SLU medical students honor body donors with memorial service

When hundreds of people held a memorial service at St. Louis University’s Francis Xavier Church, many came out to celebrate people they had never spoken to.

Medical student Stanley Wu addressed the standing audience at the ornate church, letting those in the shrine know how much he and his classmate appreciate their deceased family members.

“Every day for the past ten weeks, your loved ones have been our learning companions,” he said at Friday’s ceremony. “They acted as our guides, showing how the heart beats, how the heart contracts and how blood circulates throughout our body.”

The school’s medical students hold a memorial service each year to honor those who gave of themselves to the school’s body donation program, which uses cadavers for research and teaching. This year, 372 people donated their bodies to the school so that students learning to become doctors, physiotherapists, physician assistants and other medical professionals can study them.

During the ceremony, medical students played music, recited prayers and offered reflections on the generosity of donors and the gratitude they felt.

“Each of you gave my classmates and me an insurmountable gift,” Wu said. “Without even knowing their names or having shared spoken words, we continued to interact and learn.”

SLU offers three general anatomy classes per year in which bodies are used. Classes frequently use cadavers to teach body systems and allow less experienced students to practice surgical techniques. Sometimes practicing physicians use cadavers to perform new procedures.

Brian Munoz

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St. Louis Public Radio

Left to right: Norma Martin, 66, of Rosewood Heights, Ill., and Betty Thompson, 64, of Bethalto, wipe their tears Friday during a mass for the families who donated the body of their loved one to the St. Louis University Medical School at St. Francis Xavier College Church.

Students and professors say working with cadavers allows them to appreciate the uniqueness of each patient they will see.

“One thing about cadaver education is that just like our fingerprints are different, each of us is a little different on the inside,” said John Martin, director of the Center for Anatomical Science and Education at SLU.

For example, some bodies may have their organs turned inside out, a mirror image of typical patients.

Medical student Maria Nash said working on human bodies for the first time made her realize that each patient will be an individual person with a life of their own.

“You’ll see some sort of anatomical evidence that they had a job, or they did a lot of things with their hands,” Nash said, “You can sort of notice things like that and piece together a story about who you think that person might have been.”

She and other students said they didn’t understand some lessons until they saw a real body.

“There’s just a lot of value and seeing how it all fits together,” Nash said. “Because if you just focus on the muscles, it’s going to be a thing in your head. But if you just focus on the nerves, there’s going to be a thing in your head. And when you see them together, and how those relationships really work inside the human body.

Because donor bodies must be transported quickly after death, many families cannot receive traditional service, Martin said. The ceremony aims to honor the donors and their families.

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Brian Munoz

/

St. Louis Public Radio

A parishioner looks at photographs from Friday after a mass for the families who donated the bodies of their loved one to St. Louis University Medical School at St. Francis Xavier College Church in Midtown.

“A lot of these people don’t have a funeral or any type of service when they die,” he said. “So for some of these people and their families, this is their only opportunity to say goodbye.”

At the end of the ceremony, the medical students placed flowers in a basket. After the ceremony, they were placed on the common grave of the Saint-Pierre-et-Paul cemetery south of Saint-Louis where the cremated remains of the donors are buried.

Ron and Veronica Fix were married in the college church over six decades ago. Both had signed up to be part of the body donation program.

Veronica Fix died in May and donated her body to the program. Her husband and children attended the service. They said the ceremony visit to the spot where the two got married years before felt like a full circle moment.

Donating their bodies made perfect sense, Fix said.

“Why waste a good body if it can still do good?” he said.

Veronica Fix had a dynamic personality, her daughter Joyce Hill said.

Hill said she was comforted by the thought of her mother’s body helping bright, dynamic young people pursue their call to help others.

“You know, it helps the next generation,” Hill said. “Maybe whatever they learn from her, they can help her great-grandchildren.”

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

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