NEWS | February 7, 2000


Bench, plaque and trees reflect deep appreciation for donors and opportunity to learn

(DAVIS, Calif.)

In recognition of the individuals who have donated their bodies to support medical research and education at UC Davis School of Medicine, students from the Class of 2002 raised funds to establish a memorial site on medical school grounds. The site will honor past and future donors and their families. The brief dedication ceremony takes place on Tuesday, February 15 at 4 p.m. outside Medical Sciences Building IC, Room 180, East Health Sciences Drive, on the Davis campus. (In the event of rain, the memorial will take place in Tupper Hall, Room 2428). The memorial service is open to everyone.

"We wanted to do something special to thank those individuals who generously donated their bodies to advance the practice of medicine," says Nancy Serpa, a member of the School of Medicine Class of 2002 who was instrumental in garnering support for the project. "I believe we as a class felt that these wonderful people taught us so much in such a unique way. This memorial site serves as a daily reminder to UC Davis students, faculty and staff of the important contributions donors have made to the education of medical students and to medical research."

Medical students work with human cadavers in the first semester of their first year of training at the School of Medicine in the gross anatomy class. Over the course of several weeks, students dissect the human cadavers from the chest through the abdomen, pelvis, head and neck to the limbs to obtain valuable experience and information about body structures that they can't get by looking at a textbook or computerized graphics. In addition, cadavers are used in research laboratories to better understand disease and by emergency medicine and other specialty physicians and residents who practice new surgical techniques to save lives. Many regional colleges and universities also rely on UC Davis's model program to fulfill the needs of their curriculum.

"Students are regularly awed and amazed at the complexity of the human body," says Douglas Gross, an associate professor of both pediatrics and cell biology and human anatomy at UC Davis School of Medicine. In addition to taking care of patients at the medical center, Gross teaches the anatomy laboratory classes to both medical students and undergraduates at UC Davis. "There is a genuine appreciation and respect for the generosity of the individuals who donated bodies and for the unique opportunity that students have to learn what the human body looks like, from the inside out."

But, often, students learn much more about themselves, their responses to death, and their hidden feelings about close friends, neighbors and family members who have passed on and may resemble the human cadaver that lies in front of them. All of this processing of anatomical information, feelings and beliefs is one step along the road of training that makes a student a compassionate, capable physician.

"The whole anatomy experience taught me more than just anatomy," says Serpa. "It taught me about giving unselfishly for the good and betterment of others. It really solidified in me the beauty of the human body and of the human spirit. I believe others were equally affected."

In fact, it's not uncommon for laboratory instructors to get notes from students describing their experience in the laboratory or for students to write poems or leave flowers with the body to thank the once-living person who made their learning possible.

"I cut the body to learn, so I can save a life later," wrote one student who asked to remain anonymous. "There is beauty in this gift. It is the most wonderful gift. Those who are dead, help the living. I pray that thanks to my cadaver's gift I can help others as a doctor, and after I too have died, I can still help through the lessons of my body." Another student wrote, "I found it amazingly beautiful. Even though it is a dead body, it was once a living being, and that makes it holy."

And a poem by first-year student Jessica Smith gives some insight into the lasting impact donors have. "Silently, from the first day, I knew your name and agreed that it would remain between us only. As time went on, I imagined so often who you had been. Imagined your children, your health, your spirit. As I learned from you each day, that which will help me to heal, I came to recognize that it will be in healing that I will honor your intentions, and honor you. When the time came for us to remove the cloth that had covered your face, I held my breath for just a moment. But when I saw you, there was only recognition, a connection to an old friend. You were just as I had pictured. And in these days I have come to know you, to understand something in which your soul believed. And I will remember all my life your generosity, and be forever humbled, forever indebted, by this, your final, gracious gift. Thank you."

The Donated Body Program at UC Davis School of Medicine receives donations from the Northern California community. Established in 1968, the program has received 1,880 donations to date and has nearly 4,000 living individuals registered as donors. The memorial site, which includes a bench, plaque and trees, gives the family and friends of those who donated their bodies to medicine a place to visit to remember their loved ones. The plaque will read: In memory of those who have gifted their earthly remains to the School of Medicine, UC Davis, for the advancement of medical education and research. -- Dedicated by the Class of 2002.

For more information about the dedication ceremony or the donation process, contact Brandi Schmitt, program coordinator, at (530) 752-1938 or or visit the Department of Cell Biology and Human Anatomy's Web site at