Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Life after death: A tribute to body donors

My school recently had a memorial service for the family and friends of people who donated their body to science so that future physicians, like myself, could learn, firsthand, about human anatomy. It was a very touching service, with motivating speeches, crying, candle lighting to commemorate each donor, and one-on-one conversations between students and relatives/friends.

I understand that not all schools offer a memorial service. As such, I have taken it upon myself to share my reflection, which was included in the memorial service, here. It is my hope that someone out there--a friend/relative of a body donor--would come across this post and know that their beloved's sacrifice was (and always will be) appreciated and meaningful.
Here goes:

Months ago when I walked into gross anatomy lab, into a room with many pale bodies, I felt somehow in danger. I was afraid of the lessons I would have to learn, lessons dealing not just with the human body, and it turned out that I was right.

During that first day of being in this special room, as I looked at the faces and bodies of a group of cadavers, it was hard to imagine the different people they had been and the different lives they had led. Yet, these bodies used to be very different kinds of people. Some might have been ambitious, playful, gregarious, or overachievers. So in a sense, it doesn’t matter that I am in this body and not in another. I am a person not just because I have life, but because of what I do with that life, of the relationships I had, of my dreams, and of my contributions to my community. I was already learning.

My “teacher” for the rest of the semester was a woman between fifty-five and seventy years old. She had an almost serious, determined look on her face. She gave the impression of having been a very strong-willed and determined woman, just like me. I wondered about what she was like when she still lived. What did she do? What would her family and friends say about her? What did she like to do for fun? Did she write? Unlike me, does she like to cook? What were her dreams and were they all achieved? Was she happy? Did she have any children or spouse? Did they miss her?

I was thankful for this moment to appreciate this woman I never knew, thankful that I am still interested in the person she had been. As we eventually got to dissecting, my special teacher continued to instruct me that life is the things you do while you are alive, it is the impression you leave on others, the memories you create for others to remember. “So live life well,” I imagined her say, so that whenever death comes to rob us, our humanity can fly to others, in the safe haven of the memories of friends, families, and sometimes even strangers.

Not to be morbid or anything, but the body reminded me of my fatality, so I was thus motivated to try to make the best of my time. I was motivated to hang out more with friends, to meet more new people, to pursue my dreams with joyous fervor, to make a difference in others' lives, to find more reasons to laugh, and to call my parents more often, which my parents were really happy about (although they didn’t know the exact reason why I called so frequently).

I sometimes wished I could have a chat with my teacher. I imagined I would say, “Do you know that your arteries don’t branch off like they are supposed to. Your body must be pretty creative to still get blood to where it needs to.” And she would reply maybe saying, “Well, my arteries don’t feel like conforming to people’s expectations of what they should be. They are unique, independent thinkers, and very smart—as you can see, they get the job done.” Then I would say, “Well, we can’t all be independent thinkers now, can we?” Then she would answer, “No, and that’s why my arteries are special.” Then we would both laugh. Little conversations like this allowed me to enjoy (rather than dread) being alone with her. I certainly appreciated her for being the only kind of teacher that if you see in an exam, you are guaranteed to get her questions right.

It sounds weird but I feel like I got to know my teacher well, although mostly through my imagination. She had been so willing, so ready to teach me about the body, to excite my mind with questions, and to make sure I fell in love with the details of the human body and how it functions. It was stimulating to figure out, for example, why she was missing her gallbladder or had bumps on her spleen, to imagine what these conditions meant for her life, and to speculate how she dealt with them. My teacher provided a map to her physical history, and having to put things together and figure out how she lived as a result helped to put back the humanity that her pale body threatened, unsuccessfully, to take away.

I feel the need to thank her for having been such a great teacher. I am grateful that because of her, human anatomy has some 3-D meaning to me; it has some practical meaning. When I talk about a muscle, it is no longer abstract, because I remember her muscle, what it looked like, and where it went and came from. It is so much harder for me to forget what I have learned, because that would be forgetting her. To remember her is to remember anatomy, and to remember anatomy is to remember her.

So here in the midst of everyone, I would like to say to this special teacher of mine: thank you for donating your body so I might learn about the human body and so be a better doctor. Thank you also for reminding me about the importance of life, about enjoying every moment. I thank you for denying your body its last graceful smirk on death (that is, the funeral dress-up), for you lesson to me would, otherwise, not have been as clear. I hope your life had been an enjoyable one. I know you live, even now, in your families' hearts, and even I will always remember you. Thank you for the lesson that only you could teach me.


At 10/5/06 2:36 AM, Blogger Susan Abraham said...

Hi Rosemary,
How lovely to stumble onto your blog & would you mind if I linked you to mine? I especially love the splendid banana shade that you've chosen. You sound like such a warm person...full of light.
I spend a lot of time in London and am familiar with the emergence of Nigerian writers who are really being acknowledged and heralded for their writings. The 2 whose work I know well were published recently in the UK to a happy audience. These are Helen Oyeyemi & Chinmayee. And now, there's you as well. Wonderful, Rosemary! I wish you the very best,

At 10/5/06 4:53 PM, Blogger Rosemary Esehagu said...

Hello Susan,
Thanks for your encouraging words! In the US, Oyeyemi, Habila, and Adichie have gathered quite a following. And it makes me proud to know that they're fellow Nigerians.

I visited your website and learned that you are also a writer. It always encourages me to be around fellow writers. Have fun with your novel, and just remember to keep writing.

And yes, please feel free to link to my blog. I will also add your blog to my list of sites to visit, if that's ok with you.

At 13/5/06 12:52 AM, Blogger Susan Abraham said...

Thank you, Rosemary for your encouraging words. But please don't feel obliged to link me or anything like that. I look to reading a lot more of your writings. And here's to having made a new writing friend. cheers,

At 13/5/06 1:38 AM, Blogger Susan Abraham said...

Hi again Rose, just to let you know that you're in my green boxed blogroll. Now I can read you lots. Have fun writing! And I really just love the banana colour of your blog. best wishes,

At 13/5/06 2:56 AM, Blogger Rosemary Esehagu said...

Hello Susan,
It's really a pleasure hearing from you again. I have been waiting for the next post on your blog. I admire your ability to write about your writing life on such a regular basis. It reflects a high level of self-awareness.

I'm glad you love my blog's color. It is a very "happy" color, very refreshing.

I'll see you over at your blog.
Happy writing!


Post a Comment

<< Home