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New Hampshire Views: A gift that celebrates the power of life over death

Upper Valley residents have a well-deserved reputation for generosity, enthusiastically supporting all manner of worthy causes with ample amounts of time and money. Still, a group of donors profiled in the Sunday Valley News is set apart by the awe-inspiring nature of their gift.

Between 25 and 40 residents of Vermont and New Hampshire donate their bodies each year to the Anatomical Gifts Program at Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine.

These cadavers play an integral role in the education of first-year medical students, where in anatomy class they learn first-hand what a truly amazing and complex system the human body is.

Several students interviewed remarked on how working with a cadaver puts flesh and bone on the lessons imparted by their textbooks, as well as pointing out the ways in which individual anatomy can be variable. Because anatomy class also involves the intimacy of putting hands on the human body and learning what information can be gleaned through touch – an essential medical skill – the experience is often a formative one.

It also appears in many ways to be spiritual as well as scientific. Students confront the reality of death in a way they may not have done previously and come to an understanding of the heavy burden of trust doctors assume when they enter the medical profession.

“Our students get to come to grips with dealing with death and dying. They come to grips with concepts of professionalism in their interactions with fellow students and patients,” according to Rand Swenson, an anatomy professor at the medical school. “It allows our students to reflect on some things many people don’t reflect on in life.”

It is no surprise, then, that students seem to leave the anatomy lab with a deep reverence for the gift they have received and keen appreciation for the responsibility they incur to both donors and their families.

They are invited to reflect on these matters in writing, and to share those reflections at a memorial service held at the end of the school year at Rollins Chapel.

What sort of people would make such an extraordinary gift?

We suspect that the motivations are as varied as the anatomy that students explore. But it would be no surprise to learn that many donors are profoundly grateful for medical treatment they have received in life and want to express their deep appreciation in death.

Such was the case with Bruce and Faye Dudley, a Woodstock couple who died this year, in July and February respectively. Both had received medical care at Dartmouth-Hitchcock that changed their lives and had decided as long as 20 years ago that they wanted to help train the next generation of doctors.

This is not the kind of donation that everyone would be prepared to make, but those few who determine to do so deserve the gratitude not only of medical professionals but also of all of us who receive their care. It is a human gift in the deepest sense, one that celebrates a small victory for the power of life over death.

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