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SLU medical students honor ‘incalculable gift’ of body donors with memorial service

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

Medical student Stanley Wu addressed the standing room-only audience in the ornate church, letting those in the sanctuary know how much he and his classmates appreciate their departed family members.

“Every day of the last 10 weeks your loved ones have been our companions in learning,” he said during Friday’s ceremony. “They served as our guides, showing how the heart beats, how the heart contracts and how blood courses throughout our body.”

The school’s medical students each year conduct a memorial service to honor those who donated themselves to the school’s gift body program, which uses cadavers for research and instruction. This year, 372 people donated their bodies to the school so students learning to be doctors, physical therapists, physician assistants and other health professionals can study them.

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

“Each and every one of you has given my classmates and I an insurmountable gift,” Wu said. “Without even knowing their name or having shared spoken words, we’ve continued to interact and learn.”

SLU offers three gross anatomy courses a year in which the bodies are used. The courses frequently use cadavers to teach about body systems and let students with less experience practice surgical techniques. Sometimes practicing physicians use cadavers to work on novel procedures.

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Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
From left: Norma Martin, 66, of Rosewood Heights, Ill., and Betty Thompson, 64, of Bethalto, wipe their tears on Friday during a Mass for the families whose loved one’s bodies were donated to the St. Louis University Medical School at St. Francis Xavier College Church.

Students and professors say working on cadavers lets them appreciate the uniqueness of every patient that they’ll see.

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

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

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

“You’ll see some kind of anatomical evidence that they had a job, or they did things with their hands a lot,” Nash said, “You can kind of notice things like that and piece together a story about who you think that person may 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 in seeing how everything fits together,” Nash said. “Because if you're focusing just on muscles, that's going to be one thing in your head. But if you're focusing just on nerves, there's going to be one thing in your head. And when you see them together, and kind of how those relationships work really inside the human body.”

Since the bodies of the donors need to be transported quickly after death, many families can’t hold a traditional service, Martin said. The ceremony aims to honor the donors and their families.

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Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
A parishioner looks at photographs on Friday after a Mass for the families whose loved one’s bodies were donated to the St. Louis University Medical School at St. Francis Xavier College Church in Midtown.

“A lot of these individuals don't have a funeral, or type of service at the time of death,” he said. “So this, for some of those individuals and their families, it's their one opportunity to say goodbye.”

At the end of the ceremony, medical students laid flowers in a basket. After the ceremony, they were placed on the common grave in Saint Peter and Paul Cemetery in south St. Louis, where the donors’ cremated remains are buried.

Ken and Veronica Fix were married in the college church more than six decades ago. Both had registered to be part of the gift body program.

Veronica Fix died in May and had donated her body to the program. Her husband and children attended the service. They said visiting the ceremony in the place the two were 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 some good?” he said.

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

Hill said she's comforted by the thought that her mother's body is helping bright young people pursue a calling to help others.

“You know, it helps the next generation,” Hill said. “Maybe whatever they learn from her, they'll be able to help her great-grandchildren.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Ken Fix.

Sarah is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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