The ‘ultimate gift’

“I am forever grateful for Wendell’s decision to be a body donor… In life, he was a wonderful teacher, and I love how that continues.”

There is probably no time in our lives when we so deeply need others to comfort and understand us than at the time of death of someone we love. In the weeks before my husband left, I wanted words to go away, didn’t want to hear end-of-life words. I wanted to simply absorb all that he was. I didn’t know then how comforting it would be to have his story continue here.

Wendell knew he wanted to be a body donor. In the weeks before his death, we began to talk about the specifics. I called Des Moines University, and Clay Carlson, DMU’s anatomical coordinator, came to the house to talk with us. I didn’t know what to expect—couldn’t imagine a more difficult conversation, yet he handled it with such grace and reassurance. Both Wendell and I were comforted. Clay had a presence that went way beyond an exchange of information and answers to our questions—it was relational and pastoral. That healing presence has continued each time I’ve talked with him over the past five years. He listened. He offered resources. Wendell was grateful for that, and I continue to be grateful. It made our decision somehow sacred.

But I didn’t know just how sacred it was until the memorial service at DMU. To hear Dante Samuel’s voice break when he talked about standing each day beside his quiet professor and to know his sadness when he had to say goodbye—that was a holy moment. To hear Timothy Clem talk about losing his father, that they had talked about everything related to his father’s brain tumor but had said nothing about what would happen after his death, then he thanked the families of the donors for having those hard conversations.

To hear another student do the math to illustrate how far-reaching the donor decision really is: She told us that her experience with her donor will inform every patient visit, every patient decision over the span of her career—so here is the math: Every student will see approximately 5,000 patients a year. I checked that number with my clinic. Over a career of 40 years, each student will see 200,000 patients. Three hundred seventy-one students this year have worked with donors. Over their careers, they will see 74,200,000 patients. This year’s donors alone will impact the lives of 74 million people. I hadn’t imagined.

But the ultimate gift of the memorial service was to see and feel all the students in their white jackets sitting behind us, surrounding us like angels. I felt as though I were sitting in the lap of God. I loved it that they brought their music and their art and their words to us. My tears were healing.

The students’ presence didn’t end with the memorial service. They stayed after, serving cake and coffee, talking with us. They introduced themselves, shared more stories. They seemed to know the value of the human touch, to understand that healing is about something much greater than a course of study. How lucky we are to have them entering the health care professions.

I am forever grateful for Wendell’s decision to be a donor and for the way Des Moines University staff and students have honored that. I often think of his being a part of the young men and women who were students here. I think of him teaching them how to be the very best health care professionals. In life, he was a wonderful teacher, and I love how that continues.

Wendell wanted to be a donor. I had not made that decision for myself. But the students’ stories were so compelling. And today DMU has my donor bequest on file. I cannot think of any greater final gift.

Des Moines resident Julie Powell-Mohr spoke at DMU’s annual memorial service, on May 17, that honors individuals who donate their bodies to the University. Her husband, Wendell, a watercolor artist, died of prostate cancer in 2008. To learn more about DMU’s body donor program, visit or call 515-271-1481.

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