Teaching through death: UND medical students learn valuable lessons from donor bodies

By donating their bodies to the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences deeded body program, people can become "teachers" after their deaths.

From left: Chelsey Huot, technician; Mandy Meyer, Director of the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences deeded body program; Denelle Kees, manager of the program; and Michelle Lancaster, technician, operate the deeded body program at UND. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service

By donating their bodies to the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences deeded body program, people can become “teachers” after their deaths.

“The donor is teaching,” program tech Michelle Lancaster said. “They in essence become a teacher at UND, and they get to touch more than just one student, more than one tech or one supervisor.”

The deeded body program allows people to bequeath their bodies to the school before their death. After a process is carried out, students get the opportunity to work closely with the bodies, which the medical school says they respectfully call “donors,” as the students advance in their educational careers.

While students will often hear the word “donor” used in the classroom, program director Mandy Meyer said the person essentially is giving them a gift.

“The donor is giving the greatest gift anyone could give; they’re giving a gift of themselves toward their education,” she said. “I think that’s a really important piece, and I think our students come away feeling that.”


Donating If a person wants to donate their body for science education at the School of Medical and Health Sciences, they are required to complete a form bequeathing their body to the school.

When the person dies, a funeral home does an initial embalming and transports the body to the school. The donor body also goes through a separate embalming process at UND to help ensure it is ready to be used for student education. Donor bodies may remain in the deeded body program for up to three years.

Denelle Kees, deeded body program manager, said people donate their bodies for a variety of reasons. Many times, people have family members who also have gifted their bodies to the program or have a family member who went through the medical school who learned through the deeded body program. Other times, alumni choose to donate to give back to the university.

“There’s also a good contingent of people out there who just want to give back, and they may not have had a direct affiliation with our program in particular, but instead of being forevermore buried in the ground, they want to do something above and beyond with themselves,” Meyer said.

Kees and Meyer said it’s important to not only give thanks to the donors, but also to the families of donors who support their loved one’s decision.

Teaching and learning Working with donor bodies helps students get to know the human body better so they can prepare for a variety of scenarios in the field. Meyer noted that no two bodies are exactly the same, which can help students going forward into their particular line of work.

“It’s a really important experience as they’re learning their anatomical structures,” Meyer said.

Students get to know the age and the cause of death for the donor and occasionally other medical history about them, but they do not learn about the person’s personal life or name.


There are three main classes of students who dissect the donated bodies, including medical, physical therapy and occupational therapy students, Kees said. Also students studying to become a physician’s assistant, nurse anesthetists, sports medicine doctors and athletic trainers. Undergraduate students also take an anatomy course that utilizes donor bodies.

The medical school typically has from 65 to 85 donors per year.

There also are protocols in place to ensure students do not practice on a family member or someone they know, Kees said.

They are utilized in two different locations, including the anatomy lab in the medical school building and the undergraduate anatomy classroom in Columbia Hall, which was the former medical school. There are a number of donors for each classroom every semester, Kees said.

Students in different specialties use the donor bodies in different ways. For example, medical students going through occupational therapy will pay a certain amount of attention to the limbs. Physical therapy students will learn about the core of the body and its major organs, but they will pay meticulous detail to the bones and muscles of the arms and legs.

“There is going to be variation, but there’s a lot of overlap, too,” she said. “They’ll specialize in the areas that their practice specializes in.”

There are a few limitations to who can donate their body, including those who have been diagnosed with confirmed HIV, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Hepatitis B or Hepatitis C. There is also a weight limit of 275 pounds.

Meyer said the school “actually appreciates” when people who have different diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s or dementia become donors because they can help students learn.


Beyond the classroom After the donors have finished their time “teaching” students, their cremated remains are either sent to their families or they are buried in a memorial burial plot in Memorial Park Cemetery. The school holds an interment service every three years, something students have become a very large part of throughout the years, Kees said. The next service will be in 2020.

“We’ve had a lot of positive remarks from families because a lot of the families attend those services that their loved ones are a part of, and when students play instruments or sing, it really makes a good experience for the loved ones,” she said.

While one of the most important things students take away from the deeded body program is educational experience, Meyer said another important aspect is the connection the students form, not only with the donor but with each other.

“Many times, students will hypothesize, ‘What did my donor do? What was my donor like in life?’” she said. “It creates this sense that this donor is their first patient.”

Working with a donor also creates a system of teamwork for students as they work together to create plans and make decisions, Meyer said.

“It’s the workings of the health care system. It’s the workings of an individual with their patient.”

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