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Donating your body to science: The Igor factor
Donating your body to science: The Igor factor

By Andrew J. Pulskamp

When most people donate their bodies to science they do so with the most altruistic intentions. They believe their remains will further the education of others, advance medical science, and be treated with respect. But that's not always the case.

Unseemly disposal, a mix-up of bodies that resulted in unidentified cadavers, and allegations that human body parts were being hocked at one West Coast university has some would-be-donors getting cold feet when it comes to entrusting their earthly remains to the betterment of science.

"The problem was we couldn't identify bodies. ...We've already contacted families and we still don't have identities."

University of California, Irvine public relations

In 1996 at the University of California, Los Angeles, a class action lawsuit was filed against the school on behalf of Robert Bennett. His mother died of cancer in 1992 and her body was donated to the UCLA medical school, where he was assured that she would receive a proper burial. But the suit claimed that his mother's remains ended up in the trash. In fact, the suit claimed that, as many as 18,000 bodies donated over a 43-year period were cremated along with dead lab animals, then dumped in the trash.

Although the suit was dismissed in June of 1999, it still made an impact on UCLA's Willed Bodies Program.

"It was a very difficult case and one that caused us to review everything we were doing in the Willed Bodies Program. The reviews led to us letting a couple of people go. We reviewed all our procedures and we tightened up all the paperwork, permissions and procedures," says David Langness, director of health sciences community relations at UCLA.

The university maintains they now have a well-run program that exhibits compassion to all donors and their families. Langness says the university's program is considered by some to be tops in the country.

The corporeal crisis at UCLA served as a lesson for universities with body donor programs, but there is at least one school that may not have taken it to heart.

Just last year, poor record keeping and possible theft created a scandal at the University of California, Irvine and its Willed Bodies Program. "The problem was we couldn't identify bodies. ...We've already contacted families and we still don't have identities," says Andrew Porterfield, who works in public relations for the university's medical school.

The University had more problems than just nameless corpses. In addition, a 27-year-old mortician named Christopher Brown, who ran the school's body donor effort, allegedly abused his position by selling six spinal columns to a Phoenix hospital for $5,000.

It has also been suggested that Brown's shoddy bookkeeping did more than just create nameless cadavers, it also led to cremated remains being sent to the wrong families. And although the mortician maintains he didn't do anything without the school's approval, the university has fired him as well as taking other measures.

Porterfield says, "We've hired a new director for the program who is very experienced. And the program is kind of in hiatus as we develop new rules and regulations."

There is no official governing board that oversees body donor programs nationally. Although individual states do set some standards, most universities have a lot of leeway when drawing up rules and regulations. This has led some in California to seek more legal control of body donor programs.

Word of the UC Irvine cadaver scandal is echoing in the state's legislature. A state assemblyman has authored a bill that makes it a crime punishable by one year in jail when someone returns the wrong ashes to a family.

Ken Maddox, R-Garden Grove, tells the Orange County Register, "There are holes in the law that allowed those of unscrupulous nature to profit from someone's death."

An Orange County district attorney's investigator also took action, helping draft the bill. Larry Lambert tells the Orange County Register the proposed law will crack down on university body bungling, "This is meant to close loopholes so you don't have Igors selling body parts out the back door," says Lambert.

Such Igor incidences have caused a few to reconsider their commitment to donate their bodies to science. At UC Irvine, 19 potential donors have had second thoughts about entrusting their remains to the school - they dropped out of a pool of approximately 2,700 potential donors.

"This is meant to close loopholes so you don't have Igors selling body parts out the back door."

Orange County District Attorney's investigator

Many universities have some sort of body donor program because there is a definite need for cadavers at medical schools. The typical fate of a donated body is that of landing on a table at a first year gross anatomy class. And when it comes to these programs, most institutions have unblemished track records.

At Wright State University in Dayton Ohio, their Anatomical Gift Program is more than just a slice and dice affair. Every year the school gets about 200 bodies. After bodies have been dissected in labs, the school honors donors and their loved ones for their generosity.

"We do have a memorial service every year in October for the family and friends of the donors who have died and have been in the program. At that time the remains of some people are interred at a cemetery here on the campus. Some families want remains back, but most have them interred," says Mark Willis, the school of medicine's director of media relations. He continues, "It's quite a moving event."

The school has been doing the service for more than 20 years and feels such memorials help loved ones say goodbye. Willis says, "The memorial service is partly secular and partly religious. It is a final rite and a final closure on the death and the grieving process." Such memorials not only provide closure for the families, but an opportunity for the university and students to express thanks.

There are more than 5,000 people registered for Wright State University's Anatomical Gift Program. If they do become donors, their gift will also be commemorated on an etched stone marker in the cemetery.

Donating one's body to science is seen by many as a noble gift to humankind. Although the incidences involving disrespect to the dead at both UCLA and UC Irvine strike a sour chord with family and friends of the deceased, each of the universities has taken steps to remedy the problems of their past.

Willis feels that more holistic anatomical gift programs like the one offered at Wright State are not only catching on with other medical schools, but that such projects go a long way towards educating people about what happens when bodies are donated to science. He says, "It's really good for people to understand what happened so they don't have any misconceptions."

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