What Happens When You Donate Your Body To Science

Photographed by Tayler Smith.

To donate your body to a medical cause after death is to give a gift to the living. But if you're listed as an organ donor on your ID, there's a lot you need to know: For starters, it's not as simple as the hospital shipping your kidney to whoever's first on a list (the "whoever" may just be a university or research facility and not an ill person at all).

Ahead, we highlight three of the most common routes you can take when donating your body, whether you wish to contribute to medical research, education, or the ongoing need for organ transplants.

It's important to note that just about every donation program has slightly different guidelines, depending on the state and the institution running the program. Some may only accept donations that were registered before death, while others allow post-death registrations, as well. Certain programs will return cremated remains to the family of the deceased, while others may not. Ahead, we look into some of the different procedures for organ donation, and the great impact it can have.

Donating To The State
According to Ronn Wade, director of the Maryland department of health's anatomy board, state-run programs aim to create the greatest amount of good with every body they receive, meaning a body that goes to the state may be used for both research and tissue or organ donations. First, any organs that can be harvested from the body (such as the heart, lungs, liver, or kidney) will be used for transplants. The person's tissues (which include heart valves and corneas) can be used for transplants, as well. Taking these initial steps ensures that the donation has a direct impact on other living people, Wade explains. Only after that will the anatomy board officially take control of the remains for research purposes.

Given the quantity of research conducted through the department of health, the state can accept a wider variety and larger amount of donations than smaller, more selective programs — Wade estimates there are 80,000 living, preregistered donors on the books in Maryland and that the state receives roughly 1,400 bodies every year. While other programs specifically require whole, intact bodies, the state will rarely refuse a donation, even following organ harvests or if someone's health dramatically changes after they register, as long as it can be used for some type of study. For example, having hepatitis will not bar someone from donating. "We would not disqualify that donation," he says. "There may, in fact, be research studies into hepatitis and we want to be able to collect tissue for that research."

Donating To A Medical School
Chris Dolph, Stanford University's willed body donation coordinator, tells us that Stanford's medical school uses the 120 to 140 cadavers it receives in a year for one of two purposes (providing that they're free of infectious diseases): to train surgeons or teach undergraduates. For the former, the body will be used fresh, within days of arriving at the university. Dolph explains it's much easier and more realistic to practice surgery on a fresh cadaver, as opposed to an embalmed one. Otherwise, Dolph says he'll embalm the cadaver three days after its arrival then send it off to be used in an anatomy or orthopedics course.

Donating To An Accredited Tissue Bank
The American Association of Tissue Banks connects people with local, frequently inspected tissue banks that accept whole body donations for the purpose of medical training and research. One such bank is the United Tissue Company (UTN), a non-transplant anatomical donation organization. Alyssa Harrison, UTN's executive director, says that donations may be used in multiple programs or studies at one time, adding that it's common for bodies to be disarticulated, or taken apart, in order to make the best use out of the donation. Much like medical schools, the UTN will turn away bodies with communicable diseases (such as hepatitis and HIV). Nevertheless, last year over 1,000 bodies were accepted by UTN. Harrison emphasizes that the UTN strives for a diverse set of medical histories and diseases represented in the donations it receives.

The Bottom Line
If you think you might want to donate your body — to people or to scientific causes in general — it's a good idea to weigh these options, and do your due diligence. Wade says it's important to plan ahead, which he compares to planning for your own funeral. It's one less thing for your loved ones to consider if they lose you, or one more way to have your wishes honored. Harrison cautions that there's no federal oversight into donation programs, though, which makes that research all the more crucial. If you've got that telltale heart on your driver's license, it's reason enough to begin asking questions, and encourage your loved ones to do the same.