A Divet and a Button

Boston, May 6, 2012 

I attended an extraordinary memorial service today, at Tufts School of Medicine, for the families of people who have donated their bodies for medical study.

I know from my husband’s own first year as a medical student at Tufts that learning human anatomy is among the most riveting and reverential things they ever will do.

I did not know of this annual ceremony, though, in which the students grace these families with music,  artwork, and poetry.   After the service, my husband’s team of students presented me with flowers.

We also were given a treasured opportunity to speak to the students who have learned so much from the people we love.

A divet and a button: in addition to his youth and outwardly great health and condition, these were the two things medical students noticed when they first saw my husband’s body.

They knew from the implanted port that left a circular, button-like protrusion above his heart, like a penny pressed upward–something I always feared would hurt him as I rested my head there, though he repeatedly assured me it did not–that he likely had chemotherapy drugs infused into him.

And they knew from the pronounced impression on his ring finger that he was a husband, that he had a family and was loved.

When the students mentioned the ring divet, I showed them the wedding band that made it, and hangs on a chain around my neck.

It turned out that in January of this year, shortly before I wrote about my husband’s wedding ring–which I could not bear to ask him to take off for me when he still had any chance of regaining consciousness–one of the medical students had written on her own blog: “I am so thankful to the man who donated his body to science to allow me to learn. . . . [H]e has a depression where his wedding band was and it really broke my heart because he is somewhat young and . . . looks stunningly alive and healthy.  So this post is dedicated to him.”

First-year medical students learning human anatomy know only the first names of their laboratory donors.  They can approximate their ages by observation, and of course there comes a point during the year when they learn a great deal about their causes of death.

The most extraordinary thing for me about these intelligent, thoughtful young students was that they are the only ones who have have seen The Beast: because my husband never became a surgical candidate, no one had ever seen, let alone closely examined, the pancreatic tumor that took his life.

Its broad outline had moved across scanned images which I had never seen except at a distance and through a veil of tears.  The shadows of its metastases had appeared on his liver images, to trained radiologists’ eyes.  But these were the first people who had seen it, and examined it, and learned from it.  It truly made me feel better to meet them and talk to them and see in their eyes and hear in their voices the interest and wonder and compassion which are so enormously important in making a good physician.

There came a moment in this wonderful ceremony when one of the Anatomy professors said that the course is not complete until the students have held this memorial service to honor the donors and to bring together the family of medical students and the donors’ own families.

He asked if anyone would like to speak about a family member.   No one spoke, so–not being a wallflower–I raised my hand.  What I wanted the medical students to know was this: their reverence towards learning the art of anatomy through the bodies of those we love is a gift to us.

And I wanted the other families to know, lest they not already be familiar with how anatomy is taught, that the wonder–the near-spiritual amazement–my own husband experienced as a first-year medical student with his donor, Max, was the most profound learning experience he had.  It stayed with him throughout his life and medical career.

One of the students put it beautifully: whenever she hears any anatomical term, she will now have a picture in her mind that she owes to her donor: that one generous person’s heart, or furled nerve, or pancreas.  Those images will guide her throughout her medical career.

My husband will be the first patient in what I believe, from meeting these students, will be meaningful careers of service for both them and all the living patients to come.

I’m certain Jim would have been glad to be in these hopeful hands, helping teach them how to heal.

I am thankful to them for choosing this path, and treating him–and me–so well.

(c) 2012 Stephanie M. Glennon

Author: Stephanie

In her spare time, Stephanie works full-time, and then some, as an attorney. She has published articles and delivered talks in arcane fields like forensic evidentiary issues, jury instructions, and expert scientific witness preparation. She attended law school near the the banks of the Charles River and loves that dirty water; she will always think of Boston as her home. You are welcome to take a look at her Facebook author page, or follow @SMartinGlennon on Twitter and @schnitzelpond on Instagram. Bonus points for anyone who understands the Instagram handle. All content on this blog, unless otherwise attributed, is (c) 2012-2023 by Stephanie M. Glennon and should not be reproduced (in any form other than re-blogging in accordance with the wee Wordpress buttons at the bottom of each post) without the express permission of the domain holder.

27 thoughts on “A Divet and a Button”

  1. Hey Stephanie,

    I am one of the medical students who was present at the memorial service earlier today. It was wonderful to hear you share your husband’s story with us. I am grateful that you chose to speak, as I have no doubt that your words eased some of the uncertainty that many family members may have experienced at some point in the donation process. I want to thank you on behalf of my fellow students for your husband’s gift. It is strangely fitting that in order for us to bestow our gifts unto others in the future, someone must first make a selfless gift to us, so that we may learn.

    May you find peace in the knowledge that your husband has touched many of us, and that his noble gift will serve countless people in the future.

    With most sincere gratitude,

    1. Thank you so much, Chris. I was glad to be there, and both my husband and I found great comfort in knowing that he could do something to help others starting out in a career he loved.

  2. Dear Stephanie,

    It was a very moving experience to meet you at the Tufts Medical School memorial service. My daughter was one of the students who learned from Jim’s body.

    Your perspective as the wife of a young donor, added a very special dimension to my daughter’s education. She learned very valuable lessons that Jim so altruistically wanted to impart through his body after he died. However, your story as Jim’s wife taught her (and her classmates) that a human body is also the seat of the soul. While humans share many anatomical similarities, it is through our souls that we can be unique beings.

    I thank you for sharing some of your most cherished moments with your husband. It allowed us to learn about Jim’s life: a caring husband, father of four beautiful children, a handsome young physician too young to die.

  3. Stephanie, you are a brave lady. In an earlier post you said you were not as tough as you thought you were, because you cried while speaking to others about compassionate treatment of patients and families during the ordeal of cancer. But you spoke. And here again at a memorial service and tribute to Jim and the others who donated themselves to science, you spoke, and touched many who were there. Words are your power, your weapon, your vehicle to improve a piece of the world. I think crying is beautiful, and many times I wish I could cry more myself. It brings it out true grief and cleanses. Even though maybe you wish you could look steely in front of an audience, the tears show that you are speaking what is in your heart.

  4. I am awed by both Steph’s post and the comments from others who were there. These are perspectives on life, learning, death and giving that I would never have heard, but for Jim, and Max. Thank you.

    1. He was indeed far too young, never smoked, no family history or known risk factors for any kind of cancer, ran every day with our beagles, ate well, and we should have had decades longer together and for him to see his children grow up. It was a bolt out of the blue.

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