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What Actually Happens to the Body After Donating It to Science?

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Paolo Mancini
Paolo Mancini
Based in the Milano, Paolo Mancini writes about food, fitness, weird stuff on the internet, and, well, just about anything else. He has also written for The Guardian, The Sunday Times, British Glamour.

What Actually Happens to the Body After Donating It to Science?

Studying and experimenting on cadavers is a long-standing practice advancing medicine. Aspiring and established doctors today depend on donated bodies to improve their skills, test medical devices, and discover new treatments and surgical approaches. But what exactly happens to your body after donation.? In this post, we will see how to have your body donated to science and what happens after you do it.

The biggest challenge that body donation programs face is a lack of awareness and education among the masses. Many do not know how to have your body donated to science, how it works, and how it differs from organ donation. However, this is changing, and the donations are rising at an annual rate of 30%.

The process of body donation starts with screening potential donors while they are still alive in an accredited non-profit or organization. The step includes thorough medical vetting, asking questions about past illnesses and surgeries, infectious diseases, and IV drug use. Conditions like hepatitis and HIV, or being severely overweight or underweight, can be the basis for rejection. However, there is no ruling on the age limit, unlike organ donation.

All the information about the donor’s body is kept in a file until the donor passes away, after which another medical assessment is conducted to approve the donation. If the donor’s body meets the program’s requirements even after death, the body is transported to a facility where it is embalmed for preservation. If the donation is made through a for-profit program, it is matched with requests from educators or medical research teams who may have short-term needs.

A donor’s body can be used to advance robotic or arthroscopic surgery, test laser treatment for acne, improve heart valve transplants, train first responders to learn life-saving techniques and teach surgeons to administer local anesthesia blocks. The Department of Defense may also use donated bodies to test the impact of new technology. Once the body is utilized, the remains are cremated or returned to the family if requested, along with a death certificate. Some organizations also send letters to the deceased person’s family explaining the projects that benefited from the donation. Usually, each donor gets to participate in an average of six research projects.

Some donation programs also pay for the cost of transporting a donor within a certain distance. Most of them promise to return the remains to the family for cremation, while others keep the donor’s remains at their university’s forensic anthropology archives. The decision to donate the whole body becomes a gift for many. Students use the ones that go to medical schools to learn anatomy and practice procedures. Others may go to university research facilities or private companies that take body donations.

Some states have highly regulated processes for body donation and are governed by a central anatomy board in the health department. The donors become patients for doctors in training. So once a body arrives at the anatomy board, it is issued a tracking number. Some organizations implant an RFID chip on one of the shoulders of the donor. Usually, the labs are secured by ID badges or other rigorous standards. The organizations work to protect the donor’s dignity and treat the body donors as they would a living patient. Any discovery of new conditions of the patients, like previous surgery, a cyst, or a past broken bone, is noted down by the medical students. In addition, some facilities require their students to follow HIPAA rules when discussing their donors outside the lab.

Although no single federal regulation, registry, or tracking program handles the donated bodies for research in the US, some programs are largely governed by each state’s version of the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act. It contains the provision for promoting organ and tissue donation and also outlines how people can consent to donate their organs or entire bodies to science. The donors should navigate these systems before deciding where to donate. Some facilities treat the body donors better than others do.

Body donors should also remember that not everybody in the donation program may be welcome. These organizations exclude bodies with certain communicable diseases, previously undergoing autopsies. They also have certain weight limits for the donors.

The Bottom Line

Many people choose body donations due to the high cost of funerals, which can go up to $8755, and burial expenses. Cremating after the funeral comes at $6260. These costs simply vanish if you donate your body to science. However, this is only one reason why people choose body donations. There are many other whole-body donors who wish to contribute to medical research and make their death meaningful. Many people view it as an excellent alternative to burial and just wasting the organs and bodies that can be used for advanced medical research. While some people just find it to be fascinating.


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