A Last Wish

A Last Wish

As a private, faith-based institution, Creighton University
relies upon the generosity of donors to accomplish its mission
in educating future generations 
in the Jesuit, Catholic tradition.

By Adam Klinker

Most of the donations are monetary in nature and these gifts, if they could speak, might wax nostalgic of college days, life-changing realizations, spiritual enrich­ment and a final wish to see those experiences borne forward. For Don and Mary Margaret Wolters, who donated to the University in another way, the gift bespoke all three and more.

Don Wolters, MD’51, died in Decem­ber 2016 at age 93. His wife of 65 years, Mary Margaret, SCN’51, died four months later at 88. Both alumni from Creighton’s health sciences programs, they donated their bodies to the School of Medicine’s Department of Biomedical Sciences.

“There was never a question that they’d donate their bodies and donate them to Creighton,” says Peter, BA’74, JD’78, the couple’s son. “I feel like I’ve known all my life that’s what they wanted to do. We had the option to do something else, but I knew it was always their very strong desire to see themselves, even in death, be of service to people. That’s always resonated for me.”

Don and Mary Margaret met on 
the first day of Don’s third year in medical school, when the med students went to St. Catherine’s Hospital for 
the first time. When the nursing students came out to greet the new crop of future physicians, Mary Margaret Bradley caught the eye of Don Wolters.

A native of Atchison, Kansas, Don was a World War II veteran. His under­­graduate education at Bene­dictine College was interrupted when he volun­­teered for the U.S. Navy’s V-12 officers training program. The advent of the war also cut short Don’s budding baseball career. He’d been invited to spring training with the St. Louis Browns just before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Mary Margaret was born in Ulysses, Nebraska, and grew up in Sergeant Bluff, Iowa. She had a few uncles who were doctors and an aunt who was a nurse in Omaha, likely spurring her interest in the medical field.

The couple married Sept. 1, 1951, and after Don Wolters completed a residency in Sioux City, Iowa, he estab­lished a practice in Estherville, Iowa, that he maintained until his retire­ment in 1988. Mary Margaret, with her nursing degree, worked occasion­ally as a nurse and taught courses at a local community college, but her real occupation was as mother to Peter, who arrived within a year of the couple’s wedding, and daughter Peggy, who the couple adopted five years after Peter’s birth.

Life as a small-town doctor suited the boy from Atchison perfectly. Don was an avuncular presence on the streets of Estherville, having delivered many of the children populating the town and the surrounding countryside. He was often found in his garden and admired the work of the farmers who were his patients. Mary Margaret, who also grew up in small towns in Nebraska and Iowa, might’ve gone for a place with a bit more traffic but, as her son said, she knew her love story was destined to bloom where it was planted.

“I think he would have rather been a farmer himself,” Peter Wolters says. “He was a small-town, rural-area kind of guy. My mother would have gladly moved to Seattle or Omaha, a little bigger city. But she got involved with what was happening in town. She knew this was a fulfilling life.”

And so, for the better part of seven decades, Don and Mary Margaret Wolters made a life in Estherville, taking care of patients, raising a family, tending to the needs of their com­munity. But they also remembered that moment at Creighton and what their health sciences education had meant to them, not only as a career path, but in bringing their lives together.

Creighton receives about 90 donated bodies each year for use in its Depart­ment of Biomedical Sciences. Bodies typically arrive six months after death and after they have been cleared through the Anatomical Board of the State of Nebraska.

Thomas Quinn, PhD, director of Creighton’s Clinical Anatomy Program, said in the course of a year, just about all of Creighton’s health sciences students will work with or observe work on a donated body, making the program crucial to medical education.

“We generally refer to the donated body as the first patient,” Quinn says. “We encourage the students to use the person’s first name and there’s a form of HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act that keeps medical records private) involved. It’s a lesson in professionalism as well as anatomy.”

After the year the bodies spend in the lab, Creighton hosts a memorial service for families, where students are able to talk with loved ones and share their gratitude for the deceased family member’s donation. For those families not recovering the cremains, an inter­ment is also held at Resurrection Cemetery.

Without the donors, Quinn says, lessons on human anatomy can only go so far.

“All in all, it really is a beautiful thing,” he says. “The bodies are some of our best teachers. There’s nothing to compare with being able to use the whole body and see how it works. It really does get you ready for practice. We talk at Creighton about finding God in all things and the donation and the anatomy lab is a good place to look. You can see how people, after they’re gone, are helping teach our students to keep us alive and well.”

In his mother’s obituary, Peter Wolters wrote of his parents’ decision to donate their bodies to the School of Medicine in this poignant way: “Having met at Creighton while Don was in medical school and Mary Margaret was in nursing training, they decided to spend eternity together at Creighton.”

“They’re doing exactly what they wanted to do,” he says. “Both my mother and father saw opportunities to give back and took them. It was a big motivation for my father becom­ing a doctor. For my mother, she always looked for a way to help her community. Donating their bodies to Creighton fulfilled that last wish, that they could still be of service.”

For more information on the body donation program, contact the Ana­tomical Board of the State of Nebraska at 402.559.6249 or the Creighton Department of Biomedical Sciences at 402.280.2542.