Turning death into a final act of generosity through body donation

Reconciling what happens to us when we die is a deeply personal journey, but a small number are choosing to turn their death into a final act of generosity.

Body donation is something Dr Murray Williams, 89, has considered for several years.

ANU Body Donation program coordinator Dr Riccardo Natoli, Anatomical services specialist Hannah Lewis, and Associate Professor of Anatomy Krisztina Valter. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

The former doctor has taught medical students at ANU for more than a decade and feels donating his body to science after his death is his way of giving back to medicine.

“It’s an act of gratitude – my way of saying thank you to the profession,” he said.

“Good anatomy teaching is so important and this helps a little toward that. It’s something I can do. To give something that is relatively worthless to anyone else, but has value for them.”

Dr Williams visited the anatomy laboratory at ANU where cadavers are stored, to acquaint himself with how the body donation program works.

He was impressed by the staff, the strict protocols they and medical students observe, and the detailed anatomical artworks which hang in the laboratory corridors creating a sense of reverence.

About 100 people a year express an interest in the program, yet very few, just eight to 12, are accepted.

Donation coordinator Riccardo Natoli wanders into the preparation room – the area a newly-donated body would arrive in the 72-hour window after death.

Light reflects off the stainless steel tabletops used by mortuary assistant Hannah Lewis for embalming.

The first step requires Ms Lewis to be clad in full protective gear and take a blood test to rule out infection risk. She then begins setting and preserving the tissues with fixative solution.

It’s impossible not to notice her eye-ball hairclips and anatomically-inspired style. What’s even more striking is the emotion that floods her face as she speaks about her work and her propensity to talk to the deceased as she prepares them, alone, in the basement-level laboratory.

“We undress them, give them a bath and shave their head,” she said.

“We then make an incision into either the carotid, radial or femoral arteries and insert a cannula to gravity-feed the solution into their body.”

Up to 30 litres of formalin can be used during a single embalming. Then the body is put on a shelf in the mortuary refrigerator on site for between six to 12 months.

Anatomical services specialist Hannah Lewis, Associate Professor of Anatomy Krisztina Valter, and ANU body and tissue donation coordinator Dr Riccardo Natoli. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong.

Some bodies are kept whole for students to examine, however most are separated into parts.

Ms Lewis said using the bone saws and other implements the bodies were prosected, rather than dissected, and used as tools to illustrate an anatomical lecture.

During anatomy classes students mainly observed the prepared specimens, however close to 80 students each year took part in a specific dissection course.

Periodically the specimens are left to soak in hydration solutions to maximise their utility and longevity, and constant refrigeration also helped to mitigate bacteria growth.

Dr Natoli said a large number of donors had some connection to science or medicine but whatever their background nearly all viewed their choice in a similar way.

“They understand if they do organ donation, it might help one person, maybe a couple of people,” he said.

“If you body donate you are going to be contributing to the knowledge base of who knows how many doctors that come through. And that could lead to the saving of many more lives than anything else.”

The ANU body donation program within the medical school works in cooperation with DonateLife and encourages people to register for both organ and whole body donation programs.

ANU body and tissue donation coordinator Dr Riccardo Natoli. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Mr Natoli said registration for body donation required the person get consent from their next-of-kin and discuss their wishes with the executors of their will.

It was made clear to donors there was no guarantee a body would be required and that several conditions precluded the university from accepting a body.

Transferable disease, emaciation, jaundice or obesity meant a body was excluded. Along with dementia or Alzheimers, Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease or other notifiable diseases.

Bodies that had undergone an autopsy, whole organ donation, recent chemotherapy, or that have gastrointestinal or bowel cancers are also unlikely to be accepted.

Successful donors can choose to donate in perpetuity or for a shorter-term period of six years, after which a donor’s remains are cremated at Broulee on the south coast and their ashes returned the donor’s family.

Associate Professor of Anatomy Krisztina Valter said donated bodies were treated with immense respect and always referred to as patients.

Often these bodies were a medical student’s first patient and their interactions with them formed a framework of understanding a student would draw on in the examination and diagnosis of every patient throughout their career.

Date-stamped: 2017, July, 16. | By: Georgina Connery &  Stephen Jeffery | Article Link: smh.com.au | Article Title: Turning death into a final act of generosity through body donation
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