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Scott Kerr standing in the anatomy lab

Scott Kerr, a third-year medical student, was a teaching assistant with the anatomy class this year. Cadavar faces are covered the first day of class and students often hesitate to reveal them. "The most human part of us is our face," says Kerr.

Body of knowledge

Donating your body to the Medical School

By Allison Campbell

From M, spirng 2005

"He was a teacher and he's still teaching," says Lorraine Bjorklund of her late husband Marshall Bjorklund. After the retired high school teacher passed away in January 2004, his body went to the University, one of more than 170 bodies bequeathed annually. Students in anatomy classes get under his skin to intimately know him and their other "teachers."

Studying anatomy takes some getting used to. At first, students are very timid about approaching the cadavers, says Scott Kerr, a third-year medical student who was a teaching assistant with the incoming class this year. "It's almost overwhelming," he says. Faces are covered the first day of class, for instance, and students often hesitate to reveal them. "The most human part of us is our face," says Kerr. "[The cadavers] are human beings and have families."

Over time, the students become more seasoned but they do not become casual about the privilege of being entrusted with the body of another person.

Even though they will learn so much about their "teachers," they will never know their names. The information sheet provided in classes, such as the gross anatomy course for medical and dental students, lists only age, weight, sex, and a brief medical history, says Angela McArthur, assistant director of the Anatomy Bequest Program.

Over time, the students become more seasoned but they do not become casual about the privilege of being entrusted with the body of another person. One reason is that David Lee, director of the program, makes sure that they understand the weight of their responsibility. The students must take care about how they talk about their experiences after they leave the laboratory, especially in public.

Lee reinforces the special nature of their coursework and the students "want to do the right thing," says Ken Roberts, who teaches gross anatomy to medical and dental students. Moreover, students value the unusual experience offered by the anatomy laboratory. "It's fascinating to see the human body inside," says Kerr.

Despite the intensity of spending nearly every day for seven weeks working in the lab, anatomy is the most popular medical school course. Partly, it's the educational value, Roberts says, which includes small group learning, hands-on experiences, and clear expectations. Most importantly, the course is relevant. "For those who go on to be physicians," he says, "the body is the subject of medicine."

For future physicians, dentists, and other health professionals, the anatomy bequest program is essential. Many of those who choose to bequeath their bodies are alumni of the University, says McArthur, and they tend to be altruistic. They want to make a difference. "They help their fellow citizens," McArthur says, "by helping to educate health care practitioners in Minnesota."

If a family wishes to hold a traditional visitation and funeral prior to donating the body, that can be arranged, too, by consultation with McArthur or Lee, who are both morticians. Only the final deposition of the body, typically by cremation, will have to wait until later.

Still, it is a major decision to bequeath one's body to the University, for the person donating and the family dealing with it. Lorraine Bjorklund's husband initially filled out a bequest form more than 20 years ago. At that time, she felt repelled by the idea and didn't want him to do it. Her resistance to the idea faded over the years, however, so when he died, she was willing to let him go to the U.

Her experiences with the staff who collected his body--"such professionals and such gentlemen"--and with the gratitude of the students expressed in the annual memorial service last fall have turned her into an advocate for the program. "We feel very good about it," says Lorraine Bjorklund. "We have spread the word."

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