‘A recognition of our appreciation’: Installation of large steel and glass memorial tree at WMed will honor Body Donation Program donors

Dan Ferman, donor memorial tree
Since 2016, second-year medical student Dan Ferman has been working on the installation of a donor memorial tree at the W.E. Upjohn M.D. Campus to honor Body Donation Program donors.

As a first-year medical student just weeks into medical school, Dan Ferman already understood the importance – and uniqueness – of the Body Donation Program at WMed.

Here were these community members, Ferman thought at the time, giving “an immensely generous gift,” contributing their bodies to medical education to ensure that he and his classmates would become excellent and exceptional physicians.

The gesture humbled Ferman, a 24-year-old University of Michigan alumnus and Huntington Woods native who is midway through his second year of medical school at WMed.

It also served as inspiration for Ferman, who 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. 

Now, Ferman, with the help of two artists from Glass Art Kalamazoo – Ekin Aytac and Josh Davids – is working to make the tree a reality by May, in time for the graduation of WMed’s inaugural MD Class of 2018.

“The first two years of medical school are so focused on didactic learning … so I’ve heard it said that your cadaver is like your first patient,” Ferman said. “I don’t love that because I think to have a patient-physician relationship it has to be a two-way street. So I like to think of the donors as our first teachers. It’s where I learn more anatomy than I could ever possibly learn from textbooks alone.”

The trunk of the tree and its branches will be a steel armature that will stretch down and out from a three-story wall in the W.E. Upjohn M.D. Campus atrium. The location is nestled next to a large glass window where sunlight can illuminate the glass leaves that will adorn the tree, each one honoring a community member who has donated their body to the medical school for education and research.

Donors and their families are honored each year at the downtown campus during a Donor Remembrance Ceremony that is organized by faculty, students and staff from the medical school. When the donor memorial tree is completed, Ferman said glass leaves will be added for the donors who were recognized at the 2015, 2016 and 2017 remembrance ceremonies, and new leaves will be added each year as donors are recognized at future ceremonies.

Donor Memorial Tree
The donor memorial tree is expected to be able to hold up to 600 leaves, each of which will honor a Body Donation Program donor.

He said each leaf will be engraved with the name of a donor and each donor’s family will receive a marble block adorned with a matching leaf, a gold plaque and a personalized inscription. Ferman said he also envisions that the glass for the leaves will incorporate the ashes of each donor or, as another alternative, the ashes of each donor will be stored in the stem of their respective leaf.

“I really wanted to pay respect to everyone who has helped me get here along the way, including our donors to the Body Donation Program, because you can’t do this on your own,” Ferman said. “These are people who may not have their own voice and I thought it was really, really important to honor them as much as we do any other donors to the school.

“… With this tree, the families of donors will leave here with a piece of their loved one that’s a tangible thank you. It’s a memorial to their loved one but it’s also a recognition of our appreciation.”

For Ferman, the realization that the donor memorial tree will become a reality this May is the culmination of what, so far, has been 16 months’ worth of work and collaboration on his part.

He began pondering a way to honor the school’s body donors just weeks into his first year of medical school in the fall of 2016 after he received an e-mail from Dr. Wendy Lackey-Cornelison, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, who was seeking first-year students to help with, or attend, that year’s Donor Remembrance Ceremony.

Ferman attended that year’s ceremony and Lackey-Cornelison’s e-mail sparked in Ferman a pursuit of a fitting way to honor donors. He considered the idea of planting a tree on the grounds of the W.E. Upjohn M.D. Campus but decided quickly he wanted something more permanent.

Ferman said the idea for the donor memorial tree came to him in the fall of 2016 as he was walking among the trees on the grounds of the W.E. Upjohn M.D. Campus. At the time, he said he thought back to a trip he took to Budapest and a memorial tree he had observed inside a synagogue there that honored victims of the Holocaust.

“When I was thinking about how to model this artwork, that image popped into my head,” Ferman said. “I thought a permanent tree could be a really beautiful idea.”

Dan Ferman, donor memorial tree
Second-year medical student Dan Ferman stands by the wall in the W.E. Upjohn M.D. Campus atrium that, by May, will be adorned with the new donor memorial tree.

From there, Ferman began the work to make his vision a reality. He met with Dr. Lackey-Cornelison and Dr. Carolyn Isaac, an assistant professor in the Department of Pathology, who is head of the Body Donation Program. He also got estimates for the project, sought community support and worked to find artists.

He also sought the support of the WMed Student Council, a move that led to members of all four MD classes endorsing the project and agreeing to help with fundraising. 

“This is a student-driven project across classes,” Ferman said.

In the summer of 2017, he connected with Aytac and Davids thanks to the relationship WMed students have built with Glass Art Kalamazoo through their volunteer work to make beads for the Journey Beads program at Bronson Children’s Hospital. Ferman said it took six weeks to hammer out details for the donor memorial tree and a design that “we felt adequately honored our donors and their families, and fit with the building.”

Ferman said it was important to him that artists from the Kalamazoo community be a part of constructing and bringing the donor memorial tree to life.

“A huge, huge part of this for me was making this community-oriented,” Ferman said. “The medical school is really built up by the community and community donors and it’s seen as part of the greater community here. These donors are part of the community and this is our way of recognizing them and I wanted to bridge that gap and make this available to the community, as well as being built by the community.”

By late summer of 2017, Ferman said the idea and design for the tree was ready for presentation to the Dean’s Cabinet. That meeting led to a second meeting with the Dean’s Cabinet in December that included Ferman, M2 Class President Kylie Miller, Aytac, Davids and Drs. Isaac and Lackey-Cornelison.

Ferman said he didn’t know what to expect going into the meeting. He was filled with excitement for the opportunity to present the project and design to the dean’s cabinet, a body of leaders who could help make the project a reality. A question that remained unanswered going into the meeting was how the donor memorial tree would be funded.

“There were some big questions in the air that we talked through during the meeting and at the end of the meeting we were not only given the go-ahead but (Dean Hal B. Jenson, MD) said let’s have it ready by graduation and let’s build it into the budget.”

Ferman said the estimate to get the donor memorial tree in place by May, at this point, is about $32,000 and it will take another $2,000 to $6,000 per year to add new leaves for donors honored at future donor remembrance ceremonies.

He said Dr. Jenson has requested that the tree be large enough to accommodate enough leaves for 15 years’ worth of donors or about 600 leaves total.

In the end, Ferman said his months of work on the project have all been worth it and he is looking forward to the donor memorial tree being unveiled in May in time for the graduation of the Class of 2018.

Even more, he said he has been buoyed by the outpouring of support he has received for the project from the community, his peers, faculty and staff and WMed leadership, including Dr. Jenson.

“I still think that one of the most difficult decisions I’ve made was choosing to come to Kalamazoo,” Ferman said. “And time and again that decision is reaffirmed as being the right one. I would not have been able to do this alone so the support from Kylie, Dr. Isaac and Dr. Lackey, and all the way up was just hugely reaffirming that I’m in the right place and the community here is so welcoming and supportive of this project to honor our donors.”