By Wendy Sarubbi | February 20, 2015 4:15 pm

After spending 17 weeks in the Anatomy Lab, first-year students took an evening to reflect on their journey, and honor the gift of their “silent teachers” – those who willed their bodies to medical education.

On February 18, students and faculty held a “Send-Off Ceremony,” a memorial service to honor the 23 people who had decided to help teach medical students when they died and became the Class of 2018’s first patients. Anatomy Lab is a rite of passage for new medical students. But at UCF, students don’t just memorize body organs systems through dissection. Instead, they must determine their first patient’s cause of death to better understand the clinical implications of the science they are learning.

For many students, the lab can be an emotional experience as they wrestle with life, death and the human impact of disease.

As she spoke at the Send-Off Ceremony, first-year student Heather Burke said her first patient helped her heal as she coped with her grandfather’s death during the Anatomy Lab module. “You continued to remind me how impactful a person can be beyond his or her life,” Burke said of her patient. “Without this realization, I would not have found the same peace that I have now.”

Other students said the lab was the real beginning of their journey to becoming physicians. “This was our first patient that we got to learn from, and it will stick with us for the rest of our lives,” first-year student Stephen Rineer said. “As a result, those 17 weeks changed me to really realize that I’m on this path for a reason. I am greatly indebted to the person who donated their body to make that happen.”

Throughout the lab, students are guided by core and volunteer/affiliated faculty members. Physicians from across the community work in the lab, helping to explain the clinical ramifications of what the students find during dissection. For Dr. Lucy Ertenberg of Cornerstone Hospice, the teaching included helping students understand their range of emotions and the motivations of those who decide to donate their bodies to science. “This, to me, is the ultimate completion of their lives,” Dr. Ertenberg said at the ceremony. “They wanted to make a difference, they wanted to educate until the very end of their lives.”

Many students discovered that their patients were likely in great of pain during their last days, succumbing to conditions like cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Ertenberg emphasized how their first patient’s gift also honored the people closest to them. “It was their family members, their caregivers, their loved ones that stood strong with them, and helped guide them through this,” she said.

Students closed the memorial ceremony by heading outside to release 23 paper lanterns in honor of each patient. The unseasonably high winds prevented the group from lighting each lantern, so everyone gathered around one lantern, and watched it sail off in the breeze, reflecting on the gift that they had received from complete strangers. College of Medicine Assistant Professor Dr. Daniel Topping encouraged students to take the lessons from Anatomy Lab, and use them on their journey to becoming The Good Doctor. “Take all these cold, hard facts that you’ve learned in the classroom,” he said, “and temper them with a deep and abiding sense of warmth and compassion as you go on to better the lives of your fellow human beings.”

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