Would you consider donating your body to science?

WHEN Doireann Ní Ghríofa was 17 and a first-year dentistry student in University College Cork (UCC), she arrived at the anatomy department one morning to find a dead elderly woman lying on the table before her.

“Initially, like a lot of young people, I thought how strange. It took a while to work through that. But right from the start, I felt moved by the sense of gift. This person had given their body for the sake of me learning from them.

“I found it intensely moving as, day by day, week by week, we were going deeper into this human body. And then we got to the heart and passed it around. It was a very holy moment in my life,” says Doireann, whose book, A Ghost in the Throat, was published last summer.

Now in her late 30s, Doireann says the experience changed her at a deep level. “Over the years, I thought a lot about the generosity of that gift. Maybe I could do it? It just seemed right, a natural choice, out of a sense of gratitude to the person who’d given me that gift, and a sense of wanting to give the gift to another generation.”

Growing up in rural Co Clare, Doireann says it feels strange to imagine that, for a year or two after she passes, she won’t be cremated or buried. “I’ll be lying somewhere in UCC. That’s strange to me, but it’s really moving.”

Every year, between 150 and 200 people sign up to donate their bodies to UCC’s anatomy department, but those bodies may not come through until decades later. UCC receives between 20 and 30 bodies a year and is one of five medical schools — along with the National University of Ireland Galway, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin — that take anatomical donations. In 2019, the five schools received a total of 117 bodies. This dropped to 38 in 2020 because of the pandemic.

“We were closed to donations from March to August 2020,” explains Professor Aideen Sullivan, head of UCC’s anatomy department.

UCC anatomy chairman Professor John Cryan explains that most bodies are used for teaching purposes and the generous act of body donation is vital to the study of human anatomy. “The donor’s body is a lens through which to teach the organisational structure of life,” he said.

Bodies are also used to develop health professionals’ medical/surgical skills, and for research into disorders.

“These donors are part of a continuous process of teaching health professionals that goes back centuries,” says Prof Cryan. “They are our students’ first patients, and they learn so much from them.”

The Medical Council regulates anatomical donation in Ireland and describes it as a “long and important tradition” conducted under the
Anatomy Act 1832, which regularised practices in the public interest almost 200 years ago.

UCC has seen a rise in body donations, particularly since eight years ago when it started holding Thanksgiving ceremonies every second year to acknowledge the donor’s gift and to thank and bring closure for families.

“It’s an ecumenical service,” says Prof Cryan. “We do it after we’ve released the body back to the family. It’s driven by celebration, poetry, song, literature.

“Our students take ownership of it. They get to see the families, and the families see who the gift has benefitted.”

Donors are generally older, about 60, but some are in their 20s and 30s. “That’s rarer,” says Prof Cryan.

A catalyst such as a retirement or diagnosis of illness often sparks donation. “Many donors have had some sort of illness, or a family member has. They’ve had close interaction with the medical profession and they want to give back. They get an appreciation that, in training medical professionals, the quality of the training’s dependent on having exposure to the human body.”

Bodies must arrive at the university within 48 hours of death.

“We restrict our intake to Munster for logistical reasons,” says Prof Cryan.

At the time of consent, the donor chooses how long the university can keep their body. They can opt for permanent donation — the body remains with the department indefinitely and next-of-kin do not receive back any remains — or three-year donation where, after a maximum of three years, remains are released back to next-of-kin.

“It’s very important the donor talks to their family about their decision and about any concerns the family might have,” says Prof Cryan.

He notes that it can be difficult for families to find closure until the body is returned. It’s one of the reasons for the Thanksgiving service, he says.

“It becomes a surrogate type of thing for them to look forward to. They get a sense of empowerment, knowing their loved one got their wishes, that they have helped other people in a different way.”

At UCC, students are told the donor’s age and cause of death. “We don’t editorialise the individual aspects of that life,” says Prof Cryan.

Students are encouraged to reflect on the gift this body is to them.

“These bodies are among their first teachers. They are given the utmost respect. We ask the students to please live up to the expectation these donors had for them when they gave this really wonderful parting gift. It’s such a public-spirited, selfless act. And the students get it; they understand.”

So, what’s the procedure if you wish to donate your body?

  • If you are interested in donating your body to UCC, contact the Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience and ask for the relevant application forms/information;
  • The consent form will ask for routine personal information, optional medical history, and your wishes for what should happen to your remains when the study period is finished. Donors may choose cremation, burial in a UCC plot, or burial in a private family plot.
  • The consent form must be signed by the person donating (who must be aged 18 or over) and by one witness. The witness should be the person who will liaise with UCC at the time of death and when remains are released for burial/cremation.
  • There are some reasons why a body may not be accepted. These include organ donation, post-mortem/autopsy, more than 48 hours since death, blood-borne illnesses or reportable infections (eg HIV, Hepatitis B or C difficile), very recent surgery, extremely under- or overweight.
  • A family member/next of kin, doctor, or nurse should let the Department of Anatomy know about the death as soon as possible. Family/friends may arrange a funeral service, but it is vital that UCC receives a body within 48 hours of death.
  • On arrival, the body is prepared for embalming. It will be preserved with a formaldehyde-based embalming fluid that allows department/students to do anatomical examinations and maintains organs in a very structured way. Each body is given a unique ID number, and the body is stored in UCC’s mortuary.
  • On June 27, Cork Midsummer Festival and Doireann Ní Ghríofa present online from The Everyman stage a live reading from ‘A Ghost in the Throat’, with accompanying visuals by filmmaker Tadhg O’Sullivan and soundscape by composer Linda Buckley.

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