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July 28, 2003

Body Donors Live On Through Education

Those who donate their bodies to the Health Center live on in the minds of the students who study them.

"The people who give us their bodies are all teachers, helping to make our students better doctors and dentists," says Dr. Dudley Watkins, a professor of physiology who has been teaching anatomy and organ systems to first-year medical and dental students for more than 30 years.

"There is simply no way to duplicate the hands-on experience our students gain from working with the human body," says Watkins. "And for the teachers, the bodies help us put a very human face on education as we work with the students, showing them the various relationships between the structures they are trying to identify and learn."

The Health Center needs about 40 bodies each year for teaching purposes. Most are used by first-year medical and dental students, who study anatomy and organ systems in teams of four. Others are used to teach orthopedic and surgical techniques to doctors and dentists.

Body of Knowledge
by Erik Johnson

I doubt there exists one
Single, more precious gift than this -
This beautiful body of knowledge,
This vessel of lessons learned
and lessons passed
from your loved one's good hands
to ours.
I see knowledge happening each day -
a professor paused in the hallway
to explain a difficult concept -
I see the teacher's hands
drawing in mid-air
a chromosome splitting,
several neurons catching fire,
hormones signaling receptors in this
Complex link of life.
And then the response -
The student's eyelids widen, forehead unfurled,
A smile returned with new confidence
I see the connection so clear - their body
Of knowledge poured into ours.
Many days before the one we share with you today
Your loved one made a choice
A voice sharing moments of knowledge
That I hear in these halls today.
Many days before the ones we share with you today
We will make a healing choice
Echoing the knowledge your loved ones have lent us
with their generosity to continue teaching beyond their time
and for which we are truly grateful.

"We get lots of calls from people who want to donate their body to science," says James Casso, a licensed funeral director and embalmer who prepares the bodies that have been donated to the Health Center. "Most of them sincerely want to be useful in finding the cause of whatever illness they had."

People who want to donate their body need to make their wishes known to family members, who can call the Health Center immediately following the person's death, Casso says. "People often put their desire to donate their body in their wills, but by the time the will is read, it's too late to make their wish come true."

Bodies that are going to be donated for teaching purposes cannot be autopsied or embalmed by commercial funeral homes, he notes.

Once the bodies have been received at the Health Center, Casso embalms them using a special preservative and places them in a cool room where they can be kept for up to two years until they are needed.

"We introduce our students to the bodies during a brief ceremony at the beginning of the year," Casso says.

"We put a card on each body with a little history about the person and a picture, if we have one, so the students can understand a little bit about the person."

When the students no longer need the bodies, they are cremated and the ashes returned to the families or stored. The Health Center honors those who donated their bodies during a memorial services for the families and the students at the end of the school year.

"I think it's extremely important that we get to see all the arteries and veins and organs first hand," says Erik Johnson, who just completed his first year of dental school. "There's no way to duplicate it with books or computers. We have a CD-ROM that accompanies our book, but it's only two-dimensional.

"Working with a real body gives us a whole new experience," he adds, "feeling the different organs and seeing how close the intestines are to the spleen, for example. The books are very descriptive but they cannot really give you that sense of a real person with his or her own unique anatomy."