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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Medical student Shaun Mendenhall thanks family members of those who gave their bodies for research.

In the 1980s, Bill Rush was 47 years old. He had moved from Illinois to Brigham City, where he worked for Brigham Apparel. The youngest of his four daughters was a junior in high school.

He might have died then, but new technology made it possible for him to get a new heart and gave him 20 years to see his girls raise their own families.

According to his wife, Gail, Bill Rush always knew that time with his family never would have been possible if some family had not made the difficult decision to donate the heart of their 29-year-old son. And so, she said, he wanted to return the favor.

When Bill Rush died on Mother's Day in 2007, he was unable to donate his organs because of all the medications he had taken over the years. So his body was donated to the University of Utah's School of Medicine.

Kerry Peterson, director of the U.'s Body Donor Program, said they receive about 100 bodies per year.

"The human body is complex," Peterson said. "After being studied in detail and written about for well over 600 years, scientists still learn something new about the structure and function every day."

Medical students and researchers use the bodies to learn about human anatomy and diseases. Doctors use them to learn new surgical procedures, such as the use of telescoping rods in the backs of children who have curvature in the spine, eliminating the need for children to have multiple major surgeries as they grow.

After the bodies are studied, they are cremated and either returned to the families or buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery. There is a headstone in the northwest corner honoring their gift to science.

The U. School of Medicine held a memorial at the cemetery on Friday for Bill Rush and others like him. Dr. Edward Jenkins, assistant dean for Diversity and Community Outreach, spoke on behalf of the U. administration.

"We strongly believe that laboratory experience based on the direction of the human body is the cornerstone of anatomy training for medical students," he said. "Attempting to teach human anatomy through textbook presentation alone does not adequately prepare the medical practitioner of tomorrow. Because no textbook or model can substitute for the human body in the study of medicine, donor bodies are indispensable."

Shawn Mendenhall is a first-year medical student at the U. who said he recognized what a great gift it is to be able to learn about the human body thanks to families who participate in the program.

Last fall, Mendenhall became acquainted with "Fred." Students are encouraged to write letters to their cadaver. During the memorial, Mendenhall shared his letter with the families, saying he would think of Fred and the valuable things he learned each time he treated a patient.

"Thank you for choosing to continue teaching, although you are no longer here, and to continue giving when you no longer needed your mortal remains," he said.


E-mail: amacavinta@desnews.com