I have just watched A Parting Gift, RTE’s documentary about students learning anatomy from bodies donated to Trinity College. One donor was my late wife Anne Holliday, who died of cancer in April 2011, who continued to help others to learn medicine up to three years later, and who will continue to indirectly help the patients of those students after they become doctors for decades to come.
The programme spanned all stages of adult life, from enthusiastic teenaged students starting out on the university education that would shape their careers, through the compassionate and committed staff in their fourth decade working at the Trinity Anatomical School, to ninety-year old bodies left behind after lives that were almost as old as the Irish Free State. And the common thread connecting all of those unique lives is a desire to help others.
It began with Chief Technicians Siobhan Ward and Philomena McAteer preparing a class of young medical students for what they would experience when they saw their first dead body. The skin would be wax-like because of preservation. There would be chemical smells because of the embalming. There would be no flowing blood, but there would be six to seven litres of embalming fluid. They would only see the part of the body that they were learning about.
But behind those cold facts lay a warmer one. This body was a gift from a caring person, who had lived and loved the life that the students were now living, and who had decided that they wanted to continue to help others after they died. The students were introduced to the bodies by name, and were told who they were, how they died and at what age. They treated the bodies with the respect due to the person who had once lived in them. In effect, the body before them was their first patient in their medical career.
The students were eager to learn. Robert Farrell was relieved and joyful that he was starting course he really wanted to do. Jessica Maguire was following the career path of her GP father and her midwife mother. Bevin Arthurs had never been to a wake before, Lili Paterson wasn’t sure what to expect when seeing a dead body, and Heather Grace saw it as a part of the learning curve of doing medicine.
I cried with both sadness and pride as I watched Siobhan introduce a group of students to Anne’s body, at Station Number 3 in a room I had never been in. It was the first time I had seen Anne’s body, albeit covered, since she had died. Most of the donated bodies are eighty to ninety years old, Siobhan told the students, but Anne died as a young woman, which was sad. She had received good medical care, and had decided to give her body to continue that care for others. One student had to sit down, but declined the offer to leave and continued to learn.
The programme interspersed the start of the students’ journeys with the later stages of the journeys of the donors and their families. Memories flooded back as I watched myself leafing through photographs of Anne. I was used to seeing them as normal-sized photos, but now they were blown up the the size of my television screen. As a cutaway shot showed one of our cats on a cushion, she was now sitting beside me, watching me watching her on the television.
A photo of Anne addressing a New Consensus rally against IRA and loyalist terrorism reminded me of her courage as a once Protestant Irish atheist fighting for social justice in a sectarian Catholic Ireland. Anne and I campaigned together for a quarter of a century against the criminalisation of divorce, abortion, homosexuality, and even condoms, with both the Catholic Church and the IRA claiming to carry out their injustices in our names.
A later photo of Anne and I at the 1998 World Cup Final brought me back to a crowded Paris railway station, where we had got split up after the match. When I found Anne she was sitting beside a middle-aged English man, discussing his occasional trips to Dublin. I recognised him as Nobby Stiles, who had played for England in the 1966 World Cup Final, and they were both unimpressed that I had drawn attention to him and interrupted their conversation by attracting autograph hunters.
A photo of Anne and other women from our neighbourhood running in the Women’s Mini-Marathon to raise funds for victim support reminded me of her local work chairing our residents’ association and preserving historic buildings. And various photos of us on holiday reminded me of how much of the world we were both lucky enough to have seen, and how many friends we made from so many places, and how much we loved each other for so long, before Anne died way too young with so much more for us to see and do together.
While Anne’s story meant everything to me because I loved her, it was only one of the countless unique stories of the 120 or so people who donate their bodies each year to the Dublin Medical Schools, each of whom left behind family members who loved them as much as I loved Anne. The programme introduced us to several more of these donors and their loved ones.
Maurice Bryan, who died of cancer aged 83, spoke eight years ago about his decision to donate his body. He had a hip replacement, without which he would have been in a wheelchair, and he wanted future doctors to provide as good a service to others as his had for him. “If I have a doctor working on me, I want them to know what they are doing,” he said. His wife Bobbie showed the cameras his toy cars and paintings and a cupboard full of awards.
Rex Roberts had died after three years in a nursing home, where his memory had gone and his wife Patricia felt she had already lost him. They had no service, as they weren’t believers, and she was keeping his ashes for their son to scatter later in Brittas Bay where they had first met. Patricia said that when somebody dies, we give away their old clothes to a charity shop, and giving away our bodies is a similar act of charity so that somebody else can make use of them.
Maire Sexton had left her body to Trinity, the College she had always said made her. Her sons Colm and Bernard told how she had graduated aged fifty in 1978 and started a new lease of life for herself. Sean Maguire had been dying of cancer in the Mater when his wide Mary told him a neighbour had donated their body. Let’s look into that, he said. Now Mary and their daughter Ann Marie are proud that Sean is a teacher residing in Trinity!
The medical school
But not all bodies can be accepted. Ian Duthie was a registered donor, but his body was too emaciated by illness to be used. His father Arthur understands why, and remains supportive of the body donation process. Other reasons why the school might be unable to take a body are that the body is obese, or died in an accident or abroad, or there was a post-mortem, or the school is over capacity.
The Joint Chief Technicians, Siobhan Ward and Philomena McAteer, keep the project running. They deal with donors, families, Corrigans funeral home and everyone else that they have to liaise with. They have been working together in Trinity since Philomena joined Siobhan in 1981, four years after Siobhan had started.
Professor David Coakley told the programme that body donations have advanced since the Renaissance, before which pigs were dissected rather than humans. The first human donations were of executed criminals, who would not have been expected to need their bodies as they would not be resurrected to meet Jesus.
In the 19th century the need to train military surgeons led to bodies being stolen from graveyards, most notoriously in Kilmainham, where shrouds would be found blowing around the cemetery because the bodies were deemed to belong to God, but the shroud belonged to the person, so you could be charged with theft if you were found with one.
Personally, I have found Siobhan and Philomena more than helpful since Anne died, along with Department Head Nick Mahony. As well as dealing with Anne’s body, they agreed to my request to change the religious inscription on the memorial stone on the Dublin Medical Schools plot in Glasnevin Cemetery, where Anne is now buried, to a secular one. This is a very positive sign in the ongoing campaign for a more inclusive secular Ireland.
Some final thoughts
The programme continues next week with the second of two parts. I hope as many people watch it as possible, and it will also be available on the RTE player on the Internet.
I am now about to go to bed, feeling sad and proud and lonely and re-inspired. I am sad and proud because Anne has continued to do good work, but is not around to be aware of it. I am lonely because Anne is not here, and re-inspired by remembering how much we were able to do together.
For the past month or so, I am being smeared on an ongoing basis on the Internet, in much the same way as Anne and I were consistently smeared by IRA supporters some decades ago. That is the price of speaking out against people who behave unethically and don’t care who they hurt in the process, whether they do so through misplaced passion or worse.
Back then we could both draw comfort and strength and love, in the face of such relentless adversity, from going to sleep together each night, and waking up together each morning, ready to face the next day’s battles together. I don’t have that any more, but I am alive, and I have supportive close friends and family who I also love.
Thank you for everything, Anne. Thank you to Trinity College for facilitating Anne’s final project. And thank you to RTE, and Kathriona and Gerry at Loosehorse Television, for an important and sensitively produced programme.