The atrium of the Andrew E. Lee Medicine and Science Building on the University of South Dakota campus became a holy place the afternoon of Sept. 20.

It became a place of holy music and warm candle light; a place of where testimonials were read and loved ones were remembered by friends and family who filled rows of chairs.

On Sept. 20, the University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine and Health Sciences held its 15th annual service to celebrate the gifts provided by those who chose, upon their passing in 2018, to donate their bodies to the school.

The donated bodies are serving as learning tools for medical, occupational therapy, physical therapy and physician assistant students at the school.

The students, in turn, planned and presented the special service of honor and remembrance at the medical school.

“On this day, what an honor it is for the University of South Dakota and our students to be able to recognize the donors and their families for their outstanding efforts to further the education of these students,” said Sara Bird of the medical school’s body donation program.

Donors, she said, contribute to the overall health care of the South Dakota and the region by helping to further the education of medical students in several fields of study.

Family and friends were invited to light a candle at the beginning of the service to recognize “those individuals who contributed to the educational program during the last year,” Bird said.

Rows of candles were placed on a small stage at one end of the atrium. Students assisted family members up on the stage and with the lighting of the candles. Before leaving the stage, loved ones announced the names of the donors they were honoring that day.

Dana Vendenberg, an occupational therapy student, read a testimonial of a fellow OT student, Konnor Kielman, who was unable to be present at the service that afternoon.

“Every single student belonging to the occupational therapy program, the physical therapy program, the physician’s assistant program and the school of medicine have received the opportunity to learn and grow due to the ultimate gift that has been given to us by these wonderful donors and you, their loving family and friends,” Vendenberg said, reading Kielman’s statement.

She noted that the value of the special learning opportunities provided by the donors “simply can’t be measured and will never be forgotten.

“We would be where we are today if it were not for these gifts,” Vendenberg said, who shared Kielman’s belief when he was first admitted into the occupational therapy program at the medical school that he was making a mistake and that he did not belong in the program.

“However, the individuals and families that are being honored today honestly brought me out of this mindset,” Vendeberg said, reading Kielman’s words. “These donors gave everything to insure that I would make an impact in the future. This gave me the pride, value and ability to look forward in my education.

“To the families of the donors, now is the time to celebrate your loved ones,” Vendenberg said, “to celebrate who they were and to understand that they desired to invest in the future of those around them.”

Kielman added, in his statement read by Vendenberg, that each student has been inspired by the love of the donors’ families.

“For that, we thank all of you,” she said. “These donors had no expectation of payment, reward or personal gain and yet they are responsible for the next generation of health care. They’ve also gave an opportunity for each student in this room to amount to more than they thought they could and to achieve the dreams they’ve had since childhood … for that, we are forever grateful.”

Aaron Lemon, a second year physical therapy student, said the donated body that is part of his educational process was his first patient.

“As our first patient, we began to understand our role as future health care providers,” he said, adding that the donated body was also the best teacher he and his fellow classmates would ever have.

“She would show us things a book could never capture,” Lemon said. “She would show us more and more about the mysteries of the human body.”

It is one thing to sit in class and hear about muscles and the role each one plays in the body.

“It is another thing entirely to see those muscles and how they connect … in our patients,” he said. “Our donors have taught so much.”

“More important than my grade were my donor’s and her family’s selflessness,” said Heidi Hassler, a second year physician’s assistant student. “Their generosity reminds me of the bigger picture -- that practicing medicine is not all about me; it is more than me. Your gift reminds me that there is an art, not just science, to medicine -- that I need to serve and see my patients as humans, not just as a body or a disease.”

She noted that without the generosity of her donor and her family, her education at the medical school would be limited.

“As I continue in my journey to become a PA,” Hassler said, “I come back to my first time in the anatomy lab … thanks to my first patient all that she has taught me, and thanks to her family for giving her to me so that I can learn. I continue to carry your amazing gift in my heart as I prepare to care for patients.”

Nicole Rogers, a second year medical student who participated in classes in the anatomy lab last year, read aloud a letter she had written to her donor and her donor’s loved ones.

“You are irreplaceable,” she wrote to her donor. “I was told time and time again that you were to be my first patient, but I now believe that you were my first teacher.

“What is the one desire that a teacher wants for his or her students? To learn,” Rogers said. “You are my most powerful teacher. You have given everything of yourself so that, by learning from you, future lives will not be ending too soon. As your student, I hope that I’ve lived up to your expectations to learn … in the short time I’ve known you, you’ve taught me more than just the medical necessity of learning anatomy.”

In her letter to her donor, Rogers states, “Even though you have left your loved ones, you’re still bringing people together. The memorial service is just one example of how your life is bringing your loved ones and me together -- people who never would have had the opportunity to meet without you.”

Her donor, she said, encourages students to collaborate together to bring their individual passions and gifts to the team as a whole.

In her letter to her donor, Rogers states, “You have taught me that there is more to medicine than just the science … just as you have offered yourself to me, I must also give myself to my patients -- to listen, to teach, to do my best to do what I can to make their lives better.

She also expressed thanks to her donor’s loved ones.

“Thank you for the gift of love you have shared,” Rogers said. “Thank you for letting me see the living love of your family member alive in each of you.

“Thank you for letting her give all of us the opportunity to save lives when our education here ends,” she said. “It must have been so hard for you to lose someone so self-giving, so caring and so thoughtful. Thank you for sharing your loved one with me.”

A chorus of students sang “On Eagles Wings” early in the program. Other music included “Ashokan Farewell” performed by Derek Rohlf, “Amazing Grace” by vocalist Michael Vlach, pianist Connor McMahon and violinist Maria Koenen, “Ave Maria” by Vlach and McMahon and “Taps” by Emily Hansen and Meghan Grassel.

Following the service, tables were quickly set up in the atrium and a reception was held allow family members of donors to meet and enjoy each other’s company and the bond they all shared.

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