Memorial service honors lives and legacies of Anatomical Gift Program donors

More than 160 families, friends, students and faculty filled the Sacred Space to honor the memory of 35 “silent teachers.”

Rain did not dampen the spirits of all in attendance for this year’s Anatomical Gift Program Donor Memorial Service on Aug. 3 at Elon University’s Numen Lumen Pavilion.

More than 160 families, friends, students and faculty filled the Sacred Space to honor the memory of 35 “silent teachers” whose noble gift to health care education was the hallmark of the service.

The School of Health Sciences first-year Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) Program students and Master of Physician Assistant (PA) Studies students, under the direction of Anatomical Gift Program Director Dianne Person, organized this year’s service. A committee of five students was assembled and over the course of a few months, the committee worked intentionally to develop a message of heartfelt appreciation.

Elon School of Health Sciences dean Maha Lund at the Elon University Anatomical Gift Program’s Donor Memorial Service and Butterfly Release, August 3, 2023 at Numen Lumen.

Maha Lund, dean of the School of Health Sciences, opened the service with words of welcome acknowledging the impact that the anatomical donors have on educating students in the school. Lund explained that the students’ experiential learning goes beyond the study of human anatomy and described the respect and dignity that the students have for the anatomical donors. Lund continued to impress upon the families of the anatomical donors that their loved ones’ lessons will be carried forth throughout the students’ careers as health care professionals.

Dr. Cynthia Bennett described the anatomy experience at Elon as a pivotal one for health sciences students, emphasizing that “some of the most important learning experiences aren’t about anatomy at all.” She emphasized to the families of anatomical donors in attendance that the students in the school had been excellent caregivers to their family members in the lab, and that the lessons their family members had taught about love, loss and both the commonalities and the differences that humans share would impact each student for a lifetime. 

DPT student Emiliano (Emi) Chirigliano G’25 said the memorial was a beautiful celebration of life to further commemorate the great people our silent teachers were.

“It was of no surprise to hear stories of how our silent donors gave so much to others in their lives; continuing to do so in their passing,” Chirigliano said.

Elon University Anatomical Gift Program’s Donor Memorial Service and Butterfly Release, August 3, 2023 at Numen Lumen.

PA student Kylie Haduck G’24 said that working with and learning from the anatomical donors was something that she loved right from the start of her health care education at Elon. Haduck said it was fascinating to learn about each donor and appreciate them for all of their commonalities and differences.

“When I learned that there was a committee for the Anatomical Donor Memorial Service, I knew that I had to be a part of it. I feel such a sense of gratitude for our donors and their families, and I wanted to be able to really say ’thank you’ to them in any way that I could,” Haduck said.

“It was a very emotional afternoon in the best way and was a great way to send off our donors with love, appreciation, and great respect for them letting us be a part of their lives,” Haduck added. 

Rachel Davis G‘25, a DPT student, said she and her fellow students are thankful to have a resource like the Anatomical Gift Program at Elon. With students taking anatomy at the start of their program, the silent teachers are their first patients, Davis said. 

“It is an honor that we get to take all the lessons they have taught us and continue their journey the rest of our careers,” she added. “The memorial service was a day for everyone to come together and say a huge thank you to our silent teachers. The room was full of gratitude from the students, faculty, and families. It was the perfect moment for us to honor those who gave so much to us.”

Elon University Anatomical Gift Program’s Donor Memorial Service and Butterfly Release, August 3, 2023 at Numen Lumen.

As an undergraduate, Sam Kattiria G’24 took an anatomy class that involved working with cadavers, and she never stopped to consider where they came from. The second-year PA student said she can’t help but reflect on that experience felt “cold and impersonal,” a stark contrast from what she has experienced at Elon.

“Here, our donors are teachers, not cadavers. My classmates and I refer to them by their names when we are discussing uniqueness, [which] we found in each of them,” Kattiria said. “The Anatomical Donor Memorial Service was a way for me to tangibly say thank you to my silent teachers, Faye and Mimi, and their friends and families for the many lessons I learned about anatomy, compassion and gratitude.”

Josie Freeman ’25 said it was truly an honor to be able to pay tribute to the donors and their families and friends as well as the students who got to work with these donors. “I’m super grateful to have also gotten to work with the other committee members and Ms. Person to help prepare a beautiful service,” Freeman said. 

Katherine Zdrojeski is the daughter of one of the silent teachers. She tenderly submitted words that were shared during the service. 

“[My mother] would be so impressed by you and the Anatomical Gift Program,” Katherine Zdrojeski said. “The work you do is just incredible, and I’m very grateful a program like yours exists. My brother and I have spent much time reflecting on the memorial, and how glad we were to be part of it. You put such thought into every detail and it shows. From the tissues in baskets by the door, to the forget-me-nots on the table, to the seeds in the butterfly name cards — it all meant so much.

“You gave us a sense of closure, you brought us joy and you also offered us a lot of peace. If our mother was alive and had gone to the memorial for someone else, she would have said to us afterward, ‘This. It’s exactly what I want.’ Anatomical donation was always so important to her, but we were not prepared when she was diagnosed with glioblastoma. Knowing that we fulfilled her wish in the most dignified way, and that she helped others learn, so that she could keep living her values even in death — there’s tremendous comfort in that. ‘Thank you,’ feels woefully insufficient, but you always have mine,” she said.

The outpouring of affirmations from family members was abundant. It is with humble appreciation and gratitude that the School of Health Sciences students and those in the Anatomical Gift Program acknowledge everyone’s generous expressions.

Janet Cope, professor of physical therapy education, speaking during the Elon University Anatomical Gift Program’s Donor Memorial Service and Butterfly Release, August 3, 2023 at Numen Lumen.

Janet Cope, professor of physical therapy education eloquently conveyed a closing message in the poem she wrote:

“Today I was walking in the woods / The air was heavy and still / Like it had tears that could not be shed— / Not today / Spring flowers that had turned to berries / Petals had fallen / But so had the seeds— / Feeding the residents of the forest / Our teachers like once bright flowers, shedding their petals— seeing this forest— nourishing us.”

University Chaplain and Dean of Multifaith Engagement Rev. Kirstin C. Boswell led attendees in prayer and shared her reflections on the service. Calling it one of the more special events she attends each year, Boswell said the care and respect shown to each silent teacher by their students is beautiful and commendable.

“The tangible reality that I come away with each year, is that the students are impacted far beyond the classroom by their experiences working with their silent teachers,” Boswell said. “I believe that a care and respect for the simultaneously fragile and resilient beauty of human life develops from those relationships in the labs, and we witness it so beautifully memorialized in the Sacred Space each year.”

Dianne Person spoke about the unique and careful decision made by the anatomical donors. Person said the hope is that the silent teachers understood the academic and personal impact that they would have on the students. 

“They have created a legacy. Their lives will continue through the respectful and skillful hands of their students, as exemplary future healthcare professionals,” Person said. “All of this and more, thanks to your spouses, partners, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles and friends. Each one made a lasting impact, a mark on humanity and healthcare. For their meritorious gift of body and spirit toward the future of healthcare, we thank them.”

Photos of some of the silent teachers during the Elon University Anatomical Gift Program’s Donor Memorial Service and Butterfly Release, August 3, 2023 at Numen Lumen.

A candle was lit while students read each name of the silent teachers who taught them much more than the studies of human anatomy. 

Following the service all in attendance gathered outside to release butterflies in memory of the silent teachers. All then returned to the McBride Gathering Space for refreshments and conversations.

Raindrops and teardrops fell peacefully and memorably throughout a service that will be long remembered and appreciated by all.