ORLANDO — A secretary, a nurse, a dishwasher and an artist were among the volunteers who helped teach first-year students at University of Central Florida's new medical school some important lessons this year.
On Friday, students paid tribute to those volunteers — eight people who donated their bodies for use in the future doctors' medical education.
During a gathering at the medical school's temporary digs in the UCF Research Park, members of the 41-student charter class took turns expressing their gratitude for the donors' generosity, reciting poetry and in the case of medical student William Kang, playing a violin solo.
Although there were some tears at times, "This is not a sad occasion," Kang said.
Students mainly wanted to publicly share their feelings of respect for the donors, said Mitch Popovetsky, who helped organize the tribute.
"Thank you for teaching us through death how to preserve life," student Romeo Joseph said of the donors.
Students were never told the volunteers' names. But they learned their ages, which ranged from the mid 50s to late 90s, and occupations as clues for an autopsy report they would be required to give at the end of their first-year anatomy course.
For some students, the anatomy lab provided a first glimpse of a dead person, an unnerving experience for a few. Working in teams, students methodically dissected the cadavers, in the process taking away lessons extending far beyond the complexities of the human body.
After their demanding sessions in the lab, students said, they found themselves contemplating their own mortality and thinking about how they would handle patients with life-threatening conditions.
That's not unusual, said Shirley Scott, a hospice nurse who volunteered her time to help the students cope with the experience.
"Seeing a dead human body can be daunting," Scott said. "A first dissection even more so."
That first-year anatomy course opens a path for students to develop their own philosophy on death and grief, Scott said.
Examining the effects of grief is vital "to see its effect on patients and in yourself when you have a patient who is dying," Scott told the students.
"My hope is you will keep your ears and hearts open and really hear what patients have to say," Scott said. "If you listen, patients can be awesome teachers."
Popovetsky said students' last glimpse of the cadavers was during anatomy finals. It didn't occur to students until later that they would never see the bodies again.
So the public tribute already in the works took on added meaning as a final farewell, he said.
On average, about 350 Floridians a year donate their bodies through the Anatomical Board of the State of Florida, which serves as a clearinghouse. Some states have centralized systems such as Florida's, while others allow individual schools to accept donations.
Virtually every U.S. medical school has some kind of service to thank donors and their families, said Rick Drake, director of anatomy at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University.
In searching for a lasting memorial for the volunteers, the students decided to inscribe a poem on a stone that could be installed at the medical school's permanent building under construction in Lake Nona:
"You gave us your body,
You taught us your marvels
You led us to wisdom
For this we thank you."