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Maryland honors those who donated bodies to science

Tracy Jarrell has been dreaming of a butterscotch sundae, but there is more to it than just a food craving. As Father's Day draws near, she has been thinking of the many years the ice cream dessert served as celebration with her father, Hank Neudecker. He passed away on Jan 6.

"I was going to go get one, and then I realized it wasn't butterscotch sundae I was missing," she said.

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On Monday Jarrell had gone to Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville to honor her father's memory, but she was far from alone as more than 150 other people with whom she had something in common also converged on the hospital. Those in attendance were all there to honor the memory of loved ones who had donated their bodies to science.

"My mom and dad both decided about a year ago to give their bodies to science," Jarrell said. "At first us, the kids, we were kind of taken aback. You know, it's not tradition. You know, you want the casket and to see them laying there with the flowers and put them in the ground and cover them up and have a tombstone and then you go there and — no, you don't have that."

Monday's memorial service, an annual tradition since at least 1973, is a chance to provide a more traditional farewell for those who gave of themselves at the last, according to Ronn Wade, director of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Anatomy Board, which coordinates the use of donated bodies.

"Everybody has existed and should have some sort of recognition anyway," he said. "People that donate their bodies are ... people that have a concern for other people. They want to leave something behind, and you're not going to take anything with you."

Many of those whose bodies were donated, Wade said, are then interred in a community plot on the grounds of Springfield Hospital Center. The memorial service would have taken place at the community plot had it not been raining on Monday morning. Instead, a bagpiper stood at the rear door of the large cafeteria that had been filled with chairs, his triumphant dirge reverberating throughout the room in between speakers, while an a cappella group provided a joyful rendition of "Turn, turn, turn" as counterpoint.

Adam Puche, board vice chairman of the University of Maryland School of Medicine read a proclamation from Gov. Larry Hogan recognizing June 15 as Anatomical Donor Appreciation Day in Maryland and a series of spiritual speakers took to the podium both to eulogize the dead and to acknowledge the impact of their donations on the living, and even those not yet born.

"The contribution of some continue after they have passed on," said Alan Seyfer, board chairman at the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda. "They will continue to contribute in innumerable ways."

It was anatomical training with donated bodies, Seyfer told those gathered, that had allowed him to save other lives during his career as a doctor. Seyfer's expression of gratitude was very meaningful for Jarrell, who said it made the service more than just another chance to say goodbye.

"We actually had a celebration of life for my father a while after he had passed away," she said. "It was nice to come here because people were giving thanks for what you did. Not, you know, 'Oh we're so sorry to hear about your loss,' that type of thing, which is always appreciated, but not only that, it's ... 'Thank you for your loved one, for letting us do what we need to do to improve medicine.'"

The bodies donated to the Anatomical Board serve as essential hands on training for trauma center workers, paramedics and emergency medical technicians and surgeons, according to Wade, advancing both the science of medicine and giving medical workers the basic confidence they need to save lives.

"The impact is tremendous — the body can be used in a lot of programs," he said. "This person had a life, the life ended and we, through the use of that body, help other people have a healthier life, an improved health. For this generation and maybe the next generation. That's the importance of all this."

Another speaker, Vincent Conroy, associate professor at the University of Maryland Medical School, quantified the impact of those donations, saying an estimated 115 million people's lives will be touched due to the training and research afforded by a donated body.

"To think that my dad could be part of that, it's like, wow," Jarrell said. "They have an impact on the military and my dad was in the Army. If he could have helped a military person learn how to operate or learn how to fix something or learn what something feels like, then that's just amazing."

"We had a lot of professors and teachers here. We are all teachers. If you are a parent, you're a teacher. Anyone you have influence with, anyone that looks to you as a role model, you're a teacher, they're learning from you either subliminally or formally," Wade said. "When the body goes into an anatomy lab, they are the teacher. They are the ones that are teaching the students."

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Wade said that choosing to be a donor is an intensely personal decision that should be made with one's family and that he doesn't work to recruit anyone to make that decision. He does, however, practice what he preaches.

"I'm a donor, sure," he said. "I started working at the anatomy board for one year and I donated my body."

As for Jarrell, she's adjusted to the nontraditional way her father decided to have his body taken care of, but on Monday, it was hard.

"I just think it's a great thing to do," she said, adding, "I miss my dad a lot."

More information on the Maryland Anatomy Board's body donation program can be found on its website at dhmh.maryland.gov/anatomy/SitePages/forms.aspx

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