Volume 19 Issue 54 | May 25 -31, 2007

Talking Points

Downtown Express photo by Ann Arlen

Jimmy Fragosa, sexton of St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery prepared to lower Keith Crandell’s ashes into a vault in the East Village church’s Western Yard on March 11. At right is Father John Denaro, St. Mark’s interim priest-in-charge. At center, with hand under her chin, is Annie Shaver-Crandell.

Meeting the med students who dissected my husband

By Annie Shaver-Crandell 

On the train to Valhalla, N.Y., last Friday, I kept thinking of the lines in Tom Lehrer’s song “Alma”: “The body that reached her embalmer/ Was one that had known how to live.” I was on my way to accept an invitation from Dr. Matthew A. Pravetz — director of the Body Bequeathal Program at New York Medical College — to attend a memorial service, a Convocation of Thanks, given by the students of the Class of 2010.

My husband, Keith Crandell, sometime columnist for this newspaper, an avid recycler on many levels, had left us on May 28, 2005, bequeathing his body to this medical school, as had his mother, Katherine Keith Crandell, before him. Valhalla is one town away from North White Plains, where the family lived during Keith’s childhood and adolescence.

Arriving a bit early, I was scooped up by and invited to sit with four nuns from Ossining who showed me a framed photograph of their late sister. I passed over to them the album of pictures of Keith that we had put together for his memorial at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery in August 2005. 

The ceremony pinned my ears back. Among the ranks of these first-year medical students are poets, classically trained musicians and visual artists. Their contributions to the ceremony radiated gratitude to the unknown donors of the bodies they were able to study in gross-anatomy class in their first months of medical school.

“You thought about me before you met me,” began the first poem to be read. Then a soprano and an alto sang the Irish prayer that begins, “May the road rise up to meet you.” A slide show featured small groups of students posed beside blackboards with messages like “Thank you from Group 8.” A painting of a haloed woman, half-length, wrists crossed in front of her like an ecce homo depiction of Christ, honored the body of the woman this student had worked with most closely. One student spoke of studying bodies with pacemakers, and then really understanding the value of the devices when his grandfather had suddenly needed one two weeks ago. The students consistently referred to their first “patients” with a sense of wonder at the miracle of life. We all sang “Amazing Grace,” and meant it. 

On the way outside to a post-convocation planting of the Class of 2010 tree, feeling a bit like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, I buttonholed the young man whose grandfather now has a pacemaker. I explained that I was hoping to meet some of the students who might have dissected my husband’s body. By way of helping to identify which patient he was — since the students are not told the names of their cadavers — I said he had had both a pacemaker and an artificial knee, that he had been 77 and about 6 feet tall at the time of his death.

This kind young man asked around, and ascertained that all of the students would at some point or other have seen all of the bodies in the lab. After the tree planting, we repaired to the building’s lobby for cookies. Several students came up to thank me for coming. I thanked them for being the compassionate human beings they are and said how hopeful they made me about the kind of care I might receive if in the future any of them were to be my doctor.

I got out the album and started talking informally with them about Keith in life. The knot of students grew to about 20 before we were done. For the first time they learned his name, what he looked like when he smiled, and the social contexts in which he had lived. I said there are things you simply cannot know from seeing someone on a slab — that he had gone to White Plains High School, had had four wives and four children, was a writer, a reader, rode a bicycle all around New York City, had a terrible temper and a lovely sense of humor, was active in local politics and community organizing, loved old New Orleans jazz and had a great gift for friendship.

I spoke to them about his many medical problems, some of which probably left no permanent record in the body they received. Since epilepsy cost Keith so much emotional misery and physical injury, I made a pitch for monitoring medication levels of anyone in their care known to have seizure disorders, even if they were hospitalized for something else.

When one young man asked me, very delicately, if I didn’t mind, how had my husband died, I took a deep breath and told them exactly what had happened at the end, and how awful it had been for all concerned. I then urged them, if ever in the future they are in a position to do anything to change the laws about euthanasia, to do so. I said that as physicians they would be dealing with older patients a great deal, and possibly sometimes inclined to be dismissive of them as individuals, but to remember that these patients had all been their age once, with the same concerns as theirs, and that, inside, we older people still feel about 12 sometimes. Several students who saw the photos commented on Keith’s looking as though he had had a happy life. I said I thought this was essentially true, but also that we tend not to photograph someone in the middle of a hissy fit.

Considering Keith’s long history of difficult encounters with Western medicine, his decision to bequeath his body for research was very generous and very smart. As his executrix, I have appreciated this last act of his a great deal. The New York Medical College staff and all the other people providing services related to their body-donation program whom I have dealt with have been professional and kind. Unlike some other medical institutions, this one does not charge a family to cremate or return remains. The school will arrange for burial of ashes at a cemetery in Hartsdale, also at no cost, if desired. At my request, they returned Keith’s ashes to me at Bond St. in Noho; they are now in the vault under the West Yard of St. Mark’s. 

This was the 19th Annual Convocation of Thanks at New York Medical College. One student told me that he learned of the custom during his interview and that this had been a factor in his decision to attend this medical school. What a class act. I was much moved by the view of Keith’s gift from the vantage point of its recipients — and, simultaneously, also deeply grateful for the variety and richness of the years Keith shared with me as the fire-breathing force of nature I knew and loved. 

Annie Shaver-Crandell is a visual artist who currently enjoys living and working in Noho but plans to send her body to Valhalla when she is done with it.

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