The First Patient: Reflections on OHSU’s Body Donation Program

 “I am grateful for the opportunity that I have to learn from the donors that which cannot be taught from a book – what it means to be human.” – OHSU Dental student

It is with tears in my eyes that I write this tribute to OHSU’s body donors and their families, whose contribution makes the first year anatomy class both an educational and deeply emotional experience.

Each year, roughly 250 OHSU medical, dental, physician assistant and radiation therapy students take a detailed anatomy class; one with a rigorous academic reputation that requires focus, attention to detail and mastery of the complexities of the human anatomical system.

But our students learn so much more than the names of the bones and muscles – our students learn about the power of sacrifice and compassion during their experience with their donor, their “first patient”. 

I recently attended the 2013 Body Donor Memorial Service, a student-organized event that gave our community an opportunity to express its gratitude and deep respect for donors to the donors’ friends and families.  Many student spoke to their personal experiences in the class, others wrote tributes.  I am amazed at the professionalism and sincerity that our students displayed.  Our future medical professionals are exceptionally empathetic and mature beyond their years.

Even more striking than the student statements was the Presentation of Remembrance, followed by an open forum for family members and friends to speak about their loved ones. Photographs of the donors were displayed, ranging from formal childhood portraits to candid moments. On the screen were images of loving fathers, strong mothers and doting grandparents. Uniformly, all of the pictures captured a bit of the donor’s personality and generosity, something that will be forever carried in not only the hearts of their families and friends, but in the medical practice of our students.

As the families and friends of the donors shared their thoughts, I was struck by the incredible trust they have in our educational system. One woman commented that her family has placed their health in the hands of OHSU numerous times, from the birth of her children to the treatment of cancer, ultimately culminating in her grandmother’s donation. Each time her family has believed that OHSU will provide the best patient care possible; it is incredibly humbling to know that her grandmother trusted that her gift would help educate the next generation of doctors, dentists, Pas and RTs.

I am inspired to know that so many are willing to donate their bodies to help teach not only about anatomy, but about the human experience. Click here for more information on the OHSU Body Donation Program.


Jackie Wirz, Ph. D., is an Assistant Professor and the Biomedical Sciences Information Specialist at the Oregon Health & Science University Library. Her research career has covered diverse topics in molecular biology and biophysics; her professional interests include data visualization, information and data management and research ethics.  Jackie believes in evolution, salted caramel buttercream and Jane Eyre.

One response to “The First Patient: Reflections on OHSU’s Body Donation Program

  1. Thank you Jackie. I wonder how many of those students or faculty or others involved have also chosen to be donors.

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