Donor says bequeathing body for medical research 'the right decision'

Donor says bequeathing body for medical research 'the right decision'

They are cadavers, but researchers at the University of Manitoba's department of human anatomy and cell science call them "silent teachers."

So far, Iris McKay has had two silent teachers in her family.

"It just seemed to be the right decision to give back to the profession that lavished knowledge and skill on us, and do some small thing for society," said McKay, who first heard of the University of Manitoba's body bequeathal program through her mother 20 years ago.

McKay's mother informed her family that when she died, her body was to be donated to medical science. After her wishes were carried out, McKay and her husband decided they would do the same.

"It was such a respectful, quiet, caring kind of process that we talked about it afterwards and said, 'Yes, we should do this.'"

In August 2014, Iris McKay's husband, Raoul McKay, passed away. The family donated his body to the U of M's bequeathal program and held a celebration of his life. They will plan another gathering when his remains, which will be cremated by the program, are returned.

The university also holds an annual memorial service for donors in late June.

"We do our best every year to make sure this is a memorable experience for the relatives,"  said Dr. Thomas Klonisch, head of the department of human anatomy and cell science at the University of Manitoba.

"They've been waiting for sometimes four years after their loved ones are deceased … so they part twice from their loved ones. And that's hard for some people."

McKay says it won't be particularly difficult for her when the time comes to receive her husband's remains.

"We won't go through the grieving process again. We'll think about him and miss him, but I don't think it will be a painful experience. I think it will be a good experience. Our family will be together and that is important to us."

Last month, CBC's Marketplace investigated several funeral homes and found that customers are often exposed to high-pressure sales for items such as caskets. Some said they paid thousands more than they expected.

While not part of the McKays' motivation, the body bequeathal program does cut costs associated with funerals, since it covers the expense of transporting the body and its eventual cremation.

Remains are returned in an urn and a free burial service is offered once the study is complete.

One body teaches many

The university receives approximately 24 cadavers every year. Each donation provides multiple opportunities for learning among several disciplines.

"We have dentistry students who would mainly focus on the head and neck, whereas our medical students will do a full body dissection and then have opportunities during various stages in their training where they can follow up on specifics," said Klonisch.

For example, medical rehabilitation students focus mostly on limbs, while gynecological students are more interested in the pelvis or reproductive systems. Fourth-year medical students interested in the surgical discipline will do a full-body dissection to prepare for the operating room.

"The anatomy helps them to review their knowledge, helps them to become more self-assured in the process that they're going to enter into," said Klonisch.

There is no preference when it comes to the age or health of a potential donor to the bequeathal program, although they must be 18 years of age.

There are other exclusion criteria — for example, extensive cancer or infectious disease would make a body unacceptable to the program, but other ailments can help students identify the differences between healthy and unhealthy organs.

As for the experience of working on an actual human body, Klonisch says the students are frequently in awe.

"You actually touch the body, touch the structures. That is a very different experience and it stays with them the rest of their lives. That's what we hear from our alumni when they come back 30 years later — this is an experience that lasts more than anything else," said Klonisch.

As for the details of what happened to her own husband's body, McKay says they've never crossed her mind. She understands why some people might find the idea upsetting, but for her, donating one's body for research is no different than signing an organ donation card.

"It really is just an extension of that giving. We just have to re-arrange our thinking a little," said McKay.