Donate Body to Science (2022)

From helping medical students to furthering research, here’s how donating your body can give you a second life — and save others.

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Monique Hedmann, a third-year medical student at Oregon Health and Science University, vividly remembers the memorial service held for one of her teachers.

Students performed an original song about the man they affectionately nicknamed “Bill.” One classmate danced a traditional hula. Hedmann organized and sang in a memorial choir. Others stood before the attendees — which included Bill’s family — and reflected on how much he’d taught them.

“There were not many dry eyes,” Hedmann remembers.

During classes, tutoring sessions, and anatomy labs, Hedmann estimates she spent over a hundred hours with Bill. But it wasn’t his mind she gleaned so much information from. It was, quite literally, his body.

Bill is what’s called a “whole body donor.” After death, his body was donated to science.

In this case, that meant medical students like Hedmann spent hours poring over his anonymous corpse: learning human anatomy, practicing surgical cuts, and even finding and examining the stomach cancer that ultimately took Bill’s life.

Although experimenting on cadavers sounds macabre, it’s a long-standing practice that has the ability to advance medicine by leaps and bounds. It’s also come a long way from the 1800s, when ambitious medical students — and their teachers — robbed graves for the opportunity to practice dissection.

Today, both aspiring and established doctors depend on the selflessness of donors to fine-tune their craft, discover new treatments and surgical approaches, as well as test medical devices.

“Each donor brings a project one step closer to its goal,” says Katrina Hernandez, vice president of donor services for Science Care Inc., which serves as a link between donors and medical researchers.

The body donation process goes something like this:

An accredited organization or nonprofit, like a university donation program, screens potential donors while they’re still alive.

It’s a thorough medical vetting that can include questions about past illnesses and surgeries, IV drug use, and communicable diseases. Conditions such as HIV and hepatitis can be deal-breakers for body donation. So can being severely under- or overweight.

But unlike organ donation, age doesn’t 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.

Information is kept on file — sometimes for many years — until the donor passes away. Another medical assessment is done to approve the donation. If the donor still meets the program’s requirements, the body is discreetly transported to a facility.

From there, it’s not embalmed like it would be at a funeral home.

“Funerals are more about presentation and making the body as lifelike as possible until the funeral, which may be three days to a week away,” says Tamara Ostervoss, director of the OHSU Body Donation program. “Our [process] is more about preservation.”

For instance, most donors stay with OHSU’s program for two to three years.

If the donation is made through a for-profit program, it’s matched with requests from medical research teams and educators who may have shorter-term needs.

For instance, a donor could be used to advance robotic or arthroscopic surgery, perfect heart valve transplants, test laser treatments for acne, teach surgeons to administer local anesthetic blocks, and give first responders a chance to learn life-saving techniques.

The Department of Defense also uses donors to test the impact of new technology.

Once a donor’s useful afterlife comes to an end, the remains are cremated and, if requested, returned to the family along with a death certificate.

A letter can also be sent to loved ones, explaining what projects benefited from the donation. At Science Care, for instance, each donor participates in an average of six research projects.

(Video) What Could Happen if You Donate Your Body to Science

In a high-tech world where ears can be 3-D printed and medical students use virtual reality to practice delivering a baby, the urgent need for donations may sound surprising, but “nothing can simulate the intricacies of the human body,” says Hernandez.

Why would someone choose body donation versus a burial vault once they take their final breath?

The simplest reason comes down to finances. The national median cost of a funeral with viewing 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 vanish.

But there are altruistic reasons for becoming a donor as well.

Doris Poulakos became a whole-body donor after passing away from Alzheimer’s last fall. At 93, the Franklin, Wisconsin, resident had first hoped to donate her organs, but her age made her ineligible.

MedCure provided a solution.

“My mom and her sister had both survived breast cancer twice, and we felt an urge to help,” explains one of Poulakos’ daughters, Pam Poulakos. “It’s an excellent alternative to burial and just wasting bodies and organs that could be used to advance medical research.”

Pam hasn’t yet decided if she wants to know how her mother’s donation was used. But she and two of her siblings agree that they’ll become body donors as well.

Getting the word out

(Video) Why I'm Donating My Body To Science

When Hernandez explains that she works for a company that facilitates body donation, the common reaction she gets isn’t “Gross!” but one of intrigue.

“People say, ‘That must be so fascinating,’” Hernandez says. “Very few know about it.”

That’s the biggest challenge these programs face.

