Body Donors: The Silent Professors

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DES MOINES, Iowa -- Wendell Mohr loved to paint and he loved to teach others how to paint.  But his final brush strokes fell on the canvas in 2008.

"Our lives are changed when someone we love is no longer physically present," said his widow, Julie Powell-Mohr.

Her life changed when Wendell died in her arms from cancer.

"To be with someone when their spirit leaves, their breath leaves their body, it felt like he'd given it away.  He'd given it away to me."

Julie says it was in Wendell's nature to give.  He shared his love and knowledge of art with his students and with Julie.

"Before he left, he knew I was really struggling.  And he said you paint every day, and I’ll show you what it’s like."

Even in death, Wendell kept teaching.

"The fact that he wanted to give his body to Des Moines University was not a surprise. That was so in character and in keeping with who he was."

DMU's Body Donor Program has been around as long as the University - more than a hundred years.  Nearly 3,000 people have donated their bodies.  A memorial service is held every year for them, their families and the medical students, who after years of companionship must say goodbye to their silent professors.

"It's really hard to put into words the gratitude towards these individuals," said Anne Deaton, Julie's daughter and a physical therapist.  "They really do become part of your lab family... You wonder what their life has been like and the journeys they've been on."

Anne worked on cadavers in college.  So, she knows firsthand, how many lives are touched by the dead.

"That simple, selfless gift can transcend into this huge impact," said Anne.

Julie figures Wendell's body alone will impact not only the students who studied it, but the hundreds of thousands of patients they'll care for throughout their careers.

"This is a wonderful gift," added Julie.

It is a gift Julie has decided to give.  She says Wendell has taught her, the journey does not end at the end of life.

"I live out of that sense of life being so different, the whole idea of death has been completely transformed for me."