Medical schools seeking more body donations

January 16, 2012

Ruth Copeland was 87 but kept an active lifestyle. She played bridge three days a week, met friends for lunch, traveled the world and rarely stayed at home.

When the former Detroit City Hall employee died unexpectedly in October, her family was devastated but remembered one last adventure she wanted: to give her body to science.

Copeland's remains were bequeathed to the University of Michigan, home to one of the state's medical schools that accepts body donations to train future doctors and further research.

U-M, along with the state's other major medical schools, is hoping for more people like Copeland. While the demand is surging for cadavers to use in medical research and teaching, the number of people who decide to donate their bodies has remained flat about 500 people annually in Michigan.

The medical schools could benefit from the weak economy, as body donation saves on burial and cremation costs, experts say. But for most people who preregister or make their wishes known to family, the motive usually is a final act of selflessness.

"What greater honor can you bestow on yourself than to donate your body so that medical students are going to become better doctors?" said Nancy Copeland. "When you donate your body to science, you are helping others as opposed to being left in the ground or cremated."

However, body donation is not always about altruism.

"I have had people donate here because they like our basketball team or our football team," said Dean Mueller, U-M's Anatomical Donations Program coordinator.

"Believe it or not, we had a donor donate to us because he said this was the only way he was going to get into U-M. He actually left us a note on his body. He said he was going to get into U-M even if it killed him."

When most people die, usually there is a memorial service and then the remains are either buried or cremated. But some say it's more meaningful to stick around a little while longer at one of the state's medical schools.

Body donors at U-M, Michigan State and Wayne State universities typically are screened. Officials then decide where donations would be best used.

Resource for students

At U-M and Wayne State, cadavers help further medical research and are used for practicing new surgical techniques and more.

Body donors also are a critical resource for medical students when learning anatomy. The cadavers often are referred to as the students' first patient.

"It's good to learn anatomy out of a textbook or even from models, but having the human body presents its own uniqueness and individuality, and it provides students with the opportunity for a hands-on learning experience," said Jacque Liles, director of anatomical resources at MSU.

"In addition to the educational aspect, it teaches them a level of compassion and sensitivity when working with the donors that can carry through (professionally). These are individuals, they are loved ones of family members and there is a high level of dignity and respect that's required when working with them."

Most major religions sanction body donations, experts said. In some cases, body donors can also donate organs and even have a funeral.

For those who make the choice, like Leonard Wessels, it's a way to live on after death.

Even though Wessels, a longtime funeral director, spent decades burying loved ones at a funeral home in Pleasant Ridge, he willed his body to the medical school at WSU after he died of cancer in 2010.

It made many people in the funeral industry gasp, said his wife, Linda Wessels.

"He didn't feel there were enough people donating," she said. "And he was always teaching somebody something. He wanted to teach in death."

He even convinced his mother-in-law, Janet Best, to donate her body to WSU, which she did when she died 45 days after him.

Families receive gratitude

U-M, MSU and WSU have annual memorials for families to grieve with others, celebrate their loved ones and find closure.

At a recent memorial at U-M, several medical students shared their gratitude before hundreds of people.

"Though I finished my coursework in anatomy two years ago, the knowledge I acquired and the principles I learned live on as I now treat patients every day," said Sarah Arshad, a third-year medical student at U-M. "To the man who donated his body to my small group: Your life technically ended at the time written on your death certificate, but your contribution to the world lives on, especially to the six of us to whom you gave a priceless gift. By choosing to enrich our educations, you are breathing hope into our dreams and are responsible for every life we touch in our role of students and soon-to-be practitioners of medicine."

It is not known how many people donate their body to science nationally because programs vary dramatically, said Todd Olson, past president of the American Association of Anatomists.

Traditional funerals still remain the dominant choice after death, followed by cremation.

Call for more donors

But the Vermont-based Funeral Consumers Alliance has received a sharp increase in calls in recent years from people who can't afford burial or even cremation. When Joshua Slocum, the organization's executive director, suggests body donation, sometimes there is a silence on the other end of the line. He wonders if people consider it disrespectful or think their loved one has already gone through enough before dying.

"Remember Mom or Dad benefited from the gift that people made decades before they died," Slocum said. "Somebody helped train (their) doctors by donating their bodies so that they could practice on a person before they did it to a living person. Every one of us who visits the doctor or goes to the hospital has donors who donated their bodies to thank."

Walter and Jennie Horiszny had other reasons for deciding to will their bodies to MSU shortly before their 45th wedding anniversary in 1983.

"They were not very old at the time but had had some experience with funerals and everything that goes with the loss of a loved one and they wanted it to be easier for us when they passed away," said their daughter, Laurene Horiszny.

"Best of all, they wanted to give back. They were Spartans to the core they were green and wanted to keep on giving to State."
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