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One Last Gift

Edward Beal

During most of my career as a psychiatrist, I haven’t often dealt directly with death. For the past five years, though, I have had the privilege of spending two days a week treating service men and women returning from deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. Listening to their stories and talking with them about their war experiences, I’ve spent much more time thinking about death and dying.

Despite this, I was shocked when my wife recently told me she was planning to donate her body to science–specifically, to the Georgetown University Medical Center’s anatomical donors program.

My first thought was that she obviously has never been a first-year medical student in a Gross Anatomy lab. My next impulse was to warn her of her mistake.

Fortunately, I restrained myself.

My wife had been heavily influenced by the example of our dear friend George, who died two years ago. After his wife’s death several years earlier, George, then in his eighties, went back to school, enrolling in the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.

The school treated him well: he found their programs very stimulating and had a great time. So he decided to return the courtesy by “gifting” himself to the anatomical donors program. He spoke about it frequently and enthusiastically–especially to my wife, who visited him weekly. Little did I realize how seriously she’d listened.

I knew the financial benefits of this arrangement. When you die, Georgetown arranges to pick up the body, preserve it appropriately for the anatomy lab, cremate the remains when they are finished, and return the ashes, all expenses paid. That is a significant financial saving–money that could be reserved for your grandchildren’s college tuition.

Still, I know how bodies were treated when I was a medical student, forty-eight years ago. My worst recollection involves a group of male classmates removing a cadaver’s sexual organ and using it to harass one of our few female medical classmates. I wanted no part of this kind of treatment for myself or for my wife. I decided that I would tell her my concerns about myself, but not discourage or interfere with her own plans.

When I raised the subject, she responded, “I’m going to attend the School of Medicine’s annual liturgy and Catholic Mass for families of donors.” An annual event organized by the medical students and their Jesuit advisors, the Mass is celebrated each May, after the Gross Anatomy class has finished.

I decided to tag along and see what my wife was volunteering for.

The hour arrived. We drove to the School of Medicine, where we enjoyed valet parking and were personally escorted by a medical student to a large classroom.

Apprehensive at first, I felt surprised and delighted to see many of the first-year students whom I had taught the previous fall. It eased my concerns somewhat. Yet I was still completely unprepared for what followed.

Nearly 200 students processed into the classroom, each carrying a lighted candle–for their donor/body–and placed the candles on a stage. The group was impressively diverse: there were Jews, Muslims, Protestants, atheists and outright antireligious students in the procession. Nearly the entire Gross Anatomy class participated.

A student choir, directed by a student and formed especially for this Mass, sang many lovely hymns, accompanied on guitar by the Protestant minister.

In the center of the choir I spotted a young woman who had fainted during my Introduction to the Patient class last fall. (She’d been overcome by the stress of conducting interviews in the overheated examining rooms. Fortunately, we’d caught her as she was falling to the floor and had sent her to the ER; a full recovery followed.)

Now she waved to me as I walked down the aisle to take Communion. The Eucharistic minister offering me Communion was another former student. A Jesuit delivered the homily, and a minister from each major faith expressed gratitude on the students’ behalf. These contributions, and those of the students, underscored the depth of their gratitude to the donors and their families. This was not the Gross Anatomy I remembered.

At the lunch afterwards, the conversations were equally warm and appreciative.

“Whenever I think of the heart, I always picture my cadaver’s heart,” one student said. “The blue veins, green lymphatics and red capillaries that you see in the anatomy textbook don’t look that way in real life. Even modern three-dimensional technology is no substitute for hands-on learning.”

Another student remarked that although she would never try to persuade her parents to donate their bodies, there was no doubt in her mind that she would donate hers.

Still another commented that throughout the entire class the cadavers’ faces had remained covered, out of respect, until the time came to study the face. She spoke almost reverently of the day she and her classmates had first looked into their cadaver’s eyes.

These students’ care, concern and respect was such a far cry from what I had witnessed as a student.

This experience has gone far to change my view of my wife’s decision to give her body to science. So, too, has my work with soldiers. Their altruism is almost infectious. Many of them give their bodies in service, suffering serious injury even if they do not die. Giving one’s body after death is consistent with that altruism.

For me, the thought of continuing to be a teacher after death is quite compelling. To think that I could continue to be a part of the medical-education experience even then!

I guess I owe George and my wife a thank-you note.

I’m almost a convert.