“There’s a lack of awareness and a lack of education,” Hernandez says. “I hear a lot of people say, ‘But I am a donor. It’s on my driver’s license.’”

Most people don’t know body donation isn’t the same thing as organ donation. However, that seems to be changing.

According to Hernandez, Science Care has accepted 60,000 donations since it was founded in 2000. At MedCure, donations are rising at an annual rate of 30 percent. OHSU accepts between 120 to 150 bodies per year, and they don’t even advertise.

“We think the work we’re doing is amazing,” says Kayser. “Our work is to normalize it.”

And to get the word out about how it helps the living.

“If you’ve ever been a patient in life, you’ve benefited by body donation,” says Hernandez.

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How to become a body donor

(Video) What Actually Happens When You Donate Your Body to Science

If you’re thinking about giving your body to science, here’s what to keep in mind.

You can start right now.

The best time to think about body donation? “Early and often,” says Alyssa Harrison, chair of the American Association of Tissue Banks (AATB) Non-Transplant Anatomical Donation Committee. “Someone can pledge to be a donor at any point during their life through most organizations.”

Find a legit way to donate.

“AATB accreditation is currently the only accreditation for whole body donation,” says Harrison. Currently, only seven are approved to accept whole body donation. They can either be nonprofit or for profit. Some universities, like OHSU and University of California, also have programs.

Read the fine print.

Although you may hope your donation helps find a cure for Alzheimer’s, for instance, you likely won’t have a say in how it’s used.

“Many people register to become body donors well in advance of their death, when it would be impossible to know what the research or education needs may be when they die or what their body may be best suited for,” says Brandi Schmitt, executive director of anatomical services at the University of California.

That said, some programs do allow donors to opt out of certain types of research.

Trust your gut.

“It’s vitally important that a donor understand and agree with the mission of the program where they choose to donate,” says Schmitt.

Look for a transparent practice, a donation agreement you understand, and knowledgeable, accessible staff who are willing to answer your questions.

If you feel you’re not getting enough info or don’t agree with the terms of the consent, seek another program.

FAQs

Do you have a funeral if you donate your body to science? ›

If I donate my body, will there be a funeral or memorial service? Medical schools will usually arrange for donated bodies to be cremated, unless the family request the return of the body for a private burial or cremation. Medical schools may hold a memorial service.

How do I give my body to science? ›

Registering with an anatomical institute

To donate your body to medical science, you need to give consent to an anatomical institute. They will ask you for a handwritten declaration (codicil) stating that you wish your body to be donated to medical science after your death.

Can you still donate your body to medical science? ›

If you are interested in donating your body, you need to contact your local medical school who can answer specific enquiries and provide consent forms. The minimum age for donation is 17 and you will need to make your wishes known in writing (and witnessed) prior to death.

What excludes you from donating your body to science? ›

You can be disqualified for whole body donation to science if you have an infectious or contagious disease such as HIV, AIDS, Hepatitis B or c, or prion disease. You can also be disqualified if your body was autopsied, mutilated, or decomposed. If your next of kin objects to the donation then you will be disqualified.

How long do they keep your body when you donate it to science? ›

After your body has been donated, any unused tissue and remains will be cremated and returned to your family. This usually happens within four to six weeks after donation. Your family will also receive detailed information about how your body was used and specific ways it helped advance medical science.

How many bodies are donated to science each year? ›

While no agency is charged with tracking what's known as whole-body donations, it's estimated that approximately 20,000 Americans donate their bodies to science every year. These donors give their bodies to be used to study diseases, develop new medical procedures and train surgeons and med students.

What are the benefits of donating your body to science? ›

Through donation, scientists are able to advance our understanding of disease and the development of new treatments. Research breakthroughs in Alzheimer's disease, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and more have been made possible because individuals chose to donate.

What organ is most needed for donation? ›

Kidneys: Kidneys are the most needed and most commonly transplanted organ. Kidneys are responsible for filtering waste and excess water from the blood and balancing the body's fluids.

What body parts Cannot be donated? ›

Tissues such as cornea, heart valves, skin, and bone can be donated in case of natural death but vital organs such as heart, liver, kidneys, intestines, lungs, and pancreas can be donated only in the case of 'brain death'.

Does the Catholic Church approve of donating your body to science? ›

Can Catholics Donate Organs and Tissues? Yes, organ, eye and tissue donation and transplantation is permissible within the Catholic faith. Moreover, the Vatican supports organ donation for all Catholics and considers it a selfless act of compassion.

