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Sunday, December 11,2011

Still giving in death

Med school gets ready supply of donated bodies from region and state

By David DeWitt
Photo Credits: Photo by Abby Verbosky
Photo Caption: Don Kincaid, director of the Body Donor Program at OU's Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, speaks about the respect students have for the donors and their families.

During the season of giving, charity abounds. But Athens is also home to another donation program that provides a profound resource for the betterment of humankind.

The Ohio University Heritage College of Medicine's Willed Body Program is one of seven in the state of Ohio. With a state-of-the-art facility, the program and its cadaver donors have been making an invaluable contribution to the advancement of medical science. The program gets up to 100 donors annually.

The Athens NEWS recently took a tour of the program's facilities, led by OU-HCOM Director of Anatomical Studies Larry Witmer and director of the body donor program Don Kincaid.

Kincaid said that the donor program in Athens has been active for more than 30 years.

"A lot of the schools, there's a cost to the family; but with us there isn't," Kincaid said. "If a person is signed up with the program, there is no cost to them."

OU-HCOM's Willed Body Program operates off of word-of-mouth, he said, and there is no advertising. Prospective donors contact Kincaid's office, paperwork is filled out, and a file created for the donor.

"The majority of these people, they're wanting to further medical education," he said. "We accept people from anywhere within the state of Ohio." And many come from this area.

A lot of the donors are medical professionals such as doctors and nurses who remember what it meant to their education.

"There's no substitute for it," Kincaid said about the value of such a resource in the medical community.

Witmer said that for many medical students, the labs that come from the program are one of the most profound parts of their medical training.

"It's the very first thing that they do," he said. "It's their first class, and in a sense it's their first patient. And so years later they may remember details about the person they dissected. They may remember the name and the cause of death; what they found; the experience they had. It winds up being a very influential experience for all of the students."

Witmer, who runs the labs, said many students come in with a fair amount of trepidation. In many cases, the students are unsure of how they will react.

"We respect that," he said. "We respect that they are, in many ways, facing death, something there are many phobias about and concerns about."

Both the cadavers and the feelings of the students, he said, are approached with utmost respect. At the end of each table, students are given the first name of the deceased, the age at death, occupation and cause of death.

"The students regard all of our cadavers really as very special things," Witmer said. "What has happened for these people is they have made a remarkable gift to our medical school, and really to the medical profession and to health care in general. They are allowing themselves to be studied by this next generation of healers."

Witmer said few things are as fundamental to medicine as the structure of the human body. All disease and all health emanates from the fact that humans are corporeal beings composed of parts, he said.

"To start out trying to understand how those parts are arranged is going to be central to any medical student's education," he said.

Witmer said that after a number of remodels over the past several years, Ohio University has one of the top state-of-the-art anatomy facilities in the country. The lab itself features two rows of about a dozen bodies in each row. Complete with video monitors, microphones and cameras, the whole class is able to follow along if a discovery is made such as a joint replacement. Also, while many labs assign up to eight or more students per table, at OU-HCOM only four students are assigned to each table, allowing for a much more involved experience for each student.

"We're very fortunate here to have that ratio," Kincaid said.

He noted one advantage to having such a large lab is that as students explore other tables and not just the body they're dissecting, they also get a feel for the variation in the human body between individuals.

"Things are not always where they are supposed to be," he said. "There is variation in everybody."

Another feature of the facilities is the ability of Kincaid to perform plastination – a polymer preservation technique – on various parts, allowing medical students to have real-life experience with essential organs and body parts. Pointing to a plastic replica of a spinal cord and an actual preserved human spinal cord, Kincaid noted that if somebody is coming at him with a needle, he'd rather they have the real thing in mind than a plastic replica.

"Having resources like this helps to really engage the students," Witmer said.

The availability of plastination in the facility means that something can be discovered during a lab and then preserved for future study, he added. Witmer noted that very few medical schools have the ability to do this.

On monitors throughout the room, the facility also features computerized visualizations of aspects of the human bodies, which were all created in-house. This allows students to follow along with intricate computerized anatomical replicas of actual donors.

One very special event put on by OU-HCOM comes each June when the facility holds a memorial service for the families of their donors.

"Once their loved ones pass away, they come here," Witmer said. "So they don't have a typical funeral."

All of the medical students attend the non-denominational ceremony.

"It's a remarkable service," he said. "There are testimonials by the students as to how important of a gift that these people and their families have made."

In many cases, he said, this is a family decision. Often, generations of families are body donors.

"It's a very special program, that memorial service," Kincaid said, "because the loved ones actually see and hear about the impacts that their decision has had on the training of physicians. It's actually moving. It's remarkable."

He noted that there have been instances where a family member who was undecided about the donation came to the service and ended up deciding to donate as well.

Witmer said that the trust that donors put in the medical school is important.

"That trust that these people have put in us to treat their remains with respect, and honor, and to have that gift have an impact, that's something that we take very seriously and impart that to our medical students," he said.


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Outstanding piece on an amazing program. My father donated his body to OU-HCOM several years back.  Attending the Willed Body Memorial Service was a most moving experience.  To hear the students, through tears of their own, thanking our loved ones for being their teachers was a real moment.  Knowing that my Dad, who loved to impart his wisdom on others was able to do so even in death, it just leaves me breathless.  Thanks to all who had a hand in this piece.  Makes me proud of my Papa all over again.