About the author:

Ted Beal, a distinguished fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, has been teaching medical students and psychiatry residents for more than forty years. He has published numerous academic papers and book chapters and also coauthored the book Adult Children of Divorce and coedited the book The Failure of Nerve. “While working with soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center over the past five years, I began writing essays about their experiences, partially as a way of coping with the trauma of hearing these experiences. I wish to thank my wife, Kathleen, and her sister, Ann Redpath, for encouraging me to write. I also thank my good friend Scotty Hargrove for encouraging me to submit this essay to Pulse.”

Story editor:

Diane Guernsey


11 thoughts on “One Last Gift”

  1. Over thirty years ago my father donated his body to science. I respected his decision and thought him a courageous and forward thinker. I remember him in his most animated moments: playing field hockey and soccer with me, playing volleyball on the company team, riding his motorcycle. The fact that his body may have been used for someone else’s education never bothered me, but illustrated the kind of man my father was. To read how truly appreciated his donation probably was merely elevates him in my esteem. Thank-you for the insight.

  2. My grandparents also donated their bodies to medical science. As a first year medical student on anatomy, I was conscious of the being who had lived inside the body–somebody else’s grandparent. The awareness turned the learning tool of a cadaver into the bodily relic of a human being–the definition of a humanizing experience. I appreciated the Service of Gratitude that Yale had at the end. It further humanized the experience.

  3. Thanks Dr. Beal. This took me straight back to my first year of medical school during Christmas vacation, when I went back home to help celebrate my grandmother’s 90th birthday. She was still strong and vigorous at that age, and delighted in telling us about my grandfather’s decision to donate his body to a medical school 10 years earlier and about her own choice to do the same. I kept thinking about the cadaver I’d been learning from just then and wasn’t too sure I wanted my grandmother’s body to be dissected like this, even tho’ luckily my school was also teaching us to be very respectful and I knew we too had this kind of ceremony at the end of first year. I just kept thinking about the formaldehyde, and how different a smell that was from the Jergens’ lotion scent of my living grandmother!

  4. Ah Ted, thanks for writing this piece. You have warmed the hearts of many and given us Hope!
    I recently retired form 36 years of nursing, including stints in neurosurgery and psychiatry. For a few years I was in seminary to become a priest. On the first day, we were asked what was our piety.I trembled in waiting my turn as I thought. I then blurted out: “I believe my piety is the body and its fluids.” Sighs of disgust followed, as well as laughter. Shortly thereafter I returned to nursing for 4 more years, because of my piety. It appears I am now finished that work. You have made it all make sense. Thank you. Thank you so much!

  5. wonderful story, very well rendered.it is encouraging that with all the problems in the world that somehow we are making progressin honoring those who generously give their bodies after death. I wish there would have been similar sensitivity when I entered the anatomy lab 35 years ago.I am a pediatric cardiologist and I have learned that the heart is more than just a pump with valves.the spirit inside each one of our hearts is what really matters.

  6. I too have donated my body to McGill, and I hope to reassure people that not all of us who donate are too sensitive to accept the medical students’ behavior. I was an OR nurse for 37 years, and am quite accustomed to the black humour that let us all survive out work. I know that it seems awful to those not on the inside, but also know that it was a privilege to work with so many kind and wonderful people, some with great senses of humour. I don’t mind whatever indignities my body may suffer, if it helps those students learn what they need to know to be good doctors. I think the reverent ceremonies held at the schools more than make up for any transgressions during the learning process.

  7. sterling haynes MD

    Thank you Ed,
    Your essay was one of the best I’ve read published in “Pulse.” Accolades to your wife for her vision.
    I am a writer in retirement. My sister and I practiced medicine for almost a 100 years but now I write humour for journals and newspapers.
    I had forgotten about the “Stiff Lab” that was part of my training. Anatomy was my best subject 60 plus years ago. My life was spent as a GP in rural Canada, the high arctic and in rural Alabama where I worked for the US army. I looked after the cadets at Marion Military Institute in Alabama for many years. Now theses former cadets still write to me on face-book but today they are Brigadiers and Colonels and tell their stories. I too am blessed.

  8. My husband donated his body, and I’ve promised mine.
    I didn’t think about the money-saving aspect, but was glad not to deal with the ashes–though a spouse can have them returned later, if he/she wishes.
    Remember if you move more than 50 miles away, find a new place to accept your body.

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