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Memorial honors those who donate bodies to medical science

SALT LAKE CITY — Family and friends wiped tears from their eyes as they approached their seats near a gravesite Friday, while medical students respectfully gathered around the awning.

The students, instructors and family members were honoring those who donated their bodies as gifts to the University of Utah School of Medicine.

"Thank you to those who donated their bodies to science, to provide us with medical education that cannot be replaced by a textbook, or by a video on YouTube," said medical student Ryan Watkins, who just finished his first year of medical school.

Watkins described how the gifts in the anatomy lab both reinforced content in lectures and gave him invaluable medical knowledge to carry into his career.

But more important, the bodies gave him a greater appreciation for humanity.

"They taught us that behind every disease, behind every cog and wheel of the human body, there is a person," he said.

Those who have not been affected by a person choosing to donate his body to science are unable to understand the intimate relationship a group of students form with their gift, the vice dean of the medical school said.

"I remember my first patient," said Dr. Wayne Samuelson. "We all were shaped and influenced by this woman who gave us her all for our education."

Although students are appreciative of these donated gifts for decades to come, many times for family members, fulfilling the wish of donating a deceased loved one's body is unimaginably difficult.

"The first time she told me she wanted to be a cadaver, I said, 'Nana you're crazy,'" recalled Eljin Potter during the memorial.

Potter's grandmother donated her body in the hopes that others would not have to undergo the ailments she faced in her life with cancer, even if that meant only helping one other person.

The altruism exhibited by Potter's family member is part of a greater cycle of compassion and respect within the medical field.

"The students entering medicine do so with the altruistic goal of healing infirmities, improving the qualities of our lives and extending our lives," remarked Kerry Don Peterson, director of U.'s body donor program. "They are wonderful, warm, and compassionate people who believe in public service and appreciate and respect your loved ones' gifts."

These types of gifts are essential to the medical school. Without them, it is impossible for students to receive the hands-on experience required for success in the medical profession.

Additionally, the use for these gifts transcends student use by allowing doctors in the field to learn about new areas of medicine.

"These kind of labs bring cutting-edge techniques into Utah, things that have been developed in other areas of the country," said Perry.

The program keeps cadavers for two months to two years, then cremates the bodies at no cost to family members. Subsequent to cremation, families may choose to keep the ashes, or have them added to the university's plot. Names of those who have donated their bodies for science will also have their name placed on the Celebration of Life Monument on campus.

Email: chansen@deseretnews.com