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Service honors body donors for invaluable contributions to medical education

OHSU students organize annual event to thank donors, families for selfless gift
2018 Body donation memorial
OHSU body donor Francis "Frank" Birmingham Jr., and his sister, Michelle Robinson. (Photo courtesy Michelle Robinson)

The family of Francis “Frank” J. Birmingham Jr., is grateful to know he was able to contribute to society following his death last year.

Birmingham was born with a neuromuscular disease called Friedreich ataxia that impaired his muscle coordination and eventually required him to use an electric wheelchair. A car accident caused a traumatic brain injury in his late teens, worsening his condition.

As a result, he wasn’t able to work. His ailments progressed in his 30s, leading him to decide to give his body to the OHSU Body Donation Program. He wanted to help health care providers better treat other patients with similar conditions. Birmingham died Jan. 3, 2018, at the age of 49 in Portland. He was survived by his mother, Frances Birmingham, sister, Michelle Robinson, and brother, Richard Birmingham.

“I would like to finish Frank’s life by making him happy,” said Robinson, who lives in Aloha. “He had a rough life and I know [body donation] was his dream. Even though he’s gone, he’s still working, he’s still doing his job. He’s doing the only job that he’s been able to do in his life.”

Giving thanks

Frank Birmingham Jr. was one of approximately 100 body donors who were honored Dec. 7, 2018 at the Service of Gratitude, an annual event organized by OHSU students to thank donors and their families for their selfless gifts. The emotional service features testimonials from students and families, as well as musical performances and poetry recitations from students.

photo of a stage, with singers visible as well as the audience
The OHSU Memorial Choir performs at the Donor Memorial Service. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

Approximately 300 OHSU medical, dental, physician assistant and radiation therapy students learn human anatomy every year through whole-body donors, who are respectfully referred to as a student’s “first patient.” Another 200 residents and faculty also train and refine their skills annually with the help of donors.

Kelsey Khaw (2018)
Kelsey Khaw

Among the many students who spoke at the Dec. 7 service was first-year physician assistant student Kelsey Khaw, 26, of Gresham. Khaw is profoundly grateful for the learning opportunity her donor – a man in his 70s – provided.

“Thank you isn’t enough,” Khaw said. “For someone to make the conscious decision to continue impacting the world with such a personal and intimate donation … I have so much respect and gratitude for that.”

Making a difference

Jennifer Mayo, M.D., also appreciates the donor she worked with before graduating from the OHSU School of Medicine in 2006. Her class even helped organize OHSU’s first Service of Gratitude in 2001.

But this year’s service has special meaning for her and her family. Her grandmother, Zella “Zell” Vee Randall, was one of the donors recognized. Randall, a retired teacher and dairy farmer, died at the age of 90 in Bend on Dec. 13, 2017. Mayo wasn’t able to attend the service due to her work schedule, but a large contingent of the extended family was there to honor their matriarch.

older woman with her face pressed to a younger woman's face, who is wearing a graduation cap and gown
OHSU body donor Zella "Zell" Randall, who died Dec. 13, 2017. At right is her granddaughter Jennifer Mayo, M.D., at Mayo's 2006 graduation from the OHSU School of Medicine. Randall was inspired to donate her body to science after hearing Mayo talk about her gross anatomy class during a holiday break her first year in medical school. (Photo courtesy the Randall family)

“It certainly makes me proud,” said Mayo, who is an OB-GYN in Missoula, Montana. “It kind of honors the path that I chose -- to practice medicine. Maybe she would have chosen to do it anyway, but maybe by me talking about gross anatomy, she latched onto how valuable body donation is. I think she could picture the difference it made in a student’s education.”

OHSU Body Donation Program

  • Established 1976
  • 4,166 people have donated their bodies to date
  • Oregon’s oldest body donation program
  • Service of Gratitude held for donors annually since 2001
  • More info on the OHSU body donation program.


Want to be a body donor?

  • OHSU accepts body donations on a case-by-case basis
  • General requirements include:
    • Donations must be authorized by the donor prior to death, or by the donor’s relatives after death
    • Be 18 or older
    • Have a healthy BMI
    • No extensive trauma
    • No communicable disease (e.g., AIDS/HIV, Hep B/C,) or an active infection
  •  Residents of Oregon and Washington can sign up for the OHSU Body Donation Program here.
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