Saturday, October 01, 2011

Donating my body to science

I totally want to do it.

This freaks my husband out.

See, when I was in college, I had an anatomy class where we worked with cadavers. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I was just an undergraduate anatomy student, so I wasn't actually dissecting anything, we were just mostly doing a lot of looking and labeling, but it was still pretty cool. We were never told the names of the cadavers, and we were also never told how the people died, although it was pretty easy to guess what the female cadaver with no breasts and no uterus died from. Also, we decided that that rock hard gall bladder of the other cadaver was probably not a good sign, either.

It was made very clear by our lab TAs that we were to treat these people with the utmost respect. No dangling of their intestines, no joking about their bowels. We could not give them nicknames (although to be honest, we called one of the cadavers "Tattoo Guy", for obvious reasons. And since he had no family with a claim on his body, that cadaver sat in that lab for far longer than any cadaver should. He was in rough, rough, shape.)

I always had the feeling that I wanted to thank these folks for giving us such a gift. And I thought it would be cool if I could give another student some day the same gift.

When I got diagnosed with PKD, that idea was firmed up in my mind. I mean, my kidneys are freakin' awesome, in a diseased kind of way--what anatomy student wouldn't want to see that? And I kind of feel like if I benefitted from somebody else's gift, I should pay it forward, and give that gift to another generation of students.

Needless to say, my husband doesn't see it that way.

First of all, medical stuff freaks him out, and the idea of people rooting around in my body doesn't sound cool to him, it just sounds freaky. Also, he said that if he is alive when I die, he wants to bury me properly, with a gravestone and everything, so he can come visit. He doesn't want my body lying on a cold slab--he wants it in the earth, where it belongs. I think that's silly--why let my body rot in the ground when other people can benefit from learning from it? Heck, what if studying my body gives clues to PKD, how it starts, how it progresses, why some people in a family get it and some people don't, and leads to a cure? If there is even the slimmest chance of that, isn't that enough to keep my body out of the ground?

I told him I didn't want to stay in a lab forever, just one year. I think the family can make stipulations about stuff like that. After all, I don't want to be like Tattoo Guy--that's seriously gross. But one year in a lab, teaching students about PKD--I really like that idea. THEN my body can be buried, or cremated, or whatever my family wants to do with me, whatever will bring them comfort.

My husband suggested that I was actually being selfish, that giving my body to science denies my family the right to properly grieve when I die. Maybe he's right. It's not dead people you have to worry about, it's who they leave behind. Maybe it IS selfish to ask this of my family, to have them manage all of the arrangements, etc. And it's not like donating an organ--that stuff is done quickly, right after death, with no disfigurement and with a promise of a proper funeral afterwards (not that anybody would want my organs--they all pretty much suck). Maybe this IS too much to ask.

As you can see, this whole thing is still very much open for debate at our house.

Anybody else have thoughts about donating things to science?

At the very least, though, when I get my kidney transplant, I'll save my old kidneys, if I can. Because seriously, who WOULDN'T want to see polycystic kidneys in a jar? That's just pure awesomeness.


martha said...

I agree with this...hopefully there can be a balance of wanting to help scientists as well as honoring your family!

cran said...

I've heard that each organ donor can potentially help up to 70 people. This includes skin, corneas, etc. I, too, have PKD and am hoping someone can use some of my other organs when I die. I have made certain that my family is aware of my wishes, as they can put a stop to the whole process even if I am listed as a donor. Perhaps your husband would be more comfortable with this approach? Wishing you well!

RobMonroe said...

I'm in favor of science taking my body and doing whatever they want. I think the military might take it first, though. (Long story.)

Do not know how my wife feels about it, though. Guess I have our first topic for our Epic Road Trip Conversation List for Christmas! Woo Hoo!

Blue said...

Heather, my dh used to be the director of the donor program for the UVM medical school when he taught there during our Vermont years. So I know a little bit about donation of one's body to science. The cadavers they got had to be self-donations (ie: the family couldn't donate them after death...donor had to have all the paperwork completed and turned in before they died). Upon death, they were delivered directly to the university, at which point my husband had the responsibility to embalm them and prepare them for future use in the anatomy lab.

He taught anatomy, so he was involved in that part of the process, and then at the end of the term in which it was utilized, he shipped them all to the morgue for cremation, at which point the ashes were returned to the family. (I should mention that for years I had some romanticized idea of this last part - ie: that there was some kind of coffin and the cadaver was gently placed in it and so forth. A few years into this part I discovered that it was actually cardboard boxes lined with plastic bags, and the cadaver was just put in there as best as possible since by that point they were pretty much in pieces, but if any part needed to be cut in order to fit, my DH had to do that. I guess it doesn't really matter, but thinking of that really made me squeem out to the max.)

The students in his program had the same standards of respect for the dead that you mentioned as the ideal, but as far as he knew they really did take it seriously (this was medical school, so maybe a little more mature?) Every year they held a memorial service to honor those who had donated their bodies, and each class thought of something to do each year as a a memorial bench, and they donated money to buy it. So it really was respectful and helpful. On the family side, since it was something the donor put in place prior to death, they weren't shocked or saddened to hear the news after their loved one passed. And they had memorials and free cremation, which is SO much more economical than a full-service funeral, as you know.

It's a beautiful thing and my DH has expressed interest in donating his body. I was a little disturbed by that thought...that he would just be over there across town in a lab somewhere. Also, if it happened when he was youngish, his students would be among those dissecting him which I thought was weird. But then he decided to attend medical school himself and that is no longer his job so the point is mute.

There was about an 18 month lead time (ie: they had enough cadavers to cover about a year and a half at any given time, so the ashes would be returned sometime after 18 months post-death).

In general, it was an exceptionally rare occurrence to get a young cadaver. Most were very old, and children were unheard of. I feel like if I died when I was young, I'd want any useful organs to be given to those who might have a chance at life still through my gift. But if my body was old, I'd be willing to consider body donation. Even if you think a lot of your organs are worthless, you have eyes, you have other pieces/parts that would probably be useful. Just stuff to consider. ♥