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IU School of Medicine-Northwest honors men and women who donate their bodies to educate the next generation of physicians

Jan. 31, 2013

When Ernest Talarico Jr., Ph.D., started teaching gross anatomy at the IU School of Medicine-Northwest nearly 13 years ago, he noticed something wasn’t quite right about the way his students regarded the people who left their bodies to science.

Students gave the cadavers nicknames, regarded them with detachment and generally failed to acknowledge that the bodies they used for learning were more than educational tools -- that they were real people with real names and real families.

Ernest Talarico

Ernest Talarico Jr., Ph.D., center, and the Rev. James Wetzstein, left, at the ceremony. Dr. Talarico established the tradition of honoring anatomical donors with a memorial ceremony in 2000.

“I was taken aback,” said Dr. Talarico, associate director of medical education and associate professor of anatomy and cell biology at the IU School of Medicine-Northwest. “Some message simply wasn’t getting across. Traditionally, in anatomy and in medicine, you want to maintain some distance, but I’ve broken away from that thinking to present cadaver donors as a student’s first patient. I want to bring the focus back onto the patient -- not only in anatomy but in medicine overall.”

On Jan. 25, Dr. Talarico and 26 first-year medical students at the IU School of Medicine-Northwest participated in a remarkable event designed to break down those barriers: a memorial ceremony for the six patient donors, who selflessly gave their bodies to the medical school to help educate the next generation of physicians.

They were joined by other students, staff and faculty from the Northwest campus, as well as donors’ family members, with whom many students had exchanged personal messages and conversations over the past semester. These remembrances with donors’ families, established by Dr. Talarico, have taken place each year since 2007, and private memorials with his students alone began in 2000.

Anatomy donor ceremony

First-year medical students honored and gave thanks to the donors with written passages, songs and prayers.

The services, coordinated by the first-year medical students, provide an opportunity to express thanks for the gifts of the donors. In written passages, songs and prayers, the students reflected on the privilege they were afforded by the donors who endowed their bodies to medical education and research.

“It’s a change in thinking that not only involves knowing the name of the donor, which we refer to as the first patient, but also establishing communication with the family of the individual that you are dissecting,” Dr. Talarico said. “It’s about obtaining more information about the patient, exchanging information with the family and really caring for the family. We talk about treating the total patient; part of that is treating the family as well. Our students are treating the family by allowing contact, answering their questions and helping create a sense of closure.”

Most families first learn of the program when they receive letters each student has written thanking them for their gift, as well as information about themselves and a request for information about the family member’s loved one. That first bundle of letters opens the door to an exchange of information by letter, email or telephone. Some individuals even request their remains be sent to the campus after they learn about the program.

Military honors

This year's donors included two former soldiers, including a veteran of World War II, who were given military honors by members of the campus’ Reserve Officers Training Corps.

Friday’s ceremony remembered and gave thanks to anatomical donors Judy Clemens, Ralph Donnelly, Connie Hensley, William Kelly, Mary Nelson and an anonymous donor, as well as the medical school’s child and fetal donors. Donnelly, a veteran of World War II, was also given military honors by members of the campus’s Reserve Officers Training Corps, as was the anonymous donor.

The ceremony took place in the gross anatomy lab of the Dunes Medical Professional Building, on the Indiana University Northwest campus, followed by a luncheon and memorial presentation. Several first-year medical students expressed their appreciation through creative works, including a flute performance by Jennifer L. Peugh and a song, “Unforgettable,” performed by Jennifer E. Addo. Another first-year medical student, Jennifer R. Evan, donated an original work of art to the IU School of Medicine-Northwest on behalf of the donors during the memorial luncheon.

“This program has really grown as more and more people want to be involved,” Dr. Talarico said. “It’s really a change in thinking and a change in education that’s catching on, and we’re humbled by it. We know this is so because there are other schools trying to duplicate what we’re doing.”

Jennfer Evan painting

Artist and medical student Jennifer R. Evan donated this original artwork to IU Northwest in honor of this year's donors.

This includes Melvin A. Dupree, a reverend at the University of Maryland School of Medicine University, who traveled to Gary to observe the program in summer 2011, as well as a medical school in Spain that’s exploring implementing a similar system.

The program also received significant academic attention after a paper outlining the new approach to anatomy education was published in the journal Clinical Anatomy.

In addition, Dr. Talarico is the founder of the International Human Cadaver Prosection Program, which brings medical and non-medical professionals from around the world to the IU School of Medicine-Northwest each summer to ready body donors for the following semester’s gross anatomy classes.

In 2010, Dr. Talarico was inducted into The Society of Innovators of Northwest Indiana for his creation of this program as well as his new approach to anatomy education.

In addition to the annual service, a smaller service and memorial presentation take place each year in early August for participants in the prosection program, who lay a single rose next to the name of each anatomical donor.

“Expanding and integrating our curriculum to create enriching experiences that create competent doctors -- that’s the mission of the curriculum at the IU School of Medicine,” Dr. Talarico said. “And we’re doing it, right here, at the IU Northwest campus.”

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