Alumna gave science the greatest gift
By Joni Moths Mueller
Maredithe “Katie” (Meyer) McDevitt, Sp ’63, felt a lump in her breast in June 1979 and was gone 12 months later, leaving a legacy everyone could see in her six children, ages 14 to 3. Her other legacy wouldn’t come to light for 35 years, when the McDevitt family finally learned how Katie’s wish to donate her body to science was realized.
Those who knew Katie, speak of her with unmistakable awe. They remember her beautiful smile. They remember her as a killer tennis player who smiled at opposing players, even in the midst of a hotly contested match. They remember her powerful Catholic faith and her devotion to family. And they remember the year Katie taught them about what she called “after life-ing.”
Kate (McDevitt) Meyer, yes, the similar names can make anyone look twice, is Katie’s oldest child. Kate was just 13 years old when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. “The last thing she did was attend my eighth-grade graduation,” remembers Kate. “She went into hospice the next day.”
Katie prepared for her final days in sundry ways. She hired a caregiver to help her husband, Marty McDevitt, and their children adapt to life in her absence. She extracted a promise from family friends and fellow alumni Charles, Law ’62, and Judy Mulcahy, Sp ’61, to teach her daughters to play the sport she loved, competitive tennis. She planned her funeral Mass, including the selection of hymns. And she spoke openly about dying and about what she was going through, particularly with her two oldest children, daughters Kate and Maureen “Mo” (McDevitt) Buettner.
“We visited her every day at St. Joe’s,” says Mo, who was 11 then. “She explained there wouldn’t be a typical funeral because she was leaving her body to science. She told us: ‘I am not dying. I am going to be new life-ing.’ Because of that I have never looked at death negatively. That was another gift she gave.”
The family came to appreciate what Katie meant a little more fully last year after daughter Kate attended an event sponsored by the We Care Fund outreach arm of the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Department of Surgery. Kate listened while a mother in the audience talked about her teenage daughter’s sudden death and the family’s decision to donate her organs through the Wisconsin Donor Network to a young woman in New York.
“That got me thinking,” Kate says. “My mother designated the Medical College of Wisconsin to be the recipient of her body and that’s all we knew — end of story. I wondered if there was any trace of someone who benefited from my mother’s donation. Obviously, her body was older and very sick, but I was curious so I asked the question.”
A few weeks after that event, Meg Bilicki, associate director of development in the department of surgery at MCW, telephoned. Kate remembers Bilicki saying, “We have an amazing story to tell you.”
Kate wasted no time in sharing this story with her brothers and sisters.
Katie (Meyer) McDevitt noticed a small lump in her breast the week she and Marty were due to take a weekend trip to New York. A couple of weeks later one lump became three lumps. “The doctor said we were dealing with a very aggressive tumor,” remembers Marty. “I don’t know how we got through the winter.”
In the spring Katie’s condition worsened. “We went to Kopp’s for coffee,” Marty says, “and she grabbed my hand. She knew her days were numbered.”
Katie, who was well known for careful preparation whether that meant setting a beautiful table with freshly cut flowers for dinner guests or spreading a picnic lunch courtside and corralling her six children between tennis games, began planning for her death and the future.
During the final week of Katie’s life, her brother-in-law, Dr. Bill McDevitt, visited Katie in the cancer ward at St. Joseph’s Hospital every morning before doing rounds with his patients. It was then that Katie raised one topic repeatedly — donating her body to science. “I had talked to families about autopsies but never about donating a body to science,” Bill says, recounting those conversations. “But as we talked, we began to see it would be a wonderful thing.”
Because of Bill’s strong connections to the medical community, Katie asked him to write a letter to encourage MCW to accept her body for medical study. Maybe the youth of her body would outweigh its ravages from cancer. In the text of his letter, Bill says he suggested that Katie’s body would provide a “beneficial demonstration of the pathology” of cancer. “The medical school decided it would take Katie’s body,” he says.
The night Katie died, July 2, 1980, Dr. Marvin Wagner, Arts ’42, Med ’44, Grad ’51, a clinical professor of surgery and anatomy at MCW, registered her body for donation. He and colleague Dr. Thomas Lawson, a professor of radiology and chief of computed body tomography and ultrasonography, were collaborating on an anatomy textbook that would include photographs of segmental axial, coronal and sagittal sections from human donors. When published in 1983, their book was one of the first to use photographs instead of illustrations.
Katie’s gift and the gifts from 29 other donors were featured in the textbook that has been used to teach anatomy to thousands of medical students. The 440 chapters depict human anatomy in three planes. The authors wrote: “This landmark reference has been designed to provide medical students, residents, and practitioners of surgery, radiology and medicine with a detailed knowledge of cross-sectional anatomy, both normal and pathologic.”
Wagner, who is 96 years old today, was a vascular surgeon at the time who also taught anatomy to medical students at MCW. His son-in-law, Dr. Jay Goodman, who was one of Wagner’s medical students and later his partner in medical practice, says Wagner took great pride in being a clinician, surgeon and anatomist and also writing a textbook. “It took years to do. He correlated it with the cadavers he had access to,” Goodman says, “and it became a reference for anatomists, radiologists and surgeons.”
What’s remarkable about the book, Kate was told, is that it was circulated throughout the world and is still used today. Each academic year MCW holds a memorial service honoring donors who leave their bodies to science and their families. All of this was shared with Kate and siblings Mo, Patrick and Paul when they took a guided tour of the anatomy lab late last year. Brothers Brian and Peter live too far away and couldn’t make it back to Milwaukee for the tour. Their guide was Todd Hoagland, Ph.D., director of the anatomical gift registry at MCW.
“Even in our sorrow, we have always felt her spiritual presence. It was truly a gift to see the new life-ing in that lab,” says Mo.
“It was a wonderful reminder that even such a long time since she passed, her spirit and grace continue to impart gifts to us,” says Peter, Comm ’98, who was 5 when Katie died.
Marty acknowledges that Katie’s decision to donate her body to science ran counter to typical Catholic religious practices at the time. But the decision was in complete harmony with the way Katie lived her faith. She always sought ways to help others — even in death, he says.
Of learning how her mother’s body was used, Kate says: “I was elated. My father said it wasn’t surprising because of our mother’s generous heart. My mother was that loving, spiritual, faithful, wonderful person who served others, who was always concerned with the needs of others. She was 39 years old and bent on making a difference, and that’s why it made sense that she wanted to give her body to medicine.”
Paul, who was 8 when Katie died, says losing his mother at that early age caused him to sometimes question God, question his faith. “And then many, many years later there is this big reveal,” Paul says. “The story couldn’t end any better. It’s a fascinating story of faith in that you may not get your prayers answered right away, but, boy, are they answered.”
And Katie’s story continues because there is yet another strand. Her first grandchild will be a junior in the Diederich College of Communication this fall. She is the first grandchild but the second Maredithe Katherine Meyer to call Marquette home.
An endowed scholarship established in 1967 in Katie’s memory, the Harold W. Meyer and Maredithe K. Meyer McDevitt Scholarship, provides financial support to Marquette students.