Patricia Ruzzo was a teacher her entire life, both inside and outside the classroom — and when her life ended, she continued teaching.
The Italian immigrant, a former Schenectady High School teacher and longtime Schenectady resident, died last September at 91. Before her death, she made a momentous decision: She would continue teaching in death by leaving her body to science.
“The educator,” said Joe Ruzzo, her son. “Even when she was out of class.”
Ruzzo and 332 others were remembered and honored at the Albany Rural Cemetery on Monday for donating their bodies to the Albany Medical College Anatomical Gift Program. Medical students and faculty from the Albany Medical College, along with more than 200 family members and friends, gathered to pay tribute to the people who donated their bodies for the medical students. The donations allowed the students to better understand the human body through dissection and medical education.
“She said if anybody can learn from this broken-down body, I would be grateful,” said Marilyn Ruzzo-Yonkers, Patricia’s daughter.
Several people from the Medical College spoke during the ceremony, including the Rev. Harlan Ratmeyer, who gave a spiritual perspective on the body donations. Some friends and family wiped away tears, while others laughed and joked as they remembered and paid tribute.
“When a family makes a donation we take the body so they don’t have the traditional closure that you would have in a normal burial,” said Dr. Leon J. Martino, director of the Anatomical Gift Program at Albany Medical Center. “For the families, it is closure. It is time to come and put it to rest. These families made a sacrifice that we consider one of the ultimate sacrifices — to give a loved one for medical education.”
The Albany Medical students spoke to those gathered and tried to express how much the experience meant to them, both educationally and personally.
“You can’t really replace that experience of learning from a real-life body,” said Rahul Raghu, the vice president of the class of 2016. “That is a huge deal for someone to be willing to further our education by giving up their body.”
For the students, this ceremony was also an opportunity to say thank you.
Their ‘first patient’
“When you think of the medical profession there is not a greater privilege than to work on the human body,” Martino said. “For them, this is the first stage. We talk to our students often about how this is their first patient.”
The Albany Medical College is one of the only medical schools in the nation to identify their cadavers. Students not only learn about the human body while working on a cadaver, they also learn about the life that person lived.
For Erin Corsini, the president of the class of 2016, knowing her cadaver meant a lot.
“It was nice to be able to look up that person and see what their life was like,” she said. “And to have an awareness that this is not just this body — this was a life. They had family, they had hobbies, they had children. I think it makes the experience heavier, but in a way it was necessary.”
“The families and the willingness to give their bodies is just something we just can’t take for granted,” he said. “We really appreciate it.”
The afternoon sun shone through the cemetery trees during the memorial, glistening off of a silver casket that represented the cadavers. As all 333 names of the patients were read aloud, families and students were invited to approach the casket and place a flower on top in remembrance.
Ruzzo-Yonkers said hearing the students tell what this experience meant to them reaffirmed for her that her mother made the right decision by donating her body. It was comforting to know her mother continued to be a teacher even after her death — it was closure.
“It made me feel proud of my mother,” she said.