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Faculty, Students, and Family Attend USU Memorial to ‘First Patients’

Layne Allemond speaks at a podium. Three people sit in chairs behind her.

By Ian Neligh

By the time they’re introduced, the first patient for many medical school students has already passed away. 

However, that introduction becomes an important learning experience, ultimately helping others for the duration of their career. 

The term “first patient” is often used out of respect for the donated bodies used to teach human anatomy to medical students, nurses and graduate school students. For many, the experience is humbling, deeply transformational, and often stays with them for their entire careers in healthcare and science. 

The Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) held a memorial service on May 26 honoring those who donated their bodies for medical education.

More than 80 attendees, including many family members, filled the university’s Sanford Auditorium as faculty, students, and other speakers paid tribute to those who donated their remains to the school’s Anatomical Gift Program.

A group of students standing together
Students learn lessons beyond anatomy that stay with them throughout their
careers from anatomical donors - their "first patients." (Image credit: Courtesy
of Dr. Frederick Lough)
The university receives 200 cadavers a year.  Students learn from about 45 of them and have access to another 30 for review, according to USU’s anatomical director Ronald Rivenburgh. Last year the eldest donor was 106 years old, while the average age is about 89. The school receives half through donations, while the others come from the Maryland State Anatomy Board, Anatomical Tissue Banks, other families, and funeral providers, according to Rivenburgh.

USU President Dr. Richard Thomas said the service reflected the deep respect and gratitude that the university and its students have for those who selflessly donated their remains to education and research. Thomas shared with the loved ones of the families in attendance that the donor served as both the students’ first patient and instructor, helping them to develop a foundation for a lifetime of learning and practice in medicine and service to others.

“They will use this information every day for the rest of their professional careers,” Thomas said. “This supports the efforts of discovering innovative solutions and therapies that will undoubtedly change the lives of thousands of people including not only our service members and their families but veterans and the general population at large.”

USU student Army 2nd Lt. Gabriel Vargas shared with the family and friends of the deceased a profound appreciation for the donor’s sacrifice.

“Your loved ones provided medical insight and experience that 70-hour-work weeks with textbooks, tablets, and computers can not,” Vargas said. “They showed us anatomical relationships that will better the outcome of our future patients globally. In fact, every future patient of ours owes you a debt of gratitude for affording us the opportunity to explore medicine with people you hold so dear.”

Sharing thoughts from a letter she wrote with the help of her fellow medical school students and professors, Air Force 2nd Lt. Layne Allemond said her first patient taught lessons she and others would be selfish to forget. 

“You were not easy, and you were not relenting — but you were always honest and always forthgiving,” Allemond said. “You turned loss into longevity, the truest form of making this world a better place long after you’ve left it. And although I could not know your life and how you lived it, I know your honor, service, and sacrifice and plan to celebrate these for as long as my career will allow it.”

Allemond added the impact of the donors is an immeasurable teacher to doctors, nurses, professors, researchers, dentists, and physical therapists. 

A large group of people looking down on the stage during the memorial service.
The Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences hosted a memorial service honoring those who donated their bodies for medical education on
May 26th. (Image credit: Courtesy of Thomas Balfour)

“We can’t state the depth of our gratitude but we can demonstrate it daily by treating future patients with the utmost respect and dignity to prove they’re worthy of your unparalleled selflessness,” Allemond said. “You’re my first patient and I thank you.”

Army 2nd Lt. Michael Deegan said for many students who become physicians working with a donated body is one of the first formative experiences of learning medicine.

“We should reflect on what we have learned, not of human anatomy, but of our humanity,” Deegan said. “First these were our patients. We were given an awesome responsibility and were privileged when learning from your loved ones. Such sterile and removed words such as ‘specimen,’ ‘cadaver’ or ‘body’ that litter medical literature anatomy, dissections, and at times shamefully our own speech, do not do justice to the people that were in front of us.”

Deegan said medical students shouldn’t forget what a privilege it gave them when working with their first patients. He added they learned who the patient was at their most vulnerable and intimate. 

“We studied hearts that must have skipped a beat when they saw their spouse for the first time, that must have raced when a child was born or that slowly began to relax after a long day’s work,” Deegan said. “We saw scars from life-saving surgeries, saw the marvel of the body before us … and we silently thanked them for everything that they had given us.”

Michael Deegan stands at a podium and speaks. Behind her are three people in chairs.
Army 2nd Lt. Michael Deegan shares his respect during the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences' memorial service on May 26th for
anatomical donors who gifted their remains to USU for medical education. (Image credit: Courtesy of Thomas Balfour)

Professor David Mears said the university’s anatomy teaching team has a very special appreciation for those who were being honored because without them they wouldn’t be able to do their job.

“We appreciated that these individuals had the wisdom to know that future healthcare workers would need more than textbooks to learn what they need to know,” Mears said. “We appreciate that they cared enough about us and future generations to want to give a gift that would keep paying forward because it helps people learn how to help other people.”

Mears said the professors were thankful the donors felt it was important to support the university’s mission to train the next generation of leaders in the military health system. 

“Their kindness is something that we greatly appreciate, is something that we should always remember, and is something we should celebrate,” Mears said.