A Teacher, a Patient, a Donor: Body Donation Drives Medical Education

Feb 21, 2019

Dane Hegdahl, a first year medical student, and first year physical therapy students Ember Newman and Luke Laycock chat about their experiences in their respective programs. They're part of a group of students who expressed deep appreciation for body donors.
Credit Jackie Hendry

Medical schools in the region are facing a shortage of teachers...but not faculty or staff.  Some of the most critical lessons for medical students, happen in the lab learning from body donors. The University of South Dakota’s Body Donor Program serves schools throughout the state and the region. But a shortage of donors is putting that resource at risk.

A body donated to science helps medical students learn anatomy.  Students carefully reveal muscles, organs, nerves. They might discover a knee replacement, or brain damage from a stroke. They’re able to see first-hand the relationships between the body systems they read about in textbooks.

But who  agrees to be that kind of teacher? Who signs the paperwork to  have their naked body examined by a group of strangers before the ashes go back to their family?

“Hello! I’m Lenora Bezpaletz, and I’m born and raised here in Sioux Falls where I live now. And, um. People say to me, ‘Have you lived all your life in South Dakota?’ and I say, ‘So far!'”

Lenora Bezpaletz is 88 years old. She worked as a nurse and then in a medical library. She’s a mom, a grandma, a great grandma. And Lenora Bezpaletz is a body donor.

“My interest in body donation is that I’m an old nurse--OLD old nurse--who graduated a long time ago, but I have a very great appreciation for continuing education. And I know that we need the books and that kind of learning, but there comes a time when you have to be very practical with hands-on [learning],” she says. 

Bezpaletz graduated from nursing school in 1954. She didn’t have the chance to work with donor bodies herself. But beyond her love of education, she says her faith played a role in the decision to be a body donor.

“I believe God in his divine economy has planned for things like this," she explains. And I think it’s so important for healthcare people to have that opportunity to study the real human body. So I have confidence that the living, loving part of me isn’t there, you know? It’s gone on to reward and glory. But the physical remains can still be of help to somebody.”

The body donor lab at the University of South Dakota is about an hour south of of Bezpaletz’s retirement community.

Sara Bird has coordinated the body donor  program at USD for four years. Students can work with donor bodies over multiple semesters for different purposes--typically, about two and a half years. Bird says working with donor bodies makes students better healthcare professionals.

“So whether it’s nursing, future doctors, physician assistants, physical and occupational therapists. Or, you know, some of those upper/under graduates that are pre-med heading out into the world. We wanted to give them a solid foundation,” says Bird.

Bird takes me to a conference room where eight medical and physical therapy students are at lunch. They’ve all worked with donor bodies, and they agree that donors are an invaluable resource.

This is some student’s first experience with an anatomy class. But the lab is open to college and even high school visits. Ember Newman is a first year physical therapy student who first visited the lab in high school. She went on to work in the anatomy lab as a student at South Dakota State University, and eventually taught other students.

“I think that’s when I really started to realize how much and how many students can learn from one body or two bodies or three bodies," she says.  "That one body effects so many healthcare providers and they continue that education, whether it’s in grad school or not.”

The chance to work with multiple donors only betters the chance to learn. Dane Hegdahl is a first year medical student. He says groups of students will visit the lab before a test and show each other their work on different donors.

“Not everyone is anatomically identical, so learning to see those differences and appreciating that, you know, something might look a little bit different but that doesn’t mean that it’s like pathologic at all, it’s just, they were just built a little bit differently,” he explains.

Of course, that all depends on how many donor bodies are available. USD gets requests from multiple medical schools for donor bodies. This year, it has had to deny requests from three schools because of the shortage.

Some conditions--like significant trauma or morbid obesity--that can make someone ineligible to be a body donor. But Program Coordinator Sara Bird says they’re able to accept most adult donors.

“Oftentimes we are a great resource for those that wanna give back with some sort of ailment or disease that may prohibit them from donations elsewhere, such as being a vital organ donor.

People often ask Bird if an organ donor can also be a body donor. The answer is no, because body donors are meant to teach students about full body systems. The one exception to that rule is eye donors.

Another common question  comes not from prospective donors, but from their families. Bird says the most common fear is that their family member won’t be treated with respect.

“Their loved one is in the hands of someone else, so to speak," she says. "Their loved one’s teaching for two to two-and-a-half years, so they’re away for that time. And, like anyone, you just have concerns about your loved one and how they’re going to be treated.”

Bird comforts those family members by assuring them of the students’ passion. To them, a donor is a teacher--and a first patient.

"At the beginning of the semester, when I start working on a new body--I usually take the time, a couple minutes, to think about them," says Megan Goldammer, a teacher’s assistant in the anatomy lab at USD. "[I] Thank them in my head, and kind of get over that part emotionally. So that I can really focus on the work then.”

Each fall, students lead a memorial service for the past year’s body donors. They invite family members, and some living body donors attend to witness what the program means to students. Luke Laycock is a first year physical therapy student who has helped with that event in the past.

“You really do have time to yourself [to] think that the person in front of you, was actually a person. It’s not just a donor on the table. They had grandchildren, sisters, brothers, parents. And you need to be aware of that," he says.

Cellphones and other recording devices are not allowed in the donor lab, and some professors don’t allow hats, out of respect. Stormy Roy is a first year med student who says faculty members ensure students understand the privilege of working with donors.

“They make us do our own research of the donor body program, and write a reflection of what we’re about to go into and what we’re prepared for, and just really make sure we understand the gravity of where we’re at."

And students don’t take the opportunity for granted. Physical therapy student Luke Laycock says each donor makes a big impact.

“If you think about it, the first year class has about 140 med students--PA, OT, and PT students," he explains. "So, and then you’d have to think that each one of us is gonna then treat thousands and thousands of patients for the next 45 years in our career. So this one donation goes so far in treating and helping patients for decades to come.”

Back in Sioux Falls, former nurse and body donor Lenora Bezpaletz thinks it helps to have a reason to donate.

“Like my reasoning is the continuing education,” she says.

Since 2017 she’s had the paperwork filed away, and other details worked out with her family. She admits the initial conversation was a bit  uncomfortable.

“They were a little surprised, and some of them, um, a little shy about talking about it, but I was so sold on it that I didn’t need their support or their encouragement or their agreement, even. Only that this is what I was doing, and this is what I want you to follow through on.”

Bezpaletz says anyone interested in being a body donor should reach out to Sara Bird, who’s answered every one of her  questions. Bezpaletz  also wants anyone considering the program to have this reassurance:

“It’s a very noble thing to do. There is nothing Halloweenish about it, or awful or--it’s an important, wonderful thing to be a part of, I think.”

Lenora Bezpaletz says she always wanted to teach, and never got the chance. But now she knows in a very real way, she will.

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