It’s a gift like no other.
About 50 Tasmanians a year who offer this highly personal gift to the community know what’s going to happen to their bodies after they die.
They give permission for their bodies to go to science and can rest assured their generosity is appreciated.
It also saves money on a funeral as the body is cremated at the University of Tasmania’s cost at the end of the process and returned to family – but that’s not why donors do it.
For some people it’s a no-brainer to bequest their body to a medical faculty to train the doctors of tomorrow but death can still be a confronting topic to others.
The woman who runs the body bequest program says it’s not exactly easy to advertise.
UTAS Body Bequest Program coordinator, Tracey Walls, has been doing the job for 19 years. She said the donors are revered by the students.
“It is an incredibly special and unique privilege we are given and to think there are people who believe so much in our education and that of our future doctors they were willing to donate their bodies is something which is very valued,” said Kristof Wing, a final-year UTAS medical student.
Mr Wing said trainee doctors are very aware of what it means to be able to access a donor body to learn from and treat the dead with great dignity.
“It’s such an enormous gift,” he said.
“It’s quite humbling to study the human anatomy the same way generations of doctors have done since well before our time, systematically learning about the body and documenting anatomy from cadavers.”
It may be the first time a student sees a dead body when they get to dissect one in an anatomy lab and the natural thing is to distance themselves. It’s the experience of meeting with the families teaching doctors to be more empathetic. It humanizes what they’re doing and why.
That’s why every two years a ceremony of appreciation is held at the UTAS Medical Sciences Precinct in Hobart for families to come to remember loved ones, and for students to express gratitude and appreciation. The next ceremony is on September 15 at 10.30am.
“As a student you recognise these are people who have not long passed away,” Mr Wing said.
“At the last thank you ceremony I came to understand why people are willing to donate their body which is out of a deeply felt generosity and understanding it’s the only way to learn about anatomy and dissection by doing it on somebody. I found it totally remarkable.”
A second year medical student said the most valuable part of the donor program is it teaches students not only about medicine but also about life and loss, about humanity and generosity, love and respect. Another student said every single patient he will see will benefit.
Ms Walls said she meets amazing people through her job.
“Tasmanians are very generous and the donors we get come from all over,” Ms Walls said.
“We get all sorts of people who want to do it and the best advertisement we have is word of mouth which seems to be how most people hear about us. It only takes one person to say it’s a great idea to friends and others seem to think so.
“Sometimes if we get one inquiry from a town we can get flooded with inquiries as a result of people talking about it over a cup of tea or at their book club.
“Most people I deal with are practical and matter of fact about it and think once I’m gone I’m gone. To them it seems wasteful not to.They say they would rather be of use to someone who can learn from their donation.
“There are other people who want to do it and don’t want to know too much about it.
“We get people wanting to be donors who have done a lot for their community throughout their life and this is their final good deed the legacy they want to leave behind. A lot of medical professionals do it and people who have had an extensive medical history and want to give back to doctors who treated them by helping train our future doctors.”
Ms Walls said body donation can be a sensitive topic because it involves dying but as advanced care plans become common more people are starting to talk about death as a fact of life.
Ms Walls said the Tasmanian bequest program accepts about 50 bodies a year for teaching and surgical training purposes. The university may retain a donor’s body for up to five years but the usual timeframe is two to three years. It depends on which part of the program the body is coming to.
“Bodies that will help with the training of doctors are embalmed to be studied over a longer period of time and are usually with us for two to three years,” Ms Walls said.
“The other side of the program in Tasmania is our surgical training directed at people who are already qualified and practicing surgeons or nurses. The donor bodies for that tend not to be with us for as long.
Ms Walls said the donations are invaluable to medical students who can't learn anatomy without dealing with human tissue and nothing else compares to the real thing.
“They study the body’s anatomy and how everything is connected,” Ms Walls said. “Students look at the muscles, the nerves, the organs, the tendons and see how we’re put together and how we function as human beings. It’s a lot more beneficial to study a body rather than use manuals and text books.”
It’s been 54 years since UTAS accepted its first donor body.
With Tasmania’s small population, careful checks are done to ensure there are no connections between donors and students or teachers. Anonymity is respected but sometimes the students might give the donor body a name.
Ms Walls said people who contact her to become donors often let her know if their granddaughter or grandson is a medical student.
For more than a decade, Tasmania has had enough donor bodies but in the past it was not always the case and it’s not for everybody.
“A long time ago we had to get some donors from interstate which were returned to families afterward,” Ms Walls said.
Not everyone who wants to donate their body to a medical school can have the wish fulfilled because of the acceptance criteria and families are advised to have a plan B. Donors must be over 18 to register. Once the person dies a medical assessment is done to decide if the donor body can be accepted. Donations cannot be accepted if the donor has been deceased more than four days or if the family does not wish to proceed. Acceptance of the donor body can depend on medical issues and if the person has a communicable disease or a body is referred for post-mortem. There’s an upper weight limit of 95kg and lower weight limit of about 45kg.
“The person registers directly with us. On their death we liaise closely with the family to see if they need more time to say goodbye.”
Body Bequest enquiries: 1800 792 661 or email body.bequest@utas,edu.au