Doctors Without Bodies: Death Begets Widely Needed Gift

Jun 22, 2016

Students from the University of Nevada, Reno, School of Medicine pose for a portrait at Walton's Funeral Home Chapel on Friday, June 10.
Credit Theresa Danna-Douglas/University of Nevada, Reno

At the University of Nevada, Reno, School of Medicine anatomical donations are instrumental in training future doctors. Cadavers are hard to come by, and more will be needed as the program grows. To learn more let’s turn to Reno Public Radio’s Marcus Lavergne who went to the school’s annual memorial service, which honored this year’s donors.

There’s an air of sadness and gratitude as med student Clinton Kolseth recites poetry in front of pews of people at Walton’s Funeral Home Chapel. They’ve gathered with one common purpose – celebrating the lives of loved ones who’ve passed.

The special ceremony was organized by students who sent out formal invites to friends and family members of anatomical donors, or the individuals they call their “first patients.”

For another student, Phillip Breslow, the day holds a deep, personal significance.

“My grandmother had a very unique, and ironic sense of humor. For months before she was passing, we knew she was on the rode out, she would joke; She would say, you know, she was excited for she and I to go to med school together, obviously as more of a joke, but here we are.’’

Breslow’s grandmother joined a special group of people who’ve gifted their bodies to the medical school. Breslow says those donors will enrich his education and that of his peers.

“Obviously I wish that she was still here with us, I wish that she would be here with us in the next few years and see me get that MD and walk across that stage, but through her donation she’s able to help me do that still, even in passing and still ensure that I’m gonna become one hell of a doctor and my classmates are gonna also be able to achieve their dreams as well.” 

Breslow says donors expect future physicians to use their studies to improve society. That responsibility comes with a balancing act of emotions and professionalism.

“It’s your job to utilize them and their donation to the best of your ability to gain the most knowledge out of them and that necessitates a certain amount of focus and clear-headedness that can only come through repeated exposure to this and telling yourself, ‘okay, I have a job, and I’m gonna do it.”’

That lesson’s vital for students according to Carl Sievert, the School’s Gross Anatomy Course Director. Sievert believes it isn’t possible to properly run a medical school without an anatomical donation program.

“They show the greatest respect, even in the midst of taking apart the body and learning as much as they can. They never lose sight of that and that’s one of the reasons why I’m always so thrilled that I get a chance to teach these students and work with them because it’s such a human component.“

Some programs lose that human component through virtual simulations and other technology. Sievert says it can’t replicate the experience that comes with using a cadaver.

“Every body is different and I think that the process of dissecting and the number of hours that you spend working with the tissues is really critical in terms of getting that valuable understanding of the human body.”

Because hands-on experience with human bodies is so important, the Anatomical Donation Program has to make sure the school's needs are met.

That being said, the anatomy course is expanding and the school already shares its cadavers with neighboring facilities. Joyce King, an administrator with the Program says it’s only a matter of time before the need exceeds the school’s resources. 

“I do send out about 500 applications a year and of that we get about 170 back maybe 200 but the deaths are about 50 or 60 a year.”

Whole body donation is often misunderstood. Unlike organ donation, which specifically involves transplants, cadavers are mainly used for research, including the study of physical therapy and disease cure development. 

King says sometimes family members aren’t exactly comfortable with the idea, but the donors themselves are the program’s biggest advocates.

“Most people that want to donate feel that they want to leave a legacy for education, for future doctors.”

Donations are in high demand nationally and internationally, and according to King, contribute to advancements in health and wellness for generations to come.

For more information on donating to the School of Medicine's Anatomical Donation Program, please head to http://medicine.nevada.edu/adp.