An event to commemorate body donations, “the priceless gift of generosity,” previously only open to faculty, staff and students, is now open to the donors’ loved ones.
December 7, 2023 - By Emily Moskal
As students, faculty and family members filed into the pews of Memorial Church on the Stanford University campus, the Stanford Medicine Orchestra’s Canon in D Major, by Johann Pachelbel, echoed through the chapel.
They came, some 50 of them, to honor more than 200 of those who had donated their bodies to the Stanford School of Medicine in 2022 and 2023. The Nov. 30 ceremony was the first time the school held a public ceremony for the deceased. Although the Anatomical Gift Program started more than 75 years ago, until this year, the memorial service was open only to faculty, staff and students.
The event acknowledged the medical students’ “first patients,” said Sakti Srivastava, MD, a professor of surgery and the division chief of clinical anatomy, who gave the opening remarks.
“Our donors’ priceless gift of generosity to the Anatomical Gift Program is singularly the most important factor in bridging the educational journey and the future of health care,” Srivastava told the audience.
Medical education’s ‘foundation’
Medical students, during their first-quarter anatomy class, observe, dissect and learn surgical techniques on donor bodies. Because it is one of the first courses in a medical student’s journey and it’s sometimes their first interaction with a corpse, Srivastava said before the ceremony that the anatomical gift is a critical start to a medical education.
Although there are alternatives to whole body donation, such as plastic or virtual models, Srivastava said, such alternatives are not as effective for training medical students. Using real bodies also helps students confront death and develop the knowledge and respect of patients who have a life story behind them, including living relatives, he said.
“Medicine is a human-to-human interaction,” Srivastava said before the ceremony. “Realizing and reflecting on that from the beginning of health care training builds a strong foundation for everything else that will follow, whether that’s caring for, treating or making diagnoses for patients.”
“Education begins with donors, and the memorial service celebrates that,” he added.
‘The sanctity of life’
At the ceremony, Ian Whitmore, MD, professor of clinical anatomy, thanked the families for allowing their loved ones to bring wonder into the eyes of students who, for the first time, saw anatomy fit together. The orchestra then played “Gabriel’s Oboe” (from the film The Mission), eliciting tears from many in the audience.
Natali Barakat, a first-year medical student, described the donors as a “guiding force” for the medical journey.
“As we stand before you, representatives of a class of 120 students, we are in awe of the invisible ties that bring us together,” Barakat said. “We promise to remember and cherish all the lessons learned today and the last 16 weeks [of lab]. Even in your death, you have touched us.”
Barakat said before the ceremony that she and other students make a point of acknowledging the donors’ humanity and the life they lived. She said she wrote a gratitude and reflection letter to her donor’s body after every lab, and she played music popular during the decades the donor lived through. She added that many students hold the hands of their first teachers when they perform procedures.
“Working with bodies is a profound experience that teaches you a lot more than just anatomical structures,” Barakat said. “It teaches you about the sanctity of life.”
‘More than just a body’
Jasmine Pedroso, MD, now an obstetrics and gynecology and fertility surgeon, attended the ceremony to celebrate her stepmom, Charlene Floring Cuaresma.
Floring Cuaresma was a Hawaii native who worked as a public health educator at the University of Hawaii for decades, mentoring students from underrepresented and underserved backgrounds as they became medical students.
She followed Pedroso to the Bay Area to help take care of her grandchildren. In January 2020 she was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and was treated at Stanford Medicine until her death on Father’s Day this year. Instead of a funeral, the family honored her with a “paddle out” — about 10 people in kayaks headed into the Alameda estuary in San Francisco Bay and placed an orchid on the water in her memory.
The memorial allowed Pedroso to share her stepmother’s life so that she was “more than just a body,” Pedroso said after the ceremony.
Floring Cuaresma “wanted to give one final gift to the world,” aiding medical advancements by helping train the first-year students, Pedroso said. Attending the ceremony and hearing about the care the students gave to her stepmom even after her death helped give her a sense of closure, she said.
“It’s important for medical students to understand how fragile life is and how important it is for their training to incorporate humanity — and sometimes you forget, when your head’s down in a textbook or your hand is guiding the scalpel in a dissection lab, that you have the honor and privilege of saving lives,” Pedroso said. “We should always be grateful for those who donated their bodies to help us learn.”
Anyone can register to become a body donor on the Division of Clinical Anatomy’s website for the Anatomical Gift Program. Registration before death is required. Donors must meet certain criteria such as the absence of contagious blood-borne diseases, organ donation and autopsy. Stanford Medicine arranges transportation from the hospital as long as donors died within a 150-mile radius of campus. The program incurs the cost of transportation and cremation. The families do not receive the cremated remains, but ashes are scattered at sea during a private ceremony.
About Stanford Medicine
Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit med.stanford.edu.