Published June 22, 2016
Sunshine, butterflies and heartfelt tributes ruled the day as 600 family members of individuals who donated their bodies to medical science gathered for the UB Anatomical Gift Program Memorial Service.
UB holds the service every other year so that families can commemorate loved ones whose bodies were donated to the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
The service also gives UB medical students a chance to explain how anatomical gifts have informed and enhanced their medical education.
Rising second-year medical students Jessica LaPiano and Shannon Tierney shared what the donations meant to them during their first year of medical school.
LaPiano said she was nervous at first and wasn’t sure how she would react to working with a donor.
“But when we began, and I saw our donor for the first time, I was completely overwhelmed by the opportunity I had just been given,” she said.
“This was not a textbook I had been asked to read or a case study I was supposed to diagnose,” LaPiano said. “This man had been someone’s husband, a father, a brother, a son — and, with his last gift, he chose to become my teacher.”
“This man was my first patient. He was the one who taught me the things a textbook couldn’t, because his lessons went beyond pure anatomy,” she added. “He was the one who taught me the importance of humanity, empathy, compassion and respect in medicine.”
Tierney said it was a “Herculean task” to put into words what the gift of donation meant to her. She put her thoughts into an original poem, which she read to the families.
UB has the largest anatomical gift program in the state and one of the largest in the nation, accepting 600 donations a year, according to Raymond P. Dannenhoffer, PhD, associate dean for support services and director of the program.
And, he pointed out, it isn’t only medical students who are aided. UB medical residents, students in other health sciences programs and emergency responders in the community also benefit.
“It’s important to remember that we are just the caretakers,” Dannenhoffer said. “The donors aren’t donating to us. They’re donating to the community. The people who ultimately benefit from the anatomical gifts are all the people who get treated by the health professionals who learned from the donation.”
“Your loved ones did all kinds of amazing things during their lives, and the one last thing they did was to make an amazing gift,” he told the families in attendance, adding that the university considers these donors its “greatest teachers.”
Guest speaker John E. Tomaszewski, MD, professor and chair of pathology and anatomical sciences, said he immediately noticed Western New Yorkers’ selfless nature upon moving to Buffalo from Philadelphia in 2011.
“The deep generosity of the people of Western New York has made this program a true national model,” he said. “The breadth of the program, the care given to the gifts by the program’s stewards, and the appreciation and recognition of the student recipients is unmatched.”
Tomaszewski said these donations are among the most personal and significant gifts that someone can make, and they have tremendous educational value for UB’s students.
“A full understanding of medicine for a student is impossible without a preclinical opportunity to be with, to study with and to learn from an anatomical gift donor,” he said.
“Students often talk about their great teachers. There are no greater teachers than those who offer themselves to students through the UB Anatomical Gift Program.”
Dozens of monarch butterflies were released at the conclusion of the ceremony. A butterfly was chosen as the symbol of UB’s Anatomical Gift Program because, in many cultures, legend has it that “if one whispers a wish when a butterfly is released, it will carry those wishes to their loved ones,” according to Dannenhoffer.
The ceremony was held June 9 at the Skinnersville Cemetery next to UB’s North Campus.
Some donors’ ashes were interred in a communal grave; other families chose to have their loved ones’ ashes returned to them or buried privately.