Anatomical Gift Program’s Donor Memorial Service is a ‘virtual’ and heartfelt expression of gratitude for ‘silent teachers’

The July 15 production commemorated the lives and contributions of the program’s 19 anatomical donors.

In this time of social distancing due to the COVID pandemic, remembrances and celebrations of life can be logistically difficult to carry out in a meaningful way.  Elon University’s Anatomical Gift Program innovatively addressed this challenge on July 15 when it celebrated the lives and contributions of the program’s 19 anatomical donors by converting their annual Donor Memorial Ceremony into a virtual video production.

First-year Doctor of Physical Therapy and Master of Physician Assistant Studies students in the School of Health Sciences donned masks and observed proper physical distancing as they entered the Sacred Space at the Numen Lumen Pavilion to show gratitude for those who donated their bodies to anatomy education at Elon.

Several student speakers shared the lessons they learned from their “silent teachers” and how those lessons will affect thousands throughout their careers as health care professionals. Other students read contributions submitted by family members that described the lives of their loved ones prior to becoming anatomical donors.

Physician Assistant Studies student Christina Walters offered music during the ceremony.

Rebecca Neiduski, dean of the School of Health Sciences provided the event’s introduction and welcome. “Our students are offered a unique privilege: the gift of a ‘silent teacher,’” Neiduski said. “A teacher who intentionally chose this place, Elon University, to offer the final lessons to future healthcare providers — lessons found in our hands, found in our hearts, found in our minds, found in our entire selves. Lessons so generously shared by you, their family members and friends.”

Dianne Person, director of Elon’s Anatomical Gift Program, opened the ceremony with the observation that “today is about acknowledgment and gratitude.” Person gave “abundant thanks to our donors and their family members who are here with us today in spirit.

“Thank you to each of you for supporting your loved one’s decision to teach our students through their anatomical donation. In their own words and through their noble gift of themselves, they have truly brought us together,” Person said. “And to [our donors’] families, we are enriched by your stories, video clips, and family photos. Thank you for sharing with us some of the most intimate details of your loved one’s life and a glimpse into who our ‘silent teachers’ were as people with children, grandchildren, spouses and friends.”

Janet Cope, professor in the Department of Physical Therapy and course director for all PT Anatomy courses, observed how the COVID pandemic accentuated the power of working with anatomical donors.

“This year, students and faculty alike have been challenged beyond what we might have imagined possible for ourselves,” she said. “Now more than ever before, time together feels so valuable and sacred.”

Cope added that in this time that features lots of remote learning, “during laboratory sessions the physical presence of students and teachers (especially our donors) has been quite powerful. Our donors have been ever-present and at the center of our learning. I am humbled by these collective gifts — sharing in the teaching and learning, and supporting each other as a community. “

Dr. Cindy Bennett, associate professor in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies and course director for all physician assistant anatomy courses, spoke to donor families about the bond that grows between anatomy students and their donors, stating that “the beauty that happens in Elon’s anatomy labs comes from the true and intimate relationships that our students forge with their donors—your loved ones.

“Because of this relationship, learning can go much deeper than gaining a set of facts,” Bennett said. “Our students now have intimate knowledge of their donors– people that they never met in life, and yet they now know more intimately, in some ways, than they have ever known anyone before. That knowledge brings with it a reverence for the human who made such a gracious donation, and a reverence for life itself.”

Tyanna Harris PT ’22 quoted Sarah Beth Bowman as saying “There are three C’s in life: choices, chances and changes. You must make a choice to take a chance or your life will never change.”  Harris added, addressing the families of anatomical donors in her own words, “We all have a choice. Some may support that choice, and some may not. The people you love took a chance on someone they will never know. And the choice they made is honorable, respected, and kind … I want you, the families, and friends to know that we all have changed and grown from this experience for the better. They all chose to help us, and we will all do the same as we progress in life.”

Liz Uhlenhake, PA ’21 read a poem entitled “Knowing You” by JooRi Jun, which included the following excerpts:

“I do not know all the paths you chose to walk down in life, but I have felt the fibers of all the muscles that carried you there.

I do not know what made your heart burst with love, but I have pictured how the blood flowed through the four chambers of your heart.

I do not know what life dreams you had, but I have traced your nerves to see how it was possible for your brain to realize them…

I do not know your name, but before you left you gave me permission to uncover the miracle of the human body through you.

You gave me the gift of knowing you.”

With piano accompaniment by Christina Walters, PA ’21, the 19 physician assistant studies and physical therapy students lit a total of 19 candles in memory of their silent teachers while each donors’ name was read by Jaden Juergens PA ’21.

Chaplain Janet Fuller closed the service with prayer and benediction. “We pray that the mystery of the human body will always fill us with awe, and turn us always toward gratitude to the creator, to the sacred mystery,” Fuller said. “We pray for a sense of awe before those with whom we establish relationships of healing. May we remember that all life, and every day, is a gift. So, lift our hearts in praise and gratitude for all the blessings of this life, and for the reminder of the difference one human being can make.”

While not all anatomy students could be a part of the recorded service due to COVID-related restrictions, all were encouraged to send thoughts, gratitude and wishes to the families of donors by writing a short note or card. Student cards and letters will be sent to donor families at the conclusion of the current course sessions in the School of Health Sciences.

A wreath to commemorate the noble gift made by Elon’s anatomical donors to the anatomy students of Elon University is on display in the School of Health Sciences lobby.  The wreath will remain throughout the summer and fall as a visual reminder of this gift.