Body donation programs need cadavers

What would you want to happen to your body after you die? It may seem like a morbid question, but one that is very important for saving lives, training health professionals and aiding innovative medical research.

A common pathway is the process of organ donation, where when you die your vital organs and tissues are retrieved from your body and transplanted into a person who is suffering from some sort of organ failure. Up to seven lives can be saved by a single organ donor and many others helped through eye and tissue donation.

Becoming an organ donor is a selfless opportunity with growing demand, but in terms of donating your body after you die, there is another, lesser-known process that helps save lives.

Donating your body to science makes a lasting contribution to the education, training, and advancement of medical students and professionals. Bodies donated for medical research can be used for anything from learning shoulder replacements to practicing ear, nose, and throat surgery, or biomechanical testing.

“Around 100 bodies are donated to research in South Australia each year to the SA Body Donor Programme,” says Dr Nicola Massy-Westropp a Senior Lecturer at the University of South Australia Allied Health and Human Performance who was speaking at the “Mysteries of the Human Body” Cosmos Science City public lecture this week.

“We are always grateful, and we ensure as many health professionals as possible can learn from the body donor.”

How cadavers break down

What happens once cadavers have been donated to research? It must first be assessed to determine whether it meets the requirements of body donation. Communicable diseases, whole organ donation, and time since death could impact the ability of a body to be donated.

Once accepted the donated cadavers will either undergo the process of embalming or be immediately frozen. Both are stored in a secure refrigerated facility.

When a body is embalmed blood vessels in the neck are opened, and embalming fluid (a mix of formaldehyde, isopropanol, methanol, detergents, dyes, and other substances)  goes through the circulation system, hardening the tissues. An un-embalmed frozen body will typically be used for a short period, but the process of embalming helps prevent decomposition and preserve the donated body for several years.

Unfortunately, you can’t do both organ donation and donate your body to science, so how do you choose?

“I would genuinely say if you were younger or didn’t have any serious health concerns, organ donation then helps multiple people because you can donate your eyes, all your organs, and even your skin,” says Dr Massy-Westropp “but if you’re not accepted for organ donation because of a condition you might then still go for body donation.”

You can watch “Mysteries of the human body” on the Cosmos YouTube channel.

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