Is it possible for us to make a positive impact on dozens, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people’s lives, even after we’ve passed on? Can the effects of our actions reverberate down through the years, echoing through the lives of people we’ve never met? Can a small, selfless act of goodwill today become the catalyst for someone else’s life-changing event tomorrow?
The five human beings whose lives were honored at Indiana University School of Medicine — Northwest on Jan. 19 all knew the answer to that question. That’s why each of them chose to bequeath to Indiana’s medical students -- and to the patients those future doctors will care for one day — not just their bodies, but also the gift of learning.
By consenting to donate their remains to the IUSM Anatomical Education Program, these individuals and many others across the state have helped further the cause of healthcare and medical education in Indiana. Future patients quite literally will live because of what aspiring doctors at IUSM — Northwest and elsewhere have learned from anatomical donors.
“As future physicians, this knowledge is paramount to our success and to the lives of our patients,” said med student Rahul Sharma, reading a letter written by his study group to the donor with whom those students had worked last semester. Anatomical donations were used last semester at IUSM—Northwest to aid med students there as they studied human gross anatomy.
The significance of the choice to donate was not lost on the family members who attended the solemn, yet celebratory service held Friday afternoon in honor of the medical school’s most recent donors. Joyce Eden, niece of donor Ruth Freudenheim, said that her aunt had decided many years ago to donate her body to science. Such a decision was completely in character for a woman who spent her life taking care of other people.
“In a way, she is still taking care of people,” Eden said. “For as far back as I can remember, I knew she wanted to donate her body. It was very important to her.”
The importance of Freudenheim’s donation, and the donation of the four other anatomical contributors who were honored Friday, was reflected in the care and detail the school’s first-year medical students invested into the service. In the gross anatomy lab located on the second floor of the Dunes Medical/Professional Building on the Indiana University Northwest campus in Gary, candles and flower arrangements had been set out for each of the donors. Thoughtfully prepared programs outlined the service, the speakers, the medical students, and the names of donors from this and previous years. Students read personal letters praising the donors as exemplary teachers and explaining what they have learned from working with them. One student, Tedi Vlahu, even played the violin during the candle-lighting ceremony.
“Today, we take the time to give consideration to the gifts that we have received from these who made the decision in life to give us their bodies in death for our learning,” said Rev. James Wetzstein, associate pastor at the Chapel of the Resurrection at Valpariaso University, who facilitated the service at IUSM — Northwest.
“It is the most profound gift that one can offer,” he continued. “We are called to be receivers, using their gifts to the best of our abilities and rejoicing in their generosity.”
Wetzstein explained that because these donors who have aided in the cause of medicine have already passed on, there is no way to repay their kindness directly. Rather, he said, it is incumbent upon the young doctors who benefitted from that gift to accept the gift with humility and seek to use what they have learned to pay that kindness forward and help others who are in need.
As part of the ceremony, students shared some of their experiences working with the donors. Student Dustin Norton said that Ruth Freudenheim taught her student group an unexpected lesson about the dangers of making assumptions about patients. Norton said that after examining her lungs, the students quickly identified Freudenheim as a non-smoker.
“After talking to her family, though, I guess she started smoking when she was eight years old,” Norton said. “I thought that maybe we weren’t as good of doctors as we thought we were. But Dr. Talarico even said that she was a non-smoker.”
Assistant Professor Ernest Talarico, Jr., Ph.D., course director of human gross anatomy and embryology at IUSM — Northwest, said lessons like that one illustrate why it’s so critical for students to receive hands-on instruction with human cadavers. Life does not conform to textbook rules, he said, so by working with the human body in all its imperfect complexity, students learn that which books or computer cannot teach them.
Fortunately for IUSM and for Indiana patients, Talarico said, interest in anatomical donation remains strong. Last week alone, Talarico fielded seven inquiries from people who were interested in bequeathing their bodies after death. Most people who do so express the desire to help others, he said.
“That’s a central theme for many of these people,” Talarico said during his opening remarks at the service. “They want to do this to impact others’ lives.”
Patrick Bankston, Ph.D., director of IUSM—Northwest, said part of the reason the medical school has students work with anatomical donors in their first semester is to establish early on the sense of respect for the donors as people. It is the same respect that these young doctors will need to extend to live patients, as well. Bankston also emphasized the invaluable training anatomical gifts provide to students.
“Our students ... have begun the process of learning about the human body with this gracious donation,” Bankston said.
David Burr, Ph.D., director of the IUSM Anatomical Education Program, which is based in Indianapolis, assured the family members assembled for the service that anatomical donations are treated with the utmost care and respect at whichever medical center utilizes them. He noted that anatamoical donations from Indiana are used only in Indiana.
“I assure you, they are well-utilized,” Burr said. “They are an important resource for education and research, and we really appreciate your generosity.”
For her part, Eden found the ceremony to be respectful and comforting. She said Freudenheim would have loved it.
“I was so moved and so impressed,” Eden said. “The students showed so much respect, and even almost love. It was as if they really had bonded with Ruth in a way.”
Eden said that, per Freudenheim’s request, she will have her aunt’s remains cremated and the ashes scattered on the beach at Montego Bay, Jamaica.
During a luncheon that followed the ceremony, IUSM—Northwest students presented IU Northwest Chancellor Bruce Bergland with a memorial stone honoring the five donors who taught them so much about the human body during their first semester of medical school. The marker will be placed beneath a flowering tree on the east side of the IU Northwest campus.
Bergland praised the care and sincerity the IUSM—Northwest students had shown in carrying out the donor service.
“I want to tell you how moved I was by your thoughts, and by the depth of your thoughts,” Bergland said. “As Chancellor of IU Northwest, I am honored to have the medical school on our campus, and I am honored on behalf of the campus to receive this.”