After he got a chance to examine the glass leaves – their bright colors, their unique shapes and intricacies – of the medical school’s Body Donor Memorial Tree, Terry Olson searched for the right words to capture the moment and adequately describe the tree.
“It’s gorgeous, absolutely fantastic,” he said. “Words just fail me. It’s absolutely gorgeous.”
Olson, 70, of Portage, was among numerous community members and family members of WMed Body Donation Program donors who gathered at the medical school’s W.E. Upjohn M.D. Campus on Friday, March 1, 2019, for a dedication ceremony for the Body Donor Memorial Tree.
The Body Donor Memorial Tree commemorates all who have made donations to the Body Donation Program at WMed since the program’s inception in 2014.
Olson’s wife donated her body to the medical school in April 2016 and Olson said he also plans to donate his body to WMed. At the dedication ceremony, Olson and others got a chance to remember their loved ones while also acknowledging the selfless gift their family members made to the medical school to advance medical education.
“My donation is going to enhance someone in the future about medicine,” said Olson, a Vietnam War veteran, cancer survivor and retired truck driver. “Maybe they’ll come up with some kind of cure, maybe it will provide a leap for someone coming through the medical school.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Olson added.
The Body Donor Memorial Tree is a handblown glass creation by Glass Art Kalamazoo artists Joshua Davids and Ekin Aytac and it weighs almost 1,000 pounds. The installation includes more than 200 individual pieces of glass that compose the bark and leaves of the tree. Annually, leaves will be added to the tree to honor new donors. Each unique piece of glass is engraved with the name of a donor and serves as a constant reminder of each donor’s selfless gift.
“We now have a tribute to our donors that embodies their beauty, the beauty of their life story, the beauty of the love they shared with their family and friends, and the beauty of their selfless gift,” Carolyn Isaac, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Pathology and head of the Body Donation Program, said during the dedication ceremony. “Each of these donors was truly unique with their own medical history, their likes and dislikes, their own life story, unique like each piece of handblown glass that comprises this tree and represents each one of our donors.”
Dr. Isaac told the crowd that gathered at the dedication ceremony that while each donor had their own unique differences, they all shared one thing in common – the decision to donate a “priceless gift” to the medical school and, in turn, help make medical education possible.
“They are our students’ first patients, teaching them about care, compassion, life and death,” Dr. Isaac said. “And, although silent, they are able to communicate a wealth of knowledge … They are initiating this ripple effect that will touch the lives of countless people. When you reflect upon it, it really is amazing and, in a way, these donors, these precious loved ones are never gone because they are creating this lasting legacy that will live on forever.”
The work to make the Body Donor Memorial Tree began in the fall of 2016, spurred by M1 Dan Ferman who was inspired by the medical school’s Body Donation Program and the donors who help make it possible.
Ferman, now a third-year student at WMed, envisioned an art installation at the W.E. Upjohn M.D. Campus – a donor memorial tree that, when completed, would be a tangible and permanent reminder of each donor’s selfless gift to the medical school.
At the dedication ceremony, as he reflected on all the work that helped make the Body Donor Memorial Tree a reality, Ferman said he was appreciative of the enormous amount of support he received from Dr. Isaac and Wendy Lackey-Cornelison, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, as well as Aytac and Davids, the WMed Student Council and the Dean’s Cabinet.
“This program that we have here is really special and it wouldn’t be possible without all of you,” Ferman said. “Two years later, I’m just so happy to see this.”
For their part, Aytac and Davids said they were honored to be a part of bringing the Body Donor Memorial Tree to life. They said they are also looking forward to the opportunity to continue their work on the tree as new leaves are added to the installation each year to honor new donors.
Davids said the opportunity to attend the dedication ceremony for the Body Donor Memorial Tree and witness the reactions of donors’ family members provided a tangible reminder of the importance of their work.
“It was an incredible kind of challenge and an awesome opportunity for us to kind of make something fantastic, and the extra meaning for the donors and the way the program is set up really strikes home,” Davids said. “Seeing some of the reactions and talking to some of the people really brings out the feels and makes it real.”