Memorial service honors donors

September 24, 1997

Isabel Howe Wegman nurse, mother of four, and wife of Myron Wegman, dean and professor emeritus of the School of Public Health died Jan. 20, 1997. Honoring a decision she made nearly 30 years ago, Wegman donated his wife's body to the Medical School. He plans to donate his body, as well.

"I'm a physician and Isabel was a nurse, so we knew from personal experience how important dissection is to a medical student's education," Wegman says. "We both signed donor cards shortly after moving to Ann Arbor in the late 1960s. We felt it was a way to make our own little contribution."

Last week, nearly 700 people gathered at Ann Arbor's Washtenong Memorial Park to honor the memory of hundreds of adult donors like Isabel Wegman, as well as infants who died at birth and whose bodies were donated to the U-M by their parents.

Greeted by Wennie Liao and other medical students from the Class of 2000, family members waited in line to sign the guest book and receive a long-stemmed red rose. They sat in front of a white-draped casket containing the ashes of all the anonymous donors honored in this year's ceremony. In a brief service led by chaplains from the Medical Center, they prayed, cried, held each other and shared, in the words of Rev. Fr. Darin T. Robert, "a moment of healing and peace."

After the service, a woman carefully removed one red petal from her rose and wrapped it in her handkerchief. Then she kissed the rose, laid it on the casket and walked away.

"Families experience the service as closure a way to say good-bye which many of them need," says William E. Burkel, professor of anatomy and director of the Anatomical Donations Program.

Burkel and his entire staff attend the service every year. Deborah Elmore, who administers the program, organizes the memorial service and invites friends and families of the donors.

"Often this is the donor's only public memorial service, and families travel long distances to attend," says Dean Mueller, coordinator of the program. "It's obviously very important to them to be here."

"In some small way we try to repay the family for their gift by just being here and talking about this person they loved," Burkel says. "The chaplains encourage people to stay after the service to talk and share. We're there to listen."

Burkel has been teaching gross anatomy to medical and dental students since 1962. This fall, 170 first-year medical students plus several students from the U-M's medical illustration program are enrolled in the course. Burkel says that even the most advanced computer simulations are no substitute for dissection when it comes to learning the intricacies and complexity of the human body.

"With virtual reality, you cannot feel the texture of tissue. You can't pick organs up, turn them over and see them in three dimensions. It's like listening to a symphony on tape, instead of actually being there."

The U-M's Anatomical Donations Program receives 200-250 whole body donations each year. Some people donate for economic reasons; some for altruistic reasons. Many donors are former faculty, staff or students. Whatever the motivation, donations are always needed for use in student education, medical research studies or by physicians learning new surgical techniques. For more information about the program or to request a donor card, call Mueller or Elmore, 764-4359.

Posted on the wall of all U-M gross anatomy labs:

"The families and the people themselves who donate their bodies to the University of Michigan have given this charitable, irreplaceable gift to you in confidence that you will gain understanding and knowledge of the human body. So embrace this gift with excitement and be eager to use the gift which you will have forever ... the gift of knowledge." - Dean A. Mueller

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