Special Assignment: Donating your body to science after death

By: Sheli Muniz Email
By: Sheli Muniz Email

News 12 at 11 o'clock / Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- You've heard of donating food, clothes and money, but what about giving back even after you aren't around anymore?

It's a way to leave your legacy, but not having a street named after you or nameplate on a building. It's one that could save lives and save your family money. It's called leaving behind your body to science.

First-year medical students at Georgia Health Sciences University are preparing for class. But in this class, they won't be relying on books or boards -- but bodies.

First-year medical student Pierre Desanges says, "A book can only give you a general sense of where things are via illustrations."

Anatomical Program Coordinator David Adams says the students come in with a lot of emotion.

"We begin each semester with the students, one of our chaplains from the hospital comes over he has a prayer before we ever start -- first thing," Adams said.

It wasn't always easy for first-year medical student Mary-Caroll Lee, but she says you get used to it really quickly.

"Making the first cuts was hard," Lee said. "The first incisions we made were along the back. I just kept thinking someone once patted this back, put suntan lotion on it and massaged it and they loved this person and I'm about to destroy this back."

For Lee's group, they've named their first patient Elma.

One of the students says, "We definitely appreciate her. I would never know where these muscles are."

While they will only ever know Elma's age and profession, "You know their bodies better than they ever do," she said.

Their professor and the bodies guide them through the process of learning medicine.

"They look so much different than books," Lee said. "One of the things I noticed about her is that her nails are really well manicured so someone must have been taking care of her in final days and I thought that was nice."

Adams says, "We have about 12 thousand people who are registered with us to become body donors at the time of death."

So here is how it works. You register to donate your body to science and when you die, you get assigned to a class.

After they use the donor's body, which could be up to two years, they are then cremated and can then be buried at the university's cinerarium. That's where the benefit could come for your family.

"The university pays basically all the expenses for this donor," Adams said.

This could save your family up to $7,000 in funeral expenses. The university covers the costs of transportation to embalming to cremation. The remains are then returned to the family or buried on campus.

Sam Engler is waiting on his mother's. She passed away in 2009.

"All through her life she didn't want to be a burden to her children," Engler said.

So she donated her body to science not just to save money but to save lives.

"It's a first-class facility and and all of those students and that whole department know what it takes to make that type of decision to donate your body," he said.

That's when he made the decision to be a donor, too.

"I can't think of anything more morbid than to be put in a box and put in the ground," he said.

So while death is inevitable, the costs don't have to be.

"Even in death you can still be present and do something good for the world," Lee said.

In this room, these could be your former engineers, accountants, nurses or homemakers, but at the end of this lesson, they all become teachers to your future doctors.

There are programs like this across medical schools in the country. If you are thinking of being a body donor there are limitations. First, you have to be at least 18 years old. The program cannot accept anyone who has died by severe trauma or had a contagious disease.

When the semester is over, they have a memorial service to honor those who have donated their bodies.

That's where a lot of these students meet their first patients' families for the first time. An experience many describe as emotional.

If you want to learn more about being a body donor, go to this website.

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