Whole-Body Donation for Medical Advances: Gaining Popularity

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By Casey Stull

Did you know that whole-body donation is an option at death? And that it can be planned in advance? In addition to helping pave the way for future medical advances it often includes the final expenses of cremation for the deceased. All patients need to know this information and option.

Why is whole-body donation so important?

Medical science needs anatomical tissue. Without donated tissue, medical professionals would be utilizing plastic mannequins and computer programs for training and research. These latter methods pale in comparison to the value of real anatomical tissue. Whether you’re training future physicians and nurses in gross anatomy, teaching new surgical techniques to orthopedic surgeons, developing better surgical devices and artificial joints, or studying the effects of disease, anatomical tissue is crucial to advancing medical science and improving patient outcomes. Sadly, there is a worldwide tissue shortage. Obtaining needed tissue is often quite difficult.

University (medical school) willed body programs coordinate body donation to provide for their own medical school needs but do not bank tissue for medical professionals outside of their program. This is the gap into which whole-body donation companies step and work to fill. While these companies often supplement University programs by providing embalmed cadavers when their programs fall short, the majority of donors to whole-body donation companies are allocated for other purposes. These companies take donors into their care and recover specimens according to both the particularities of the individual donor and the current or upcoming needs of their clients.

Can anyone donate their whole body?

Companies differ somewhat in who they’ll accept for donation. Donors with known communicable diseases, such as Hepatitis B and C, and HIV, are uniformly declined due to the risks posed to employees and end-users. Serology blood tests are taken before any tissue is allocated, and donors who test positive for communicable diseases are not eligible to be placed with medical projects. Other medical and social factors could be BMI (body-mass index), known use of illicit intravenous drugs, or recent prison stays. Aside from communicable diseases, companies make the determination on a case by case basis with their own criteria. For instance, some companies accept donors who have also given organs or tissue for transplant into a live patient while some do not.

One of the most significant factors in acceptance is the manner in which the potential donor passed. The donor must be placed into refrigeration in a timely manner and cannot be embalmed. If many of the donor’s larger bones were fractured, such as in a vehicular collision, donation is not likely. Another factor is the location of the donor at the time of passing. Since laws pertaining to the donation of anatomical tissue and the transportation of decedents across state lines vary from state to state, and since the transportation costs of retrieving a donor can be prohibitive in some areas, whole-body donation is not currently available in all 50 states.

Even with these limitations, whole-body donation is a uniquely beneficent act available to most Americans. Most decedents are not eligible to be organ transplant donors since recovery of viable organs requires conditions not typically met upon death. The donation of tissue for transplant—skin, bone, soft tissue, eyes, corneas, and heart valves—is possible for more people since it does not require intact cardiovascular function.

Whole-body donation accounts for still more potential donors since it has less restrictive parameters for successful recovery and end-use, including being able to accept older donors as well as donors with cancer, sepsis, or dementia. Donors contribute to the advancement of medical science, education, and the quality of life of future generations. A person can choose to be both a transplant donor and a whole-body donor.

Are cremation expenses available?

Whole-body donation companies typically cover many of the costs associated with cremation, relieving financial burden on donor families and providing peace to many donors before passing. Companies are able to cover these expenses because medical professionals pay service fees to obtain the tissue specimens. Exactly what is covered varies between companies, but may include removal from the place of passing, transportation to recovery facilities, cremation, some number of death certificates, and the shipping of cremated remains to the donor family. As cremation has risen in popularity over recent years, whole-body donation has as well. This is a welcome trend for the state of medicine, and one which will hopefully continue.

To find out more about whole body donation and transplant donation contact the American Association of Tissue Banks.

Casey Stull serves as the Communications Manager of United Tissue Network. He has earned a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Oklahoma Baptist University and a Master of Arts in Philosophy with an emphasis on Ethics and Moral Psychology from the University of Oklahoma. Casey is currently a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Oklahoma. 

In his current role, Casey leads the communications department at all three UTN locations and increases community awareness. His focus involves leading the marketing initiatives for potential donors and clients, as well as monitoring the overall health of the department.

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