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Norma Telander took her Scrabble seriously. On the rare occasion when her grandchildren or great-grandchildren bested her, they knew they had won honestly. Telander was too competitive to throw a game, even to her beloved family.

“She beat me right before she died, when she was 96 and in transitional care recovering from a broken hip,” said her granddaughter Laurie Bauer. “She was always such fun, so generous. That’s the core of who she was.”

On a recent evening, 10 members of Telander’s intergenerational family climbed the steps of Northrop auditorium to attend the Academic Health Center’s annual Service of Gratitude. The ceremony, which included performances by medical students, paid solemn tribute to the 688 people who, like Telander, bequeathed their bodies to the University of Minnesota in the past year.

“They made a brave and selfless decision,” Dr. Mark Rosenberg, vice dean of education at the medical school, said as he thanked families and friends of the donors. “In life, they were barbers, firefighters, nurses, homemakers. They are united in death as teachers.”

Those who become what are called “whole body donors” choose to leave their physical remains to be used for education and research purposes. At the U of M, cadavers are used in anatomy courses required for medical and dental students and those preparing for careers as physician assistants, physical therapists and other medical careers.

Current health care practitioners learning new surgical techniques, researchers pioneering clinical breakthroughs and medical device companies preparing new approaches also rely on donor bodies to advance their work.

“What our students and researchers learn from the gifts will impact health care outcomes in their communities and around the world,” said Angela McArthur, director of the university’s Anatomy Bequest program.

Although the program hosts the Service of Gratitude, the students who spend long days dissecting cadavers in the anatomy lab are responsible for its production — from greeting family members as they arrive to performing for them.

Uriel Vasquez Rios, 27, in his first year in the U’s School of Dentistry, led the committee that sought Health Science Center students to participate in the event.

Rios said it was gratitude that motivated him to take on the task. He’d been studying human anatomy from two-dimensional illustrations, but that paled in comparison to what he is learning by working from a human body.

“You see the variations and learn about size and texture when you actually grasp the organs, bones and muscles,” he said. “When I used my scalpel to go through the tissue for the first time, I realized that without the gift from this person I wouldn’t have this opportunity.

“My future patients will benefit because I have this foundation.”

Schooled in respect

Ben Byun and Paul Cho are in the first semester of their first year of medical school. They’re still adjusting to jammed days and a punishing study schedule, but the classmates, both 23, carved out about 20 hours to rehearse a demanding musical piece to perform at the Service of Gratitude.

They played “Sicilienne” a Gabriel Fauré composition that gained renewed fame when it was played at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

“Performing it is a labor of love,” said Byun, a cellist. “We put time and emotion in preparing and it’s taken effort; it’s not simple. It’s a small, nonverbal way of saying thanks.”

The pair of doctors-in-training played their best, knowing that members of the audience are likely related to the bodies assigned to them in the anatomy lab.

“At first we’re cautious; cutting is so unnerving and foreign. In every person we see differences that books don’t teach you, the variations in the fat and the skin and the connective tissue. You have to get comfortable so you can do what you’ll need to do,” said Byun. “As it becomes more familiar, you feel a connection to the cadaver.”

Before any student picks up a scalpel, they have been schooled by faculty members in a culture of respect.

“Our instructors instill in us that this is someone’s loved one. They remind us to think about how we would want to be treated if we were a donor,” said Cho. “What we do is profound and powerful.”

‘Sacred and stirring’

Jean Larson, a volunteer advocate for the Anatomy Bequest program, has become a regular presence at the annual Service of Gratitude. She first attended in 2015, when her husband of 60 years was recognized for his whole body donation.

“This ceremony is stirring and sacred,” she said. “It’s meant to be a thank-you from the students to us, but I am here offering my gratitude back to them, for how graciously they treated us in every step of the process. I’m thankful for the service. I’m thankful they show their thanks.”

Now 84, Larson has formalized plans to leave her body to the university.

“It’s the thing to do,” she said. “I believe in medical advancement. I wouldn’t want a surgeon working on me who hadn’t seen inside a human body.“

The highlight of the service was a slide show of the donors. Each appeared in a larger-than-life image projected onto a screen.

They smiled in formal portraits likely lifted from church directories or in candid snapshots — a proud mother of the bride, a pastor in a clerical collar, a serviceman posing in his military uniform, a fisherman driving his boat on a bright summer day.

And then there was the picture of Norma Telander, sitting in front of her Scrabble board.

When her image appeared on the screen, the Telander family issued a collective gasp. A few shed some tears.

“My life was enriched by her. I miss her terribly,” said stepdaughter Barb Heilman. “But it was an amazing tribute. This felt like a celebration and, oh, it was so touching. So good to see her again.”

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.