One of a medical student’s most powerful teachers inspires compassion, forgives mistakes, and leaves an indelible impression that forever guides that student’s clinical care and research, all without ever saying a word.
This silent teacher is also the first patient of a student. At Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, they meet during freshman anatomy class.
These patient-teachers are the bodies of people who have decided during their lifetime to donate their bodies to advance medical education and biomedical research.
“The first time I met my donor was the day I remember the most from medical school, because it marked my journey to become a doctor,” said Kushi Mallikarjun, a future fourth-year student who plans to pursue studies in radiology. “I remember being struck with immense gratitude for my donor, and I continue to feel gratitude every day for the lessons I learned from my silent teacher and first patient.”
On June 16, Mallikarjun joined approximately 200 of his peers from the Classes of 2023 and 2024 to honor the lives of 400 donors. Along with students and faculty, loved ones of the deceased visited the Eric P. Newman Education Center on the Medical Campus for the Donor Memorial Ceremony. The event included personal reflections, poetry and musical performances that preceded a respectful reading of donor names and the lighting of battery-powered candles.
Other relatives joined the ceremony from around the world via the livestream.
“Every ceremony is special, but this is the first after a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19,” said Mallikarjun, who served as one of the ceremony leaders, along with future third-year student Yuliya Kozina. . “Many families here today share the tragedy of mourning their loved one during a pandemic, a time when coming together with others to mourn might not have been possible. We are grateful for the opportunity to be here today with you to celebrate your loved ones.
“Like donors, our students also come from all over the country and the world,” Mallikarjun said. “Class of 2024 students share the experience of beginning their education amid COVID, when most of their classes were online. As a class, they first came together in the anatomy lab The class of 2023 students fondly remember the anatomy lab as one of their last experiences before being dispersed due to the pandemic All students benefited immensely from the learning experience of their donors . »
During the ceremony, the students carried on stage vases filled with 400 flowers, each representing a donor. The colors of the flowers were symbolic: red represented continuous love; yellow and pink, joy; blue, gratitude; and white, memory.
“Those you loved will live on in the future acts of healing of our medical students,” Thomas M. De Fer, MD, professor of medicine and associate dean of medical student education, told families and friends of the donors. . “It’s an occasion of gratitude, immense gratitude.”
Veronica Belko attended the ceremony honoring her 46-year-old husband, Alexander Belko, who died at age 72 on June 11, 2019, of acute myeloid leukemia. She was accompanied by Alexander’s children and his 14-year-old grandson, Isaac Weible.
“He was funny and kind, and I miss him every day,” Isaac said.
“Recognizing your life like this is very meaningful,” Veronica Belko said. “He never met a stranger and he lived a full life.”
Veronica met Alexander while working at a factory in the St. Louis area that made piston rings for cars. His mother introduced them and came to think of Alexander as a son. He served during the Vietnam War as a mechanic in the 25e infantry division. Over the years, he has also worked as a carpenter and millwright. He helped raise three children and eight grandchildren.
“He would drop everything to help his family or his friends,” recalls his son, Rich Weible. “His desire to help is the reason he wanted to donate his body. He went through so many cancer treatments and hoped his body would shed some light on cancer treatment so people don’t have to suffer years from now.
The university’s body donor program, coordinated by the Department of Neuroscience, has helped provide thousands of cadavers to medical students, resident physicians, clinical fellows, and other trainees to gain an in-depth understanding of human anatomy.
“In addition to learning the anatomy of the human body, students gain a deep sense of humility through the selfless giving of donors,” said Amy Bauernfeind, PhD, program director, vice president of education and professor. associate in the Department of Neurosciences. “Students learn to treat all patients as human beings first, and that process begins with their anatomy donors.”
Kozina, who co-led the ceremony and read the donors’ names aloud, called the emotional bond she formed with her donor life-changing. “I felt the importance of my donor being my first patient,” she said. “I had a responsibility to him. This person had trusted me to honor his selfless gift by being the best student I could be. I soon realized that while my donor was my first patient, he was also the “one of my greatest teachers. I’ve carried that forward for every patient interaction since. We learn the most about medicine from our patients, and I imagine that will continue to be true throughout my career.”