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Barry Belmont: Our bodies, our donations

By Barry Belmont, Columnist
Published September 19, 2013

If we are anything, we are our bodies. From infancy to infirmity, our bodies are the bounds of our inner worlds and the probes we use to experience all others. They are our only means and mediums of experience and expression. If we don’t hear it, feel it, taste it, smell it, see it or sense it, there is very little we can do to contemplate, understand or convey our existence. Our bodies are ourselves.

On Wednesday night, the University of Michigan’s Department of Medical Education held a memorial service for the friends and families of its anatomical donors. These donors are individuals who decided to give their bodies over to the University after their death for use in medical education, scientific research and technological development. Those in attendance heard stories of gratitude from medical students, doctors and engineers who have all directly benefitted from these donations. It was an emotional night, with the heart pangs of sorrow and the full body warmth of thankfulness palpably clear for all in attendance.

Anatomical donations have come a long throughout the history of medical education: from an era when the thought of human dissection was inconceivable (and anatomy was learned strictly through centuries-old texts) to the reign of body snatchers (where admission to medical was conditional on an applicant having an anatomical specimen) through to the present day where a single body may be used to educate a thousand students throughout the course of a semester.

As a bit of historical trivia, there was a time when medical schools were so desperate for anatomical specimens that they would pay top dollar for just about anything, no questions asked. University of Michigan Medical School alumnus Herbert Webster Mudgett — better known by the moniker H. H. Holmes — seized upon this to construct a huge mansion during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago for the sole purpose of killing people, dissecting their bodies and then selling their skeletons. In so doing, he became America’s first serial killer. Mudgett’s/Holmes’s picture can still be viewed on the second floor connector of the University of Michigan hospital between the Cancer Center and the Main Hospital. Class of 1884. Number 38.

Today the procedures for body donation, procurement and treatment are all covered in the United States under the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, a set of laws designed to curb human trafficking, eliminate the black market sale of organs and ensure that the dignity, respect and privacy due to such donors are held in the highest esteem.

There is no dispute that such donations are hugely beneficial to nearly everybody involved. There are statistics out there that show students taught anatomy with access to real anatomical specimens vastly outperform those without such exposure; there are lots of studies that show how necessary it is for doctors-in-training to work with real anatomical donors before treating patients; and it is undeniably true that much of the progress made in medical device design and manufacture is due in large part to anatomical donations made across the world.

Arguably the only people who do not benefit from anatomical donations are the donors themselves. They are helping medical students, they are helping doctors, they are helping future patients and all at a time when these students, doctors and patients cannot help them. So why do they do it?

It was the individual, unspoken answers of the donors that were commemorated yesterday. For a brief moment, students and doctors, friends and family, paused to reflect on the genuine altruism of such people. Charitable in life and in death, they are truly some of the best this world has to offer – they are the best of us. What was commemorated were the people helping other people for no other reasons than that they could and that they thought it was the right thing to do. We shall be forever in the debt of such individuals, only hoping to pay forward what we can with better science and medicine, with better education and technology, with a greater appreciation for the kindness of others and a generosity that aspires to the heights attained by those willing to give even beyond the mortal world to help this one. What was commemorated, what was celebrated, was the very definition of our humanity.

Barry Belmont can be reached at belmont@umich.edu.


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