Body donors honored at Salt Lake service

Published: Tuesday, May 30 2006 2:26 p.m. MDT

Robin Ninefeldt had thick textbooks and excellent professors as she studied anatomy during her first year of medical school. But she learned the most, she says, from a woman she nicknamed Harriet. And not just the intricacies of the human body, either. Some of the lessons were spiritual.

Ninefeldt will never know Harriet's real name or background. Did she love to dance? Laugh easily? Cry more readily still? But Ninefeldt says she knows one thing. Harriet was a generous person. After all, she donated her body to medical education and science when she was through with it.

Jan Pater, affectionately nicknamed "that damned Dutchman" by his adoring family and friends, was generous as well. So, too, were Hal Christensen, Ruby Justin, Jan Ringholz, Clara J. Covert-Bowman.

They were among 107 individuals who donated their bodies to the University of Utah School of Medicine in the past 12 months to be used for medical research and education. Friday morning, they were remembered by loved ones during a group memorial service at the Salt Lake City Cemetery that included music, words of thankfulness and anecdotes about the donors, told by those who loved them most.

More than 2,000 people have donated their bodies to the program over the years, says Kerry Don Peterson, director of the body donor program in the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the U. The bodies are used not just to train the roughly 100 medical students like Ninefeldt, but also nurses, physical and occupational therapists, biomedical scientists, bioengineers, first responders such as emergency medical technicians and so many others. They also provide foundational knowledge that underpins new medical devices and techniques. And for some doctors they provide a needed retraining or a refresher course.

Dr. Clough Shelton, chief of otolaryngology, told the audience how impossible it would be to teach a young doctor the art of operating on the delicate and complex ear anatomy without an actual body for training. And he said that when faced with a new procedure, he often goes to the lab to study the donor body and practice what needs to be done, at great benefit to his living patients.

"Knowledge and understanding rise from the ashes of death," says Dr. David J. Bjorkman, medical school dean.

During congregational sharing time, a number of audience members told their stories. One woman spoke of losing her husband a few years ago and her daughter last year. Her child was born with Down syndrome. and her age at death, 52, is unusual, the mom said. But so was her contribution to science: How much, she wondered, can researchers and students learn from someone who survived so much, including 27 different surgeries?

Pater's wife told how he came to America from Holland in 1955 and "was one of the proudest Americans who ever walked." And how he never made his stepchildren feel any less loved than his natural child and is no less mourned by them, either.

The woman who spoke of "my friend Kenny" didn't introduce herself or offer a last name for him. She spoke quietly of the man she's known since she was 12, a man with no family, whose wife died before him. He was her grandmother's friend, she said, and "filled in for us where a dad should be." He made sure their car ran and they had a roof overhead and food on the table. "Just because he loved us."

The memorial service is an annual event on the Friday before Memorial Day. Peterson says bodies used for medical education and research are cremated, and the ashes are either returned to the families or placed in the monument at the northwest corner of the cemetery near 11th Avenue.


E-mail: lois@desnews.com

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