Can you donate your body to science if you are obese? ›

Many use BMI as a guideline for a donor's size, disqualifying anyone with a body mass index of 35 or higher (the NIH determines a BMI of 30 or higher to be obese, 40 or higher to be a sign of extreme obesity), while others spell out specific heights and weights.

What happens to your body after donating? ›

Most healthy adults can donate a pint (about half a liter) safely, without health risks. Within a few days of a blood donation, your body replaces the lost fluids. And after two weeks, your body replaces the lost red blood cells.

Can I donate my mom's body to science? ›

Can anyone donate his or her body to science? Basically yes, medical institutions accept donations from all ages, ethnicities, and locations. Many medical institutions and medical schools actually require cadavers with certain pre-existing conditions for specific training or research purposes.

Is it cheaper to donate your body to science? ›

Advantages of donating your body to science

One of the chief advantages related to donating your body to science is that this option is often considerably less expensive than other funeral options. By donating your body to science, you avoid costs associated with body burial in a cemetery.

What is the least common organ donated? ›

To date, most donor organs have come from deceased donors, but the percentage of living donors has climbed each year since 1988. Kidney transplants are the most common type of transplant surgery; the least common single-organ transplants are the intestines.

Which organ has the longest waiting list? ›

patients. As of 2021, the organ with the most patients waiting for transplants in the U.S. was kidneys, followed by livers.

What is the most important organ in the body? ›

Anatomy & Function

The brain is arguably the most important organ in the human body. It controls and coordinates actions and reactions, allows us to think and feel, and enables us to have memories and feelings—all the things that make us human.

Is it cheaper to donate your body to science? ›

Advantages of donating your body to science

One of the chief advantages related to donating your body to science is that this option is often considerably less expensive than other funeral options. By donating your body to science, you avoid costs associated with body burial in a cemetery.

What happens to bodies donated to medical schools? ›

Also, bodies donated to medical schools are cremated once they are no longer needed, and the remains are often returned to their families at no expense. As of 2014, a traditional burial cost around $7,200, an increase of 29 percent from a decade earlier, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

Is being an organ donor the same as donating your body to science? ›

Being an organ donor vs. donating your body to science with Science Care. Organ donation is a live transplant to a living person. Donating your body to science is a non-transplant option helping to save countless lives through supporting medical research and education.

How many bodies are donated to science each year? ›

While no agency is charged with tracking what's known as whole-body donations, it's estimated that approximately 20,000 Americans donate their bodies to science every year. These donors give their bodies to be used to study diseases, develop new medical procedures and train surgeons and med students.

What organ is most needed for donation? ›

Kidneys: Kidneys are the most needed and most commonly transplanted organ. Kidneys are responsible for filtering waste and excess water from the blood and balancing the body's fluids.

Where is the best place to donate your body? ›

The largest and most reliable body donation programs are those operated by medical schools and universities. In fact, medical schools were the only places you could donate your body to science for many years.

Are you embalmed if you donate your body to science? ›

When you donate your body to science, there is no casket, embalming or any funeral expenses in the traditional sense. There are charges to move the body from the place of death to the medical school, to file the death certificate, to notify social security and to assist the family with scheduling any memorial services.

What are the benefits of donating your body to science? ›

Reason #1: Donating a body to science saves lives.

More importantly, it allows doctors, who throughout their practice, need to stay current with the advancements that result from innovative medical breakthroughs. Whole body donations are also used by practicing surgeons for surgical training and technique development.

What body parts Cannot be donated? ›

Tissues such as cornea, heart valves, skin, and bone can be donated in case of natural death but vital organs such as heart, liver, kidneys, intestines, lungs, and pancreas can be donated only in the case of 'brain death'.

Who Cannot be organ donors? ›

Certain conditions, such as having HIV, actively spreading cancer, or severe infection would exclude organ donation. Having a serious condition like cancer, HIV, diabetes, kidney disease, or heart disease can prevent you from donating as a living donor.

Videos

1. What it means to donate your body to science
(Eastern Virginia Medical School)
2. Body Donors: My Life After Death | Part 2 | (Medical Documentary) | Real Stories
(Real Stories)
3. Donating your body to science: Judy's Story
(Western University)
4. Organ Donation | Heart, Lungs, Kidney and Liver donation from Surat through Donate Life | 30th Heart
(Donate Life)
5. What Happens When You Donate Your Body to Science?
(Marian University Indianapolis)
6. Body Donors: My Life After Death (Medical Documentary) | Real Stories
(Real Stories)

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