Each September, first year students in the Queen’s Undergraduate Medical program quietly begin their studies in anatomy with a service acknowledging the donation of bodies that will be used in the lab assignments.
This year the short service will be held on Tuesday, September 5 at 3 p.m. in room 032 of the Medical Building, following the introduction to the Human Structure & Function course.
The course co-directors, Les MacKenzie, Stephen Pang, and Allan Baer will be joined by Queen’s Chaplain Kate Johnson to lead the program.
The session emphasizes respect and professionalism. “This is the first approach to professionalism,” MacKenzie explained in an interview. “The purpose of the donations is for this study and we have to respect that.”
“Respect not just for the bodies that have been donated, but for the families who have donated them,” he added.
Queen’s is one of a decreasing number of medical schools that still uses human cadavers in anatomy courses. According to a 2016 article in National Geographic, “half of Canadian medical schools have cut back on using cadavers, relying instead on new technology to make teaching basic anatomy more efficient.”
While there is definitely a place for technology, MacKenzie acknowledged, there’s also a strong argument for using donated human bodies. He pointed out, for example, that the many variations of “normal” are not experienced if everyone is using the same computer simulated program. It’s a privilege to have this learning experience, MacKenzie noted, and the students recognize this.
The emphasis on respect is tied to one of the objectives from the Queen’s UGME Competency Framework (Professional 1.1a) which notes students will “Identify honesty, integrity, commitment, dependability, compassion, respect, confidentiality and altruism in clinical practice and apply these concepts in learning, medical and professional encounters.” For the Human Structure and Function course, this is further annotated to explain that students will: “Consistently demonstrate compassion and respect for those who have donated their bodies to the medical school for use by students studying anatomy.”
“I truly believe the point does get across,” MacKenzie said. “Our medical students really get the message, there’s no horseplay. We have zero tolerance of misbehaving.”
Queen’s Chaplain Kate Johnson, who has led the opening service in recent years, takes the opportunity to emphasize the students’ own humanity and to remind them to keep in touch with it.
“Historically, medical students were at risk of a ‘super human’ culture of medicine,” Johnson said. “Now, with technological advances, there’s the danger of taking the humanity out of medicine. The anatomy lab is one place to keep the humanity.”
Johnson also reminds students they are starting on a pathway to a position of trust.
“You’re not just technically excellent, but your professional conduct is to be worthy of trust,” she noted at last year’s service. “It’s appropriate then that this part of your education starts with the bodies of people whose last wish was to entrust their physical remains to you in order that you can be fully trained in your profession,” she said. “Even more, their surviving family members have made what is often a huge decision to trust you by following through on their deceased loved ones’ wishes.
Tuesday’s service is open to all members of the Queen’s community. “It would be great if it was standing room only,” MacKenzie said.
Each spring features a more formal, graveside burial service at the Queen’s University plot at Cataraqui Cemetery which is attended by family, friends, and members of the Queen’s community. Details on this service will be available in the spring.
For more on the Human Body Donor Program at Queen’s see A body of medical knowledge in the Queen’s Alumni Review 2017 Issue 2
For information on procedures to donate, see the Queen’s Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences Human Body Donor Program web page.