Monique Hedmann, a third-year medical student at the Oregon University of Health and Science, vividly remembers the memorial service held by one of her teachers.
The students performed an original song about the man they affectionately nicknamed “Bill.” A classmate danced a traditional hula. Hedmann organized and sang in a memorial choir. Others stood in front of the attendees, which included Bill’s family, and reflected on how much he had taught them.
“There were not many dry eyes,” recalls Hedmann.
During classes, tutoring sessions and anatomy labs, Hedmann estimates that he spent more than a hundred hours with Bill. But it was not his mind that he collected so much information from. It was, literally, his body.
Bill is what is called a “full-body donor”. After death, his body was donated to science.
In this case, that meant that medical students like Hedmann spent hours carefully studying his anonymous corpse: learning human anatomy, practicing surgical cuts and even finding and examining the stomach cancer that ultimately took Bill’s life.
Although the experimentation with corpses sounds macabre, it is a long-standing practice that has the ability to advance medicine at a rapid pace. It has also come a long way since the 19th century, when ambitious medical students, and their teachers, robbed graves for the opportunity to practice dissection.
Nowadays, both aspiring physicians and established doctors depend on the abnegation of donors to adjust their trade, discover new treatments and surgical approaches, as well as test medical devices.
“Each donor brings a project one step closer to their goal,” says Katrina Hernandez, vice president of donation services for Science Care Inc., which serves as a liaison between donors and medical researchers.
So, what exactly happens when you donate your body to science?
The process of donating bodies is something like this:
An accredited or non-profit organization, such as a college donation program, evaluates potential donors while they are still alive.
It is a comprehensive medical investigation that may include questions about past illnesses and surgeries, intravenous drug use, and communicable diseases. Conditions such as HIV and hepatitis can be a decisive factor for the donation of bodies. You can also be severely underweight or overweight.
But unlike organ donation, age does not matter.
“A 96-year-old heart is still as valuable as a 26-year-old heart in our world,” says Heidi Kayser, director of donor education and outreach at MedCure.
The information is kept archived, sometimes for many years, until the donor dies. Another medical evaluation is done to approve the donation. If the donor still meets the requirements of the program, the body is transported discreetly to an installation.
From there, he is not embalmed as if he were in a funeral home.
“Funerals are more about the presentation and making the body as realistic as possible until the funeral, which can take between three days and a week,” says Tamara Ostervoss, director of the OHSU Organ Donation program. “Our [process] is more about preservation.”
For example, most donors remain in the OHSU program for two or three years.
If the donation is made through a for-profit program, it is combined with requests from medical research teams and educators who may have short-term needs.
For example, a donor could be used to advance robotic or arthroscopic surgery, perfect heart valve transplants, laser treatments for acne, teach surgeons how to administer local anesthetics and give first responders the opportunity to learn techniques to save lives.
The Department of Defense also uses donors to test the impact of the new technology.
Once the life of a donor ends, the remains are incinerated and, if requested, returned to the family along with a death certificate.
You can also send a letter to loved ones, explaining which projects benefited from the donation. In Science Care, for example, each donor participates in an average of six research projects.
In a high-tech world where ears can be printed in 3-D and medical students use virtual reality to deliver, the urgent need for donations may seem surprising, but “nothing can simulate the complexities of the human body,” says Hernandez. .
The choice of a lifetime
Why would someone choose to donate bodies instead of a funerary vault once they take their last breath?
The simplest reason is reduced to finance. The average national cost of a funeral with visits and burial is $ 8,755. Cremation after a funeral is only slightly less expensive at $ 6,260.
Donate your body to science, and those costs simply disappear.
But there are also altruistic reasons to become a donor.
Doris Poulakos became a full-body donor after having passed away in the last fall of Alzheimer’s. At age 93, the resident of Franklin, Wisconsin, had first expected to donate her organs, but her age made her ineligible.
MedCure provided a solution.
“My mother and sister had survived breast cancer twice, and we felt a need to help,” explains one of Poulakos’ daughters, Pam Poulakos. “It’s an excellent alternative to bury and simply waste bodies and organs that could be used to advance medical research.”
Pam has not yet decided if she wants to know how her mother’s donation was used. But she and two of her brothers agree that they will also become body donors.