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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What happens to your body when it’s donated to science?
Illustration: Brittany England

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.

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.

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.

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.