This Is What Happens to Your Body After It’s Donated to Science
I have a rather strange obsession with medical science and autopsies and whatnot. I love watching medical shows, I’ve been known to watch autopsy videos on YouTube, and my favorite Instagram account belongs to a pathology assistant. Honestly, I probably should have been a doctor or medical researcher of some kind, but I’m shockingly bad at math. All of this is say, I’m weirdly tuned into this kind of stuff. So it should surprise no one that I’ve got an entire folder on my bookmarks bar about body donation! It fascinates me to no end. But what exactly happens to your body after it’s donated to science? And how can you go about making it happen?
Body donation is an integral part of the advancement of medical science and research.
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It’s definitely macabre, but without cadavers, medical science would not be as advanced as it is today. Donated bodies allow medical students to practice surgical techniques, study the effects of diseases and disorders on the body, and test medical devices. Doctors and researchers use cadavers to discover new treatments and surgical techniques, which benefits millions of people around the world. The use of cadavers has been around since the 1800’s, when medical students and teachers used to steal bodies from graveyards. Luckily, the medical research community now relies on donated bodies (which is much more pleasant, tbh).
So what happens when you donate your body to science?
Just as with organ and blood donation, there are organizations that deal solely in bodies. Potential donors are screened by accredited or nonprofit organization while they’re still alive. So yes, these are arrangements that need to be made before the person dies. The potential donor is asked about their health history, including past surgeries, major or communicable diseases, and IV drug use. Age does not matter and will not preclude someone from donating their body to science. However, things like HIV and hepatitis or being severely over- or underweight can prevent someone from donating their body to science.
Once the decision has been made, the donor information is kept on file, sometimes for years, until the donor dies. Another medical exam is performed at that point. If the person still meets the body donation criteria, the body is transported to a facility. So, there’s no body for a burial or cremation. Instead, the body is preserved, sometimes for up to three years after the person died. How it’s used depends on the facility’s needs while the body is in the program. Donor bodies have been used to test new robotic surgical procedures, perfect heart transplant techniques, and make advancements in skin grafting. They’re used to test things like laser treatment for acne, and allow medical students to practice techniques like administering anesthetic blocks and placing central line IVs. There’s no limit to how many ways a donor cadaver can be used.
After the donated body’s useful life after life comes to an end, the remains are cremated and returned to the family upon request. Families can also request a letter explaining what projects benefited from their loved one’s donation.
People choose to donate their body to science for a lot of reasons. However, the financial strain of postmortem arrangements is a huge factor. Funerals can cost upwards of $8,000, and even cremation services cost several thousand dollars. Body donation is completely free.
And while most people are organ donors (or at least aware of how to become an organ donor), body donation flies a bit more under the radar. It’s not just a box you check on your license application. This is a decision you need to make while you’re living, which is a hard process to undertake for a lot of people. No one wants to plan their death during life, you know? But if you’ve ever benefited from medical science during your life, then you already know how important these programs are. For many donors, this is their way of giving back and helping in a way not many people can or do.
If you think that body donation is something you may want to consider, start doing your research now! It can be your final, altruistic act. And who knows, maybe it’ll be your body that leads to a major medical science breakthrough one day.
(Image: iStock / ozgurcoskun)