Honoring our Donors

Students Thank Families of Body Donors


By Dan Meyers and Tonia Twichell

First the students spoke. They represented the schools of medicine and dental medicine, including the Physical Therapy and Child Health Associate/Physician Assistant (CHA/PA) programs.

Then came the families and friends. They recalled their loved ones—a musician, a baseball player, a man who lived in the basement of a church.

By the end of the Anatomical Donor Memorial Ceremony, there had been many tears … and many smiles.

Each year, Anschutz Medical Campus honors the deceased who have donated their remains to science. The event started decades ago, when some students decided to bring flowers to the last day of anatomy class to thank the deceased for their generous educational gift.

At this year’s ceremony, medical student Evelyn Brosnan spoke of seeing the spinal cord for the first time: "It took my breath away."

"It was simply beautiful and strangely seemed so alive. A thought flashed into my mind that [the donor] hadn’t ever seen this, and I caught myself literally almost tapping her on the shoulder to say, ‘Look at this—it’s amazing.’"

Stacey Britain of the CHA/PA program felt a great sense of responsibility "knowing this body in ways that he [the donor] never did, that those closest to him never would. Yet there was the understanding that I really did not know him at all."

"Dissecting the hands was difficult. Who did these hands hold? What did they produce? Who did they carry? ... No textbook could give me insight into who he was as a person."

Jennifer Ann Keller from the physical therapy program described the donors as great teachers.

"You can’t imagine the knowledge your loved ones have taught us in silence, even after speaking their last words and breathing their last breath in this life," she said to the donor families.

And Resa Espinoza said the dissection experience will help humanize her dentistry practice.

"Our donors allowed us the opportunity to ponder the details of their lives, reminding us that our future patients are people and not physical symptoms," she said. "Their donation will echo throughout our careers into our future patients’ lives."

Then the donors’ families spoke, and the other half of the picture emerged. The donors were people with quirks, talents, longings, names.

There was Jake, an attorney, architect and multi-instrument musician who loved Willie Nelson. "If you touch his hands," a family member told the medical students, "know that they worked every day."

Lloyd, a pragmatic Nebraska Swede, was a bit of a feminist. "He would have been pleased to see all the woman doctors today," his daughter said.

Dorothy was widowed young and raised her girls to believe, as she did, in education. "My mom is still teaching," her daughter said. "She’s just teaching anatomy now."

The widow of Barry, who played baseball, said she still receives requests for his autograph from fans who don’t realize he died.

Then there was Richard, achingly remembered by a friend as a man who had no children and lived in a church basement for most of the last 15 years. He wanted to donate his body to science "to give back to the people who gave to him."

Brad was a man "who could fix anything." You need to know, his widow said, that at the end "he was surrounded by people he loved."

Many of the speakers wanted students and faculty to understand the life and joy marked now by only physical remains.

"You got to see the muscles that made him smile. We got to see the smile," one relative told the students. "You got to see the heart, but we got to know it."

A student singing group, the Arrhythmias, above, performs at a recent donor ceremony. Below, a few of the hundreds of people who attended the event. Photos by Helen Macfarlane and Tonia Twichell.

"Their donation will echo throughout our careers into our future patients’ lives."

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