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The Anatomist
The University of Utah’s Body Donor Program gives physicians and researchers the opportunity to learn anatomy and practice the healing arts—firsthand.

by Jason Matthew Smith

Kerry Don Peterson
Kerry Don Peterson

There’s a Latin phrase posted somewhere in just about every anatomy lab in the world: Mortui vivos docent“The dead teach the living.” And at the University of Utah, it’s Kerry Don Peterson’s job to make sure the dead and the living hook up for a meaningful conversation.

Peterson is director of the School of Medicine’s Body Donor Program, which, as its Latin slogan implies, allows health sciences students, physicians, and researchers the opportunity to learn anatomy and practice the healing arts on cadavers.

Forget any preconceived notions that Peterson is a sallow-skinned, dark-suited specter, a clichéd undertaker type. Rather, he looks like he just came off the beach, dressed as he is in flip-flops, shorts, and a playfully patterned shirt. Some days his long hair is tied back in a ponytail, on others, hanging loose. Either way, he defies stereotyping.

Peterson sums up his early years growing up in Tremonton, Utah, in two words: no sleep. His mother, who minored in astronomy in college, often roused him out of bed in the wee hours to point out constellations and other heavenly wonders. Inevitably, he’d crawl back into bed at an unseemly hour, only to have his fathera district manager/engineer with Utah Power & Lightawake him at 4 a.m. to go hunting or fishing. In spite of continual sleep deprivation, young Kerry loved it all.

To earn some pocket change, Peterson took a part-time job at a funeral home in Tremonton, but confesses that he wasn’t keen on spending a lot of time around the dead. “If there was a body in the chapel while I was vacuuming it,“ he says, “I would turn my head and look away.”

But despite his initial uneasiness around the deceased, he found that he had an interest in the science behind deathand in aiding and comforting those struggling with it. So he enrolled in the California School of Mortuary Science, graduating in 1977. He worked for a short time in California before returning to Utah, where he discovered that those sleepless nights of his formative years paid off.

Working for funeral homes in Provo and Salt Lake City, Peterson found himself tooling around town in a hearse picking up and embalming the recently expired at all hours of the night. As a result, he became a confirmed night owl, and found slipping through the city at 3 a.m. a source of enjoyment. “At that time of night, you see all kinds of characters. You see a side of the city most people don’t realize is there.”

Soon, however, the hours began to wear. It was time to find a gig that was more conducive to getting a little shut-eye. “And, I don’t know why,” Peterson says, “but my wife wanted a bit of time with me, too.” In 1984, Peterson was hired by the U to head its Body Donor Program, which at the time received only around 40 cadavers a year. Since taking over and expanding the program’s outreach and education efforts, Peterson has increased donations to about 120 bodies a year, many of which are those of former U of U faculty. And for Peterson, the U has offered more than a regular schedule. “I sure don’t miss those three-piece suits I had to wear while working in funeral homes,” he says.

Peterson is grateful to the donors and their families. “People in this community are amazing,” he says. “They understand what body donation is about, and the good it can do. Because there’s just no other way for doctors to learn this stuff,” he stresses, referring to the spate of new medical techniques and tools being developed every year. “Doctors have to use a cadaver.” And it’s far better to have them learn the tricks of the trade under Peterson’s roof than in an operating room.

— Jason Matthew Smith is editor of Continuum.

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