The annual Ceremony of Gratitude remembers the lives and generosity of those who give their bodies to medical education.
Every year, future medical providers gather around dissection tables in The Warren Alpert Medical School anatomy lab, examining the organs, bones and traversing blood vessels, muscles, and nerves across the landscape that is the human body.
These students undergo a particularly intimate educational experience that provides vital knowledge beyond textbook sketches. And it would not be possible without the selfless gift of others: those who choose to donate their bodies to Brown’s Anatomical Gift Program after their deaths.
In honor of these individuals, this year’s Ceremony of Gratitude brought their families and the anatomy students together in person for the first time since 2019, to honor the donors’ generous spirit.
“Anatomy is a really big part of our first year, just because it’s a very unique experience that is shared among people in medicine,” said Emily Franco MD’25, who spearheaded a committee of 12 students that organized the ceremony, a years-long tradition at the Medical School. The event did not happen in 2020, due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and was held virtually in 2021.
But this year, on May 18, donors’ families and students were once again able to come together. Medical, Gateways, and physician assistant students read aloud letters about their personal experiences with anatomy and serenaded the attendees through musical interludes, which featured instrumental and vocal performances.
The students’ reflections were grounded in sentiments that were predominantly shared by their classmates. “Grateful,” “thankful,” and “honored” were featured prominently in a word cloud of medical students’ feelings toward the donors that was displayed throughout much of the ceremony.
“We are part of a very small population of people who have been granted such intimate access to an experience so human,” Nouran Ibrahim MD’25 told the audience.
The ceremony allows students to receive some closure on their time in anatomy and contemplate the value of the donors’ decisions, while families celebrate their loved ones’ memories and appreciate the significance of their contributions, both Franco and Dale Ritter PhD’98, the anatomy course director at the Medical School, said.
In her letter, Franco reflected on her questions about her donor: “When we studied the brain, I felt like I was holding [the donor’s]whole lives in my hands—all their memories, thoughts, feelings. I wondered what those memories were. I wondered how we were so fortunate to be the recipients of such a selfless gift and sacrifice.”
In the 50 or more hours medical students spend in anatomy, they get well acquainted with the physical attributes of the bodies they study, but don’t learn much more about the donors beyond such basic information as age and cause of death, Ritter said. The ceremony is a time to acknowledge the donors’ experiences, characters, and lifetime impacts.
Their “gift is a testament to their character, to their passion for education, to their selflessness,” Franco said.
The Anatomical Gift Program benefits not only Brown medical students but also those in Bryant University’s physician assistant program, the University of Rhode Island’s physical and occupational therapy programs, and a Providence College undergraduate course, according to Ritter.
“I hope I can say we’re all humbled by that gift,” Olivia Nyberg MD’25 said at the event. She added that her grandmother donated her body to a similar program, and acknowledged her “spirit of generosity, sacrifice, and humility with which every individual had given their gift.”
While the ceremony can be sad for families, Ritter said he hoped that, for most relatives, hearing these words “reinforced their feeling that what their loved one did was a good thing.”
Katie Gallogly Lowell said the event was a means of honoring her mother and father-in-law, both donors. Her mother had been unable to receive a wake and funeral because of the pandemic. “They were both really family oriented” and “selfless” people, she said. “Having this ceremony in a way is a huge part of the closure.”
They were two of this year’s 52 donors, each of whom were acknowledged by first name as students passed in front of the audience and placed roses into vases.
The ceremony “was so much more than I was anticipating,” Lowell said. “It was very lovely.”
Lowell also was reunited at the event with her mother’s hospice physician: Ed Martin ’76 MD’79 MPH’07, Hope Health’s chief medical officer, and a professor of medicine, clinician educator, at Brown.
In his keynote address, Martin talked about the value for medical providers of knowing patients as whole people, not just their illness, and the lessons on gratitude that he’s gleaned from some of his patients.
He reminded the audience to “let the people close to you—your family, your friends—know how thankful you are for having them in your life.”
“For those family members who join us tonight, we can’t thank you enough for this tremendous generosity,” Martin said. “You should be so proud of your loved ones.”
In addition to keeping the memories of the celebration’s talks, the family members could read and take home letters written by other first-year medical students, in which they expressed the meaningfulness of the donors’ gift.
Toward the end of the ceremony, several family members recalled their relatives’ excitement about contributing to the program, their involvement in health care during their lives, and how much they’re missed, evoking laughter, smiles, and tears from the audience.
“I’m so glad that the families were willing to come up and share stories because I think that’s what everyone needed to make it all very real,” Franco said.
Alex Philips ’21 MD’25 said that “having a ceremony that honored the sheer amount of learning that took place, and dedication and generosity that our body donors had, was incredible.”
Likewise, Kaitlin Powell MD’25 noted that “throughout the year, [it was]kind of easy for me to detach [in anatomy lab]… but hearing [the donors’]names made it more real and reminds you that these were people with lives.”
As the evening drew a commemorative close to the donors’ final roles in education, students viewed the experience as one essential but early step in their own lifelong journeys in medicine.
Soneida DeLine-Caballero ScM’22, a Gateways student, told the audience, “When it comes to your loved ones’ impact in the world, our future patients can assure you this moment is far from the end.”
“I hope you find solace in the fact that your loved ones will be saving lives in the future,” Franco said. “They have laid the foundation for our entire medical careers.”
The members of the Ceremony of Gratitude organizing committee – all MD Class of 2025 – were: Jazmin Aceves, Rachel Dumond, Emily Franco, Marina Hahn, Simon Kidanemariam, Olivia Nyberg, Mario Ojadi, Abdi Omar, Victoria Sanchez Guzman, Emma Wilcox, and Katie Zechnich.