Nayantara Orekondy walked into the anatomy lab and felt the sting of formaldehyde in her eyes.
She had fretted about this moment for some time. Would she be sick? Would she be upset? She had no idea. She'd read textbooks, watched videos; never stood in the presence of a lifeless person, never been told to look inside.
Her lab mates paused for a collective breath before the first cut.
For months, the first-year medical students dissected the cadaver of a woman who had died in her 70s. They examined her liver, reflected on her mastectomy, held her heart in their hands.
As clinical as labs can be, there was no forgetting the woman once lived; her nails were painted a light shade of pink.
Orekondy, 23, and her lab mates would never learn the woman's name, or what made her decide to donate her body to science. But they began to call her Doris.
On April 20, dozens of medical and physical therapy students gathered in the grass outside the University of South Florida anatomy lab for one final matter: to thank the 24 cadavers they called their "silent teachers."
• • •
Opening the ceremony, which USF students hold once a year, was the director of anatomy, Dr. Orhan E. Arslan:
"The main, really crucial element for education," he said, "remains the human bodies . . .
"They come from different backgrounds, different professions, different ages . . .
"Gathered in one place for the sole purpose of educating the future generation."
Some of the donors wanted to give back to the medical profession.
Maybe they got extensive treatment, or the first surgery of its kind. Maybe they spent their lives serving others and wanted to make one final contribution.
Moira Jackson, the executive director of the state anatomical board, has heard all of those reasons from people who decide to donate their bodies to science.
The board distributes cadavers to medical training facilities throughout the state. Every year, about 300 come in. There is always a need for more.
"I'm going to do it," said Michael Hoad, USF's vice president of communications. He attends the memorial every year, but this one carried a special meaning.
His father died last May, with complications from chemotherapy. His body spent this year at the Medical University of South Carolina. "This was the final thing he could give," Hoad said.
"I'm very proud of him. He did it, in part, because I told him about this ceremony."
• • •
The lab mates gathered and wrote messages to the cadaver they'd shared all year.
Dear Doris, Orekondy began.
Thank you for giving me a gift that no one else could have ever given. I am so very grateful for your generosity.
There was also "Marie," who arrived with a thyroid removed. Aleksandra Yakhkind, 26, imagined the former secretary once spoke with a raspy voice.
And "Bernard," a husky military veteran. Steven Gunther, 24, wondered what the man had seen in his service.
Alexandra Printz, 25, joined a gym after feeling the plaque that built up in a port worker's heart. Unlike others, she did not give the cadaver a name. He already has one, she said.
To symbolize each of their donors, the groups assembled bright sky lanterns.
They held a flame to the opening, heating the air.
Orekondy's group held on, three 23-year-old women now more conscious of their own mortality, and of the parts inside, working to keep them alive.
The lantern filled like a lung.
It came time to let go.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.