Photo Credit: Leonardo Da Vinci, Royal Collection, Study of Arms and Shoulders, The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse
My name is Elorm Avakame and we met two weeks ago. Of course, you don’t remember me – you never will. Yet I will carry the memory of our first meeting as long as I live. We had both planned for such a meeting, though neither of us knew exactly who the other would be. I must admit that I was strangely nervous to meet you. While I tend to approach most new experiences with youthful bravado, I found myself unsure of how I would react to our introduction. I wanted to clothe myself in a shroud of detachment to protect myself from reacting strongly but found myself unable to. Doing so would have detracted from the importance of the moment.
The moment of our introduction remains a vivid memory. I stood next to you, awash in equal parts excitement and trepidation. You lay peacefully, lifelessly, with a serenity that is only achieved when one has finished his life’s work. I remember being immediately struck by the reality of your humanity. When describing you prior to our meeting, I had used words such as “cadaver” and “donor”. In that moment, I realized that the man who lay before me was known by very different terms –perhaps as father, husband, or brother. Certainly, you were known as a son and as a friend. While I never had the great fortune of knowing you in life, I consider it a privilege to know you in death. Ironically, the circumstances that made our encounter possible brought great joy to my loved ones but profound grief to yours. Our time together marks the beginning of my career as a healer of the human body, but it was only made possible by the end of your time on this earth.
Over the next several weeks, I will attempt to commit to memory the organs, tissues, vessels, and nerves that worked in beautiful harmony to give you life. At times, the enormity of this task causes me to lose sight of the significance of the experience. At other times, however, I am overwhelmed by the meaning of it all. For instance, after I had drawn my scalpel blade across your palm and peeled your skin away on a determined search for the structures that lay underneath, I suddenly became aware that I was destroying the very hand that was a source of comfort to those you loved. In the coming weeks, I will dissect your heart, the engine that quietly pumped your life-sustaining blood until it was silenced forever. I will hold your brain — which carried all of your memories, fears, hopes, and dreams — in the palms of my hands.
These moments serve to underscore the magnitude of your gift. By choosing to donate your body for my education, you chose to forgo a traditional funeral and burial. You did so knowing that your body would fall into the hands of an inexperienced student. Indeed, as one physician so perfectly stated, this is one of the great paradoxes of medicine — we learn to heal the living by dismantling the dead. Sir, you lived, you laughed, you loved, and you ultimately died. Yet even in death, as the lessons I learn from you empower me to change the lives of my patients, you will live on. Thank you for your investment in the future of medicine. Thank you for your investment in me.
Elorm F. Avakame
Harvard Medical School
Class of 2017