Sunday, July 4, 2021

From The Episcopal New Yorker - 2017

I was invited to write about our story and our son, William's, death due to heroin.  Here's what I wrote:

It’s easy for me to think of prayer as a request for guidance or help or perhaps prayer offered as thanks.  I speak as one who does not exercise prayer in my day-to-day life, indeed as one who questions the power of prayer.  When I was a boy my godmother gave me a plaque, Albrecht Durer’s “Praying Hands”.  I still have it. Though it has been safely stored out of sight for decades now, I’ve not forgotten it.

 Four years ago, our son and brother, William, suffered an accidental heroin overdose. That was followed by six weeks of hospitalization, either heavily sedated or comatose, before it was clear he would never recover. We arranged organ donation (indeed were even with him in the operating room, watching as the tube that supported his breathing was removed). Unfortunately, once removed from life support, he did not expire within the short time frame necessary to harvest serviceable organs.  Rather he lasted another 21 hours before he died in our arms.  Determined that his death not be in vain we donated his body to Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons. To a person, the doctors that we asked about doing so commented on how important anatomy class was in their own development as physicians. The head of the program that "accepted" William (Getting a deceased 24-year-old into medical school, even as a cadaver, isn't as easy as you might think.) was emphatic that an anatomical donation could ultimately be even more important than an organ donation. Our donation was balm and comfort, as well as encouragement to follow my son when the time comes. 

Every year the first-year anatomy students at Columbia organize an Anatomy Memorial Service to express their gratitude for the donations that become the foundation of their medical education and to convey a sense of the impact donors’ gifts have on their education and their lives.  It is a beautiful service with student offerings of music, written and spoken tributes, observations offered by their faculty, and a chance for donor families to respond and offer their reflections and thanks.

So it was that in early April of 2014 we had the opportunity to remember and celebrate William along with all the other donors recognized.  Both at the time and as I’ve reflected since I’ve been struck by how often these budding doctors mentioned hands.  

One student wrote: “It was not at all a rare thing for me to overhear a classmate accidentally bumping against a cadaver and saying without thinking, ‘Oh! I’m sorry!’ Nor was there a day when I didn’t see a classmate’s hand resting – comfortingly, automatically – on the shoulder of a cadaver as we stood by their sides.  And on the day when we dissected the hand, I feel sure I cannot have been the only one who – before we began our work – furtively held our donor’s hand in a brief clasp of reassurance, squeezing it as if to say, ‘It’ll be alright,’ despite the fact that he was dead, in honor of the fact that he had once been alive.  I say all this to emphasize that the donors, although we didn’t know them, they were people nonetheless, and there was no way for us not to feel that.  The lab was a place of respect, and the donors taught us that.  In the presence of their generosity, there was no way not to feel awed.” 

Cadavers were honored donors.  The students, who worked in teams of four referred to them as their first patients.  “…my second encounter with the donor’s body left me feeling an array of confusing emotions.  For the first time, I saw his hands.  Hands that still had fingernails and hair on them.  Hands that reminded me of the hands I love to hold.  And I thought to myself, ‘This person had someone who loved him, and who held his hands.’ This simple and seemingly insignificant thought truly left me feeling quite inspired. It also emphasized the reality that this body was a living breathing person.  That realization serves for me as my first difficult moment in treating my very first patient.” 

 “The first day wasn’t as rough as I was anticipating. It wasn’t until the second dissection when I saw her pink and chipping nail polish that it really hit home.  The benefit of having such a personal experience in the lab is the sense of pure respect and admiration I feel for our donor.”

From another, “On the first day we met, as I held your hand and noticed the faded pink nail polish you wore, I wondered if, as you applied that once-shining coat, you knew it would be the last time you would do so.  And if so, were you afraid?  Or had you found peace in the limitations of our profession and the natural course of life and death?  I’d like to think that you received some solace in the knowledge that you would go on to guide my colleagues and me in our pursuit of medicine. And for that reason, I want to say thank you.  I have met you without us having ever exchanged a word.  As you have paid tribute to my scientific profession by the donation of who you once were, may I pay tribute to your life and death by reaching my fullest potential as a caregiver to others.” 

These words strike me like a prayer, a prayer of thanksgiving, a prayer of hope, a devotion.  A statement of devotion. A prayer offered with the prayer giver’s full intention to make the prayer manifest. I like to think that our hands need not always be clasped to pray, as beautiful as Durer’s rendition is, but that the spirit of prayer enters the flesh of our hands as we attempt to mold hope and thanksgiving into reality, as we devote ourselves to that cause.         

The students’ memorial comments were also prayers of thanksgiving, though perhaps not directly intended as such. “I didn’t have a nameless, faceless empty vessel to examine every week; I was in the presence of a work of art, shaped by decades of experience and work.  The hands I explored looked nothing like the textbook because, unlike that picture, these hands had made music, done work, caressed loved ones….Years from now, if I am fortunate enough to donate my own body I hope another medical student is asked the same question.  And I hope she thinks the same thoughts.  What have these hands done?  And even though she may never know, the hands she explores, my hands will have (hopefully) eased the suffering of others:  all thanks to the hands, heart, and presence of another.  Thank you.”

One thing we’ll never know is how many times the hands these students studied were themselves clasped in prayer.  What guidance did they ask for?  What thanks did they offer?  Certainly, the very fact that those hands were in an anatomy lab made them an act of devotion.  

“Being a student in Anatomy and working with the bodies of real people, has inspired me to always remember that the gift of trust that patients place in their physicians is too precious to ever be expected or earned; it is simply a gift, always.”

With all my doubts, sparing as I am with prayer, I did send the doctors and nurses who cared for my boy William over those six long weeks a prayer I composed for my father’s memorial service.  A prayer thanking them for their devotion.  

            Dear God,

            We give thee thanks for all those who tend to the sick.

                        We thank thee for those who heal.

                        We thank thee for those who nurse.

                        We thank thee for those who counsel.

                        We thank thee for those who pray.


            Inspire their minds when they seek new answers firm their hands when their strength falters, lift up their hearts when hope seems faint, hear their prayers when they call to you.


            Grant that in their time of need they may receive as generously as they give, remembering always that through their time, their talent, and their tenderness do we see your love.



Prayer, for me, may be like that Durer plaque, tucked away but not completely forgotten. 





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