mtui, director of the Gross Anatomy and Body Visualization Program and a professor of anatomy in radiology. "I think it is in the spirit of generosity that our donors have continued to serve and teach even after death. It is my hope that several others in this room today will in the future join this courageous effort."
The men and women honored at the ceremony this year came from diverse backgrounds and included a microbiologist, a United Nations translator, a Catholic priest, a seamstress, a missionary physician, and a fire safety director. The oldest person lived to 102, and many lived to their 80s and 90s.
"Our donors today have helped set our medical students on the path towards caring," said Dr. Laurie H. Glimcher, the Stephen and Susan Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell Medicine. "They remind students that the motivation behind all their studies is a human being in need of help and careful attention. They confirm why it is that here at Weill Cornell Medicine, patients are the center of everything we do."
The ceremony featured a range of creative expression. Many students shared personal anecdotes of beloved teachers, parents and others who helped them to understand the magnitude of the course.
"My mother has been a physician for 30 years, and she still becomes emotional talking about her donor," said first-year medical student Anthony Finch, standing by the podium with his three lab partners. "This semester she told me, 'One of the most important gifts of your life has been given to you by someone whom you never knew, and will never know.'
"A gift of such magnitude comes with a mandate," he added. "It is now our worldly duty to use what our donors have taught us to advance medicine and to heal others for the rest of our careers and indeed, for the rest of our lives."