VERMILLION, SD (KTIV) -- There's no question, technology has helped health sciences move forward. But, there's one tool that no machine or book can replace: it's the human body.
Every year, University of South Dakota medical students hold a memorial service to honor those who have donated their body to the program. It's a way for students to let family members know how much they appreciate the gift, and to show how much it helps them learn.
The ceremony also serves as a way to remind students that the cadavers they use in research were once living, breathing people.
"Mother lived then, to be 102, plus six days," said 82-year-old Mary Ann Hallberg.
When Hallberg's mother, Anna passed away last October, both of them knew what came next.
"You could tell the gates were beginning to open."
For her mother, the afterlife meant a greater purpose.
Hallberg says, "To have planned this, that her body be given to science. She was a very progressive person."
She was a farmer's wife, beloved mother and church organist for 32 years. And now, a body donor, for the University of South Dakota.
"I just think it's a wonderful option," Mary Ann said.
USD's medical program agrees.
"I think this is a wonderful way to learn. I know how much our students, how much it means to them, said Director of Medical Anatomical Laboratories Jane Gavin.
The program receives about fifty body donations every year to be used in anatomy classes and graduate studies.
"Our donors range in age from, I think our youngest one was 22, oldest one was 105," Gavin said.
She says, while books and computers give students a basic knowledge of the body, there's no substitute for the real thing.
"They're learning by touching and feeling and realizing where something begins and where it ends," Gavin said.
Physician's Assistant Program Student Corey Anderson says, "It's important to really hold the things in your hands, hold the organs in your hands. That way you can actually feel it, get the texture and get to know what it is and how it works."
The reality of the lesson is also a struggle for students. To learn from a real human being means they need to see that donor not only as a person, but as a specimen.
"Once you kind of separate it out and you start to learn, it makes it a lot easier to separate the two, so you kind of have to come to terms with that early on," Anderson said.
For the first month of the course, a sheet covers the body's face. Then, the students start to work on the head and neck.
"And that's typically when students have a tough time," Gavin said.
"Lots of thoughts and lots of emotions going into it," Anderson said.
Another common difficulty is hands.
Gavin says, "They look at the hand and think, 'Well, what did this person do for a living? Or, did they play piano?' Something like that."
"We respect the bodies and we respect the program and we appreciate the gift, if they're willing to do it. Because it helps us to learn so much more than we ever could with a book," Anderson said.
"Thank you, thank you. We totally appreciate your gift," Jane Gavin said.
Those who donate are happy to help and inspire.
"It feels like she's still giving, which was her nature. And if it can be of help to others, why not? In fact, I'm planning to do so with my body," Mary Ann Hallberg said.
With the hopes of a third generation continuing the gift of not only a body, but an education.
Body donors at USD are used for a range of programs, from physicians, to nurses, physical therapists, even dentists.
If you'd like more information about USD's body donation program, you can send the school an e-mail, or check out their website.