A few years ago my mother told me she was donating her body to science. I investigated why this is a good alternative to a traditional funeral. In New York, the Associated Medical Schools of New York help licence whole body donation programs amongst medical colleges in the state. These reputable schools serve as a protection against the darker side of body brokers. When I pass on, my body will be going to science. Following is a transcript of the video.
Kevin Reilly: When I die, this body is going straight to science. It’s not going in a casket. It’s not going to a crematorium. I’m going to donate it right to a medical school. Why?
Peggy Reilly: My name is Peggy Reilly. I’m 65 years old.
Kevin Reilly: This is my mother. And the story starts with her. She travelled all around the world, raised three awesome kids, and is generally amazing. But then something happened.
Peggy Reilly: I had a stroke on March 23rd, 2012.
Kevin Reilly: The stroke was caused by a blood vessel bursting in her brain. It changed everything.
Peggy Reilly: I miss working properly, taking care of my husband and my children. I miss that. And driving, and… taking care of the dogs, and cleaning the house. And walking. I miss all that.
Kevin Reilly: A few years after the stroke, she told me she wanted to donate her body to science. And my reaction was, “Why?” Because it’s expensive to have a funeral. But I’d like them to learn from my body, so that they can use everything from my whole entire body, and the bones and everything.
Funerals are expensive. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the median price is about $US7,300. And a cremation is only about a thousand dollars cheaper. This is a funeral pricing checklist from the Federal Trade Commission. Basic service for the funeral director and staff, pickup of body, embalming, other preparation of body, casket, funeral memorial service, graveside service, including staff and equipment, hearse.
This is ridiculous. I don’t want to put my loved ones through that. So this got me thinking that, like my mum, I should use what I have to help people once I’m dead. So I went to find out how I can donate my body.
This is Jo Wiederhorn. She’s the President and CEO of the Associated Medical Schools of New York. That’s the group that makes sure body donation programs in New York are legit.
Jo Wiederhorn: So the process is really very easy. First of all, when you decide that that’s what you want to do, you should contact the medical school that you want to donate to. And I would say that you should donate to a medical school. They are licensed; they go through a rigorous process to become licensed.
Kevin Reilly: Medical schools seem like an obvious choice, but there’s a darker reasoning behind this.
Newscast: Revealing new details about a case of human body parts sold on the black market. A private company was selling body parts from bodies that had been donated?
Kevin Reilly: There’s a whole cottage industry of “body brokers.”
Newscast: Some U.S. companies are making a fortune by selling human bodies that were donated to science.
Kevin Reilly: A Reuters investigation revealed that this often unregulated business is worth millions and rarely guarantees that your body is going to be used for what you hope for.
Wiederhorn: Really, if you want to ensure that your body is going to go for educational purposes, because that’s what most people want to do. They want to be able to help train the next era of physicians. So, the best place to do that is to a medical school. Every single one of our, we have 16 medical schools in New York. Every single one of them has a donor program.
Kevin Reilly: Dr. Jeffrey Laitman is the Director of Anatomy and Functional Morphology at the Icahn School of Madison at Mount Sinai. This is where my body will wind up. But I needed to know why these schools really wanted my body.
Dr. Jeffrey Laitman: The laying on of hands is a sacred trust, a very, very special thing to do. That process begins in the first day of an anatomy class. It’s a very difficult thing for a student to do. In our culture, we refer to the cadaver as one’s first patient.
Kevin Reilly: But with all the advances in technology, from VR to animatronics, why do they need to use real bodies?
Mark Bailey [Student]: Everything up to this point is very conceptual: PowerPoint slides, drawings in books. And this is the first time you see a tangible representation of humanity and how we’re going to treat them.
Kevin Reilly: The students dissect cadavers in their first anatomy classes, practicing on human bodies before they ever step into a surgery room. And even experienced doctors continue to use cadavers.
Laitman: Other things can be helpful. And you can learn from models and computer programs and all sorts of wonderful adjuncts. But the key of medicine as long as you’ll be treating real people is gonna be learning from real people.
Grace Mosley [Student]: The body is not just a box that has organs in it. Everything’s not always in the same place. Within the course we have oral exams in which the teaching assistants will come around and ask us questions about all of the different structures that we should have dissected or learned the names of. And my first oral exam, I was so nervous. But I felt calmer than expected, and I realised at the end of the test that I had actually been holding my cadaver’s hand, which was somewhat horrifying but strangely comforting.
Kevin Reilly: And if you’re wondering what happens to the cadavers once they’re done with them …
Laitman: And when the course is over, the remains are then either cremated or buried, depending upon the wishes of the deceased.
Kevin Reilly: Each year, many of the schools hold special ceremonies honouring the donors. Here at the University of Buffalo, friends and family were invited to join the students and doctors. That’s right, I get a service, burial or cremation, and I’m helping to train doctors. Cost? Zero. It’s covered by the school.
Now, to be clear, donating your body to science is different from being an organ donor on your licence. With whole-body donation, the organs are kept intact. Students need all the parts to learn about the whole body. So the only thing left to do is mail out the form, because when I go, this is going to science.
If you want to find out more about whole-body donation, call your local medical school. Or use this full list of programs put together by the Anatomical Board of the State of Florida.
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