May 23, 2013 8:00 AM

Author: Melinda Rogers

Christopher Sampson stepped into an anatomy lab as an undergraduate student at the University of Utah several years ago unsure of where his future would take him.

But what started out as an assignment as a teaching assistant in anatomy fueled a passion for medicine and inspired Sampson to pursue a career as a doctor.

Now a third-year medical student at the University of Utah School of Medicine, Sampson, like many of his classmates, are grateful for time spent with the body donor program, administered by the University of Utah Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy.

The program is one of few in the Intermountain West dedicated to providing anatomical material for the educational and research needs of medical science. It is one of about 100 nationwide that are affiliated with medical schools.

Created in the 1940s, the program today receives approximately 180 bodies a year, with two-thirds coming from a 50-mile radius of Salt Lake City, said Kerry Don Peterson, the program’s director.

But other donors seek out the U. from faraway places, Peterson said. Families —some from Florida, Texas and other east coast cities —are happy to pay to fulfill the wishes of a donor who wants their body to live on to help advance science and to educate students like Sampson.

He quietly worked alongside cadavers, learning about anatomy and honing skills before presented with real-life scenarios in the exam room. The experience has been integral to his education.

“My experience, with the donors, runs deeper than learning the art of anatomy; they are the reason that I am here today, as a medical student at the University of Utah,” said Sampson.

“Had it not been for my experience in the anatomy lab four years ago, I would have never found my interest in medicine. Had it not been for their involvement, my motivation and drive would have been lost these past years, and for this I thank them. These individuals push us to new heights and motivate us to try things we have never done before; whether that be pursuing a new career, learning anatomy as a second language, or passing out for the first time in your life… and then a second… and a third. They provide us with a hands-on experience in a difficult scientific field that can only be learned by seeing and doing.”

Besides lessons in anatomy, donors provide students with other important lessons in becoming a physician: learning kindness, empathy, respect for one another and how service to others can be an irreplaceable gift.

Peterson noted that respect when working with donors is at the forefront of every lesson for students and every research experience for scientists.

Many students like Sampson credit the body donor program with giving them the skills to take the helm in a situation they might have otherwise found themselves unprepared. Peterson recalls one student who practiced a life-saving emergency procedure on a cadaver, only to find herself performing the exact procedure on a live patient in an AirMed helicopter days later.

The patient lived, thanks to the students’ excellent care.

"We’ve truly have had labs where procedures have been learned one day and lives have been saved the next," Peterson said. “Many have benefited from students’ educational experiences in the labs.”

Students and others involved with the body donor program will pay tribute to donors’ services at an annual Memorial Day ceremony on Friday at the body program grave site, 200 North N Street at 11 a.m.

For an hour, families, students, educators and community members will celebrate the lives of donors and the generous gift they’ve provided. They’ll pause to remember the Latin phrase, Mortui vivos docent —the deceased teach the living, a motto which is carefully and thoughtfully displayed in anatomy labs around the world.

At the service, students like Sampson will be able to tell donors’ families just how their loved one’s gift has improved the future of health care.

“These honorable individuals have allowed me, as well as my classmates, to understand the human body and establish a foundation prior to our clinical rotations,” Sampson said.

“Body donation provides students the opportunity to learn the difficult task of medical anatomy hands-on. It is a gift, which not only benefits the student, but also the thousands of patients each one of us will treat throughout our careers. They provide the ultimate lesson in anatomy and the altruistic behaviors that all physicians should display.”

The University of Utah is always seeking candidates for body donation and can help assist those who are considering body donation as a route to their final resting places. The following are some FAQs about the program:

Q: What is the procedure for body donation?

A: 1. Fill out two copies of the authorization form provided by the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine. One copy should be returned to the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy and one should be kept with the donor's personal papers. You can obtain an authorization form by calling the Department Office at 801-581-6728 or click here to email The Body Donor Program.

2. Sign the wallet card provided by the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy and carry it with you in case of accidental death.

3. Inform your family of your plans. Your wish to donate your body can also be included in your will.

Q: What is the law in Utah concerning body donation?

A: Utah State gives an individual the legal authority to bequeath his or her body to the University of Utah School of Medicine if they are over 18 or married. According to the law, the wishes of potential donors take precedence over those of their next-of-kin. However, in practice, the next-of-kin can prevent body donation if they oppose it. Therefore, it is important that the next-of-kin understand and agree with the donor's wishes.

Q: Can a person "sell" his or her body?

A: No. Federal law prohibits payment for body donations.

Q: Can I donate someone else’s body; eg my spouse’s?

A: Yes, when a husband or wife dies, the surviving spouse can donate the body.

Q: Will the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy accept all bodies?

A: No. Some circumstances, such as, major recent surgery, traumatic accident, autopsy, ascites, edema, obesity, contagious disease, jaundice, or organ donation other than skin and eyes, may render the body tissues useless for study. The Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy should still be notified at the time of death, as the severity of the condition will be a factor in determining whether the body can be accepted. Infants and small children cannot be accepted.

Q: Can I donate my body and still have a funeral?

A: Yes, if the donor or the family wants a funeral; however, they must pay the expenses. They should ask the mortician to consult with the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy before the body is prepared.

Q: Will I incur expenses when I donate my body?

A: The School of Medicine will pick up the bodies within a 50-miles radius of Salt Lake City at no expense to the family. When the death of a donor occurs outside that area, however, the family or estate is responsible for additional transportation expense. When death occurs outside the state, the family will also be responsible for funeral home expense.

Q: If I move away from the Utah area, or die out state, what happens to my donation?

A: The University of Utah Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy will still accept body donations under such circumstances, provided that the family will pay the transportation expense. If you move and wish to transfer your donation to a medical school in your new area, we will be happy to assist you.

Q: What happens to the body after the medical studies are complete? (Donation generally lasts 3 months to 2 years)

A: At no expense to the family, the body is cremated and, in accordance with the donor's wishes, the ashes are either returned to the family or placed in a common repository at the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

Q: What instructions should I leave my survivors about how to proceed with my body donation at the time of my death?

A: Your physician or the next-of-kin should notify the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine, where we will arrange to pick up the body. If it is necessary for you to employ the services of a mortician (if the death occurs some distance from Salt Lake City), your survivors should notify the mortician and make your wishes know to him or her. They can then contact the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy and work out the arrangements with them.

Q: Must I notify an attorney to donate my body to medical science?

A: No. This type of gift does not have to be written into your will, although it is permissible to do so.

Melinda Rogers

Melinda Rogers is a Communications Specialist at the University of Utah Health Science Public Affairs Office.

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