Medical schools like Northeast Ohio Medical University in Rootstown rely on body donations to help students gain a hands-on understanding of human anatomy, practice surgical techniques and test procedures.
One of the challenges NEOMED and other schools are navigating as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic is a lack of body donors. Roderick Ingraham, NEOMED spokesman, said donations are at an all-time low.
“We have heard that several sources believed — because of strict requirements — that our body donation program was closed because of COVID,” he said. “This is incorrect. Such donations enable our future physicians and other health care professionals to advance the diagnosis and treatment of disease through observation and dissection of the human body.”
Dr. Hans Thewissen, Ingalls-Brown professor of anatomy in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, said NEOMED typically receives 60 to 80 bodies during a school year, but the university could be down as many as 20 this year.
“We can’t take bodies who have been exposed to an infectious disease,” he said. “It’s partly for the people who have to handle it and embalm it as a safety measure,” explained Thewissen. “Also, the students get very involved with these bodies, so if they know it’s a COVID person, there’d be some reluctance.”
While Thewissen said the university hasn’t yet had to change how it teaches because of the shortage, NEOMED is often in a position to donate bodies to other institutions. He said that isn’t the case this year.
“There are residents at hospitals who want to review,” he said. “If you’re an orthopedic resident and you want to do surgery on shoulders, it might be good to look at the body.”
Thewissen said at NEOMED between four and six medical students usually work with a single body, and that’s the case now, but later this academic year, maybe around February, some bodies may become difficult to work with as they decay.
When that happens, it’s possible to work with a single organ rather than the body as a whole, but sometimes seeing that organ within its natural context is helpful, he said.
“Well, I can give you an example: The heart sits right in front of the esophagus,” Thewissen said. “And actually to image the heart by radiologists they make you swallow barium, that fills your esophagus, and the esophagus will bend if the heart is not smooth.”
Thewissen said there’s nothing directly related between the bending of the esophagus and the heart, seeing the heart in the context of the esophagus and all the other organs and body parts “makes a stronger impression” than studying the heart in isolation.
Honoring the families
One of the challenges for medical schools and families whose loved ones have donated their bodies to science is finding the same closure non-donor families feel at the end of life, Thewissen said.
“As soon as we hear somebody has died, we send the pickup service to get the body, and there’s no funeral; there’s no viewing; there’s nothing because we want the body embalmed very quickly,” he said.
To honor those who’ve donated their bodies and offer a sense of closure, he said a service takes place at the end of the year.
“We have a memorial service at the end of the year where all the relatives and friends are invited,” he said. “And then also, we give them the cremains back of the people.”
The names of those who have donated their bodies to science also are listed by year on a wall at the NEW Center at NEOMED.
Ingraham said the services help families realize the importance of their loved ones’ contributions to science and wellness.
“Giving our students access to this really allows a lot of them to do some of the transformational things that you see happening,” said Ingraham.