School of Health Sciences honors human donors with a service of thanksgiving and farewell

The July 12 anatomy memorial service paid tribute to those men and women who donated their bodies to science. 

By Janet Cope, professor of physical therapy education, and Dianne Person, director of the Anatomical Gift Program

On Wednesday, July 12, physical therapy and physician assistant students said farewell to their nonliving anatomy teachers, as they honored the lives of 19 men and women who donated their bodies to science. 

An Anatomy Memorial Service was held in the Sacred Space within Elon’s Numen Lumen Pavilion. Students in the Doctor of Physical Therapy and Physician Assistant Studies programs had the unique opportunity to express their appreciation to the individuals who participated in the anatomy lab this year, as well as the families involved with the Anatomical Gift Program. The ceremony offered the families a glimpse into the anatomy lab experience and a chance to honor their loved ones. The congregation of students and families created an overwhelming atmosphere of gratitude that celebrated the selfless gift of donation.

​Janet M. Cope, professor of physical therapy education, welcomed all from the School of Health Sciences and family members of Elon University’s first Anatomical Gift Program donors, saying that “today we reaffirm that we are a community of people who are worthy of the trust that our donors give us when they donate themselves for our education.” 

Cindy Bennett, assistant professor of physician assistant studies, congratulated students on the completion of anatomy. “The special gift that our donors bring, is not always an easy one to allow yourself to accept—it comes with the requirement that you open yourself to things that can be scary to feel, and hard to sort out spiritually,” Bennett said. “You have been beautiful stewards to these ‘first patients’ of yours, you have shepherded each other through a time that most people never experience and you have done all of this with such grace. We commend you for the care you have given these donors, the loved ones of someone else, and we know that this intangible part of learning will shine in you as you go out into the profession of caring”.

Kaylee Pobocik, a member of the the physical therapy program’s Class of 2019, shared her letter to her donor, Excie. “You came to me full of untold stories, and I came to you ready to read them,” Pobocik said. “New surroundings encircled both of us for a journey we did not yet know. I learned silent lessons from you, much more than scientific knowledge. You taught me the importance of compassion and empathy.” 

​After professors and students offered words of appreciation and admiration, family members shared personal stories of their loved ones who had chosen to donate their bodies to the Anatomical Gift Program. Michael Whitehurst, a member of the physician assistant studies program’s Class of 2019, said the experience of working with a donor in the lab was humbling. “Such a moving gesture captures a deep-seated truth to human nature, the drive to pass knowledge and wisdom on to the next generation,” Whitehurst said. “We promise to take the knowledge and wisdom bequeathed to us and use it within our lives and practices.  In doing so, each donor has made a positive and significant impact on us, every colleague we work with, and every patient under our care.”

Following the speeches, a candle-lighting ceremony featured 19 candles that represented each individual donor. These candles provided the flames for more than 100 additional candles, symbolizing the knowledge that had been spread from the nonliving teachers to the physical therapy and physician assistant studies students. 

“Let’s remember the anatomical donors and the priceless gifts that they have given,” Dianne Person, director of the Anatomical Gift Program, said during the ceremony. “Students, as they gave to you, you will give back through the knowledge gleaned from them. As you give to your patients, each of these noble donors will live on, and in this way death is not final. Theirs is a gift that will continue to give. And through their silent teachings, you will honor this most important offering toward healthcare education.”

The donors have created a lasting impression that will assist each student far beyond their professional career. While the candles lit around the room, a poem was read aloud by Brianna Marota, a member of the physician assistant studies program’s Class of 2019, accompanied by Sarah Russell, a member of the physical therapy program’s Class of 2019, on guitar.

Kailey Trieger, a member of the physical therapy program’s Class of 2019, noted “It was a surreal experience to be able to speak to these families face to face. They could truly understand the value of the gift that their loved one had given and we had the opportunity to reassure them that their loved ones were respected and cared for throughout the entire process. I am so grateful that Elon has established this program because it changes your perspective as a health care provider and humanizes a process that students so often detach from.”

The ceremony concluded with a musical tribute, as 11 DPT students sang a rendition of “You Will Be Found” from the Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen.” A reception was held following the ceremony.