“… and maybe then you’ll hear the words I’ve been singing;
Funny, when you’re dead how people start listen’n…”
If I Die Young (2010)
by The Band Perry
It was in the fall of 2015 that I received a call from a Mrs. Jones. She went on to detail how her husband, Robert, had died from cancer and donated his body to our anatomy lab in 2006. She further explained that she and her children had finally come to terms with his passing and now, 9 years later, were finally ready to spread his ashes at the family cemetery plot. She stated that she wanted to hold a ceremony and perhaps have the students that worked on her husband write something about their experience that could be read at the service…
I went on to explain that, although we kept thorough records and could account for her husband, we really did not track which 5 students were assigned to him. As a conciliatory gesture, I did offer to contact the “class of 2010” (freshman in 2006) and ask them to reflect upon Mr. Jones or the use of their respective assigned cadavers. She agreed and I fired off an email designed to reach a group of doctors not only nine years removed from anatomy, but now practicing medicine all over the country. I had little hope of a response.
The first reply arrived within 10 minutes from Dr. Susan Anzalone.
Dear Mrs. Jones,
I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your husband. I hope you are doing OK and are surrounded by loving family and friends.
I was a medical student at Loyola University Stritch School of medicine from 2006 to 2010. Part of our training involved an anatomy course where we were given the privilege of exploring the human body as provided by donors such as your husband Robert Jones. Without him and people like him we would not have been able to learn about the intricacies and function of the human body. It has been 5 years since receiving my medical degree and there is not a day that goes by where I don’t utilize my knowledge of anatomy. I am a neurologist in San Francisco with a subspecialty in multiple sclerosis. Thank you to you and your husband for such a generous gift which has undoubtedly helped thousands of patients.
All my best,
Susan Anzalone, MD
The next letter arrived 3 minutes later:
Hello,– I wanted to take this opportunity to express my gratitude for the beautiful gift that I received from your husband after his death— the gift of knowledge by donating his body to science. Without his gift, I would not have been able to become the physician that I am today.
Now that I am finished with the formal part of my training (after 13+ long years!) not a day goes by when I work in the Emergency Department that I do not use the knowledge of human anatomy that I gained from your husband. I use this knowledge to work saving the lives of others—people who will never know about the gift from Robert that made their healing possible. He has “paid it forward” in the ultimate way by allowing my hands to do the important work that I do. I remain eternally grateful to him, and to his family.
Derrick Lowery, MD
Another, 60 minutes later:
On behalf of my classmates, I would like to extend the most sincere thank you to you and your family for Robert’s gift. At the beginning of the course we have a ceremony remembering those who give us the opportunity to learn this facet of the many layered and complicated inner workings of the human body. It’s a quiet reminder that we are entering into something sacred, a tradition wherein the next generation of physicians is learning from those who went before us… with an emphasis on the word “us”. That “us” does not refer to the community of physicians or health care providers, but rather to the more catholic meaning: humanity, the fellowship of man, and the enduring human spirit devoted to sharing our lives, hopes, and dreams, struggles and setbacks, ourselves with others. In doing so, Robert helped to train my community of young physicians to help and heal, to teach and learn, to listen and care. My class has gone on to work overseas in the military hospitals and missions, with the underserved in impoverished areas of our own backyard, and in academic institutions to give back to the clinicians now following behind us. Without the gifts of those like Robert we may not have had these opportunities.
Christopher Janowak, MD, trauma surgeon.
To my amazement 6 more letters arrived over the next 8 hours, — and even more were sent directly to Mrs. Jones.
Mrs. Jones responded to each student as follows:
Dear Dr. XXX;
I want to thank you for taking the time to write to me…. my husband was a journalist here in Chicago. He was brilliant. He had a great sense of humor, loved to read, to travel, dine out, drink good scotch, smoke cigarettes, and tell stories. But more than anything in the world, he loved his five children. I know you saw the flaws, the wounds, the traumas to his body. There was a story to go with all of them. May God bless you, Doctor. May he use your brain, your senses, your heart and your hands for His work. I can’t express the enormity of my gratitude for what you have done for my children, my grandchildren, and for me.
As Robert lay dying, he made the incredible choice to make a gift of himself to benefit the quality of future physicians. Nine years later, when he was firmly ensconced in the afterlife, he made a gift again; –an “Aftergift”— which not only touched the lives of his family but rekindled the memories and gratitude of some 140 medical students now turned doctor. So many lives changed, moved, and even saved by the perpetual gift from a generous man at the twilight of his life.
Michael Dauzvardis, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Medical Education at the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. He holds a doctorate in anatomy and has been recognized by the Stritch students with numerous teaching awards.