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The gift of life after death

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Photo courtesy of Todd Lappin

Photo courtesy of Todd Lappin

At some point several weeks ago, a small group of students and faculty of Saint Louis University, along with a priest, traveled to Saints Peter and Paul Cemetery in South St. Louis for an annual ceremony.

Purposefully kept quiet, the group will carry with them several cardboard boxes full of ashes to be buried.

The space is serene; there are a few marble benches and several evergreen trees. If not for the granite headstone, this dedicated space would seem like just another patch in the 88-acre cemetery.

The headstone reads, “Sacred to the Memory of the Generous who gave their Bodies to Science.” The remains of over 12,000 individuals are spread beneath the grass.

The space is dedicated to the remembrance of donors of SLU’s Gift Body Program. The program, through the Center of Anatomical Science and Education, provides graduate students, medical students and faculty access to cadavers for various educational purposes.

SLU has used the burial space since 1964, and, according to Margaret Cooper, professor of anatomy and associate director of the program, about 375 to 400 people now donate their bodies annually to the medical school.

Cooper, a long-time director of the program, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2012 that the burial site is kept nearly secret out of respect of the families.

“We believe the anonymity adds to the serenity of the place,” Cooper said. “Our donors are fantastic people who gave the ultimate gift to educate our future physicians and health professionals. The site is there so families can have a place to reflect and say a prayer.”

The study of gross anatomy, of which the availability of cadavers is essential, started from the time Saint Louis University School of Medicine was founded in 1903, and until the mid-1950s depended solely upon the availability of unclaimed bodies which by law were disposed of by giving them to the local medical schools.

By 1955, the number of unclaimed bodies received by the two medical schools in St. Louis had dropped to 90. This meant that SLU had only 45 bodies available for all of its medical, dental, physical therapy, nursing and graduate students in their gross anatomy courses.

Missouri law changed to allow individuals to willing donate their bodies to schools for medical purposes.

Locally, Washington University of St. Louis and the Logan College of Chiropractic participate in the program. According to the schools, they annually receive around 400 and 50 donors, respectively.

In addition to holding the memorial space in South City, SLU also has an annual memorial service on campus to allow family members to celebrate their deceased and students to thank the families and pay tribute to the donors.

The names of the current donors are placed in a basket and flowers are placed over the names during the service.

The memorial service allows families a chance to see first-hand what their loved ones’ donations mean in terms of advancing education at SLU. Donating one’s body can be an emotional experience for the involved family; in accordance to law, except under extraordinary circumstances, autopsies are not allowed to be performed, the body cannot be present at a funeral service because of the need to properly prepare the body following death, and the family does not receive cremated remains from their loved ones.

Generally speaking, once the decision to donate has been made in writing, only the individual can revoke it, though exceptions are made. The donation allows the individual to spread the gift of learning to professionals in the medical field. Each summer, students of the physical therapy, athletic training and occupation therapy programs engage in a 16-week intensive gross anatomy course before progressing into the professional phases of their education.

Among those who have successfully completed the gross anatomy course is Annie Green, a graduate student in the second professional year of the Doctorate of Physical Therapy program at SLU.

“[Gross anatomy] is a vital part of the physical therapy program as it lays the foundation of the knowledge we need to know,” Green said. “Starting with the gross curriculum, each one of the classes we take for the next three years relates back to the information learned the summer of gross.”

Mark Reinking, chairman of the department of physical therapy and athletic training, echoed Green’s sentiment.

“For our physical therapy and athletic training students, gross anatomy is a key foundational course,” Reinking said. “Knowledge of 3-D anatomy is critical in the understanding of injury/illness management and rehabilitation.”

Green attributed her success as a physical therapist to some of the experiences she had while dissecting cadavers two summers ago.

“I think it is truly wonderful that people give their bodies to SLU in order to help promote the learning of future [medical professionals],” Green said.  “It is so interesting to see the different conditions that the different bodies are in.  As sad as some of the stories of the individuals who gave their bodies [are], being able to compare a healthy lung to one of a smoker makes you appreciate how amazing the human body is.

“I truly feel that I am able to succeed as a therapist due to the fact that I have a very strong base of knowledge that I have been building off of since gross anatomy.”

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