CINCINNATI—Kathryn Rice wasn’t sure what to expect in meeting her first body donor. She started preparing to distance herself from any trauma she might feel.
"The first thing we did was take off the shroud and begin wiping their face,” says Rice, a second-year medical student. "I started thinking this is a person and they have loved ones that still care about them. So, I lost any sense of distance but not in a bad way.”
During her first year in medical school at the University of Cincinnati (UC), Rice learned gross anatomy, which is key to understanding disease processes and the body’s response, along with how to care for future patients.
It’s a lesson that hundreds of medical students learn each year in the College of Medicine and is still best taught by the body donors: individuals who offer their bodies (cadavers) each year to help medical educators build better physicians.
"Body donors are our first patients, not only do we learn about the science of medicine but also about respect for those we treat,” says Rice. "The experience is something that not only will I never forget but it is something that I will always be grateful for.”
Rice and three other second-year medical students—Meredith Taylor, Laura Falkenberg and David Buchberger—will address the college’s annual memorial service for individuals who have donated their bodies for medical education. The service is set for Saturday, Oct. 14, at 11 a.m. in Kresge Auditorium on the UC medical campus. The ceremony is open to the public.
"A computer simulation would do a good job and there are schools that use fake cadavers, but I think there is a different sensation when you touch a human body. Anyone who takes a CPR class knows you practice on a dummy, but it’s not the same as it feels with a real person,” says Taylor.
Taylor says she and her classmates are always respectful when learning from body donors. She hopes to offer a "thank you” to the donors’ families who supported their decision to make a gift to the students in medical school.
"I always have in the back of mind that the person has a family, has loved ones and had an entire life until they ended up in my hands and that makes it very realistic for me,” says Taylor. "I think about the person and who they were in life. That’s why I have to say ‘thank you.’
"It’s an overwhelming feeling that someone trusted me enough to think about my education even before I got here,” says Taylor. "They chose to donate their bodies so that I could learn and they believed in me before I believed in myself. They made that choice and their families supported them. It’s important to support the families as well because the person doesn’t make that decision alone. I can say everyone in my class appreciates that.”
Bodies are always covered when not in use and are kept clean and properly sealed and secured.
Last year, the College of Medicine received 463 donor bodies, says Laura Garrison, program director of the college’s Body Donation Program. The bodies are used to train medical students throughout their time at UC. They also provide important skills training for others including nursing and physical therapy students along with residents.
"I think a lot of times people think we are going to find a cure for their disease and that’s not what we do,” says Garrison. "Rather, this is all about medical education and building better future physicians. Our students get that hands on experience by touching real bodies when learning anatomy and how to properly diagnose illness.”
Garrison said the ceremony this Saturday will honor 182 body donors who chose to be buried in the university plot at Spring Grove Cemetery. The College of Medicine accepts all bodies that have been pre-registered and will also accept some bodies on an after-death basis, however, certain requirements must be met, explains Garrison.
The UC program looks for bodies that are free of infectious diseases such as hepatitis or sepsis, are of appropriate body mass index, have not been autopsied or amputated. Garrison said the bodies are used on average for two-and-a-half years, though they can remain in use for up to four years before they are cremated. Families have the choice of getting the remains returned or buried and honored with a memorial service.
Interested donors are encouraged to talk with their family and stress their desire to make a donation upon death. To be accepted as a donor, pre-registration (with signature from next of kin) is required prior to a donor’s death.