Why I’m Donating My Body to Science

“A donated organ can save a life, but a body provides the foundation to save many more.”

In 2009, my mom and I went to see Body Worlds, a traveling exhibit of dissected human bodies preserved through plastination. I had seen it before, but it’s always better to experience these things with another person. I wanted her to see why I was in such awe of the human body. I left the museum that day having made three decisions: my mom is a good sport, $30 for a organ donor t-shirt was totally worth it, and I am donating my body.

Up until that day, I hadn’t given much thought to what would happen to my body after I died. Do I want to be buried? Cremated? Shot into space? To be honest, none of that crossed my mind. I was 25 and invincible. But after walking through the Body Worlds exhibit for the second time, I knew that a coffin six feet under ground wasn’t for me. My atoms crave fame. (Not really. They crave caffeine.)

Body Worlds

Before leaving the exhibit, I used one of the computers there to sign up as a donator. Instead of donating my money, however, I opted to donate my body. It was almost too easy, and part of me believed that I had just sent one of those “wish you were here” museum postcards to a family member. But weeks later I received confirmation in the mail—I even got a fancy ID card to carry with me so people know what to do with my body when I die.

Side note: To be fair, it wasn’t just Body Worlds that had led me down this path. By this point in my life, I had attended several cadaver labs and read “Stiff” by Mary Roach. This book opened my eyes to not only the need for cadavers, but the very important purpose they serve in a number of research capacities. It’s a fascinating book, and she’s a brilliant author. I recommend reading it.

Nearly 10 years later, I haven’t changed my mind. My body will be donated when I die. What has changed is who I am donating it to. While the Body Worlds exhibit is enlightening, there isn’t much need for bodies to be plastinated and put on display. While it serves an educational purpose, it’s self-serving. What is needed, however, are bodies for medical students, anthropologists, ballistics experts, and first-responders.

Giant Heart

In 2016, National Geographic reported that the demand for cadavers is up, but the supply is down. The Anatomical Gift Association of Illinois reported that annual donations fell from 760 in 1984 to 520 in 2015. This was disheartening to read because body donation is such a wonderful gift. There are more than 20,000 enrolled first-year medical students, and for them, anatomy class is a rite of passage. With about six students assigned to one body, it really limits the amount of hands-on learning future doctors have.

According to NatGeo, in 2008, Colorado and Wyoming were 20 bodies short of the 158 cadavers requested by the states’ medical schools. And with physician assistant and nurse practitioner programs now utilizing cadavers, in addition to vocations outside of medical school, the supply is even more strained.

“There are more than 120 million registered organ donors in the United States, and an average of 79 people receive transplants each day, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The federal government does not monitor whole body donations in the United States, but researchers estimate each year fewer than 20,000 Americans donate their bodies to medical research and training.”

This doesn’t sit right with me. I have gained so much knowledge from the generosity of body donors, and I’m not even in medical school. I don’t know what happens when we die, but I can’t imagine that I’d rest easily knowing that I opted to keep my body in a box instead of helping future medical professionals better understand anatomy, physiology, and pathology.

Now I’m not here to tell you what to do with your body. It’s yours. But I do hope that maybe I can answer some questions for you in the event that you’re considering body donation.

What is body donation?

Simply put, body donation is the donation of a whole body after death for education and research. Donated bodies are primarily used for medical education and research, but cadavers have helped industries outside of medicine, including NASA and car manufacturers.

What will happen to my body?

That all depends on where you donate your body. In medical settings, donated bodies are mostly used for gross anatomy and surgical anatomy. In 2015, Vice published an in-depth article about what happens to your body after it’s been donated. I recommend checking it out. But to be blunt, you will be dissected. Remember that fetal pig in high school biology? More than likely, though, you’ll be treated with much more respect than that pig.

Your body will be embalmed, which means your blood and other bodily fluids are replaced with chemical preservers. This makes it so your body will last instead of decompose. Side note: read my previous post all about decomposition.

In my personal experience with cadavers, I’ve worked with whole bodies and well as parts, such as arms and legs. I have seen skulls cut open to reveal the hollow space where the brain once sat. I have also seen heads split in half down the middle to reveal the inner workings of the nasal and pharyngeal areas. I have been the person doing the dissecting, and I’ve also been the person who observes the body post-dissection. It all depends on the class you’re taking and career path you’re heading down.

If you’re looking for a moving first-hand account of a cadaver lab, I recommend reading “Body of Work” by Christine Montross.

How can I donate my body?

There are several ways to do it. First and foremost, you can opt to be an organ donor. This is much more common than whole body donation. Working at the morgue, I receive a lot of Gift of Hope patients. These are bodies that have already had their corneas, organs, long bones, and even some skin removed.

My next recommendation is to check with your state to see if they have a formal organization. Illinois, where I am located, has the Anatomical Gift Association. It receives, prepares, preservers, and distributes donated human remains to medical education and research institutions across Illinois.

You might also consider research facilities like a “body farm”. The most notable one, at least in my opinion, is located at the University of Tennessee. It was founded in 1981 and has been used to study human decomposition. Similar projects have followed at Western Carolina University, Texas State University, Sam Houston State University, Southern Illinois University, and Colorado Mesa University. All six are, or at least at one point, accepted human donations. If you like podcasts, here’s a great one about body farms from the guys at Stuff You Should Know.

What happens to my body when they’re done?

That’s a great question. In my research, I’ve read that most places hold a type of memorial service or ceremony. Certain institutions will invite family members, while others prefer to limit it to the students and faculty that worked with the cadavers. It’s a great way to show respect and gratitude for the generous gift. Bodies are then cremated, and their remains are returned to their families.

So there you have it. It’s a very quick overview of body donation. If you are considering it, I encourage you to research further. Like me, you might change your mind about where you’d like your body to go or what you’d like it used for. It’s an important decision, and one that shouldn’t be made impulsively. That said, it’s truly a wonderful gift and one that I am extremely proud to give.

My New Hobby: Woodworking

School leaves me with very little free time, but somehow I managed to find just enough of it to pick up a new hobby: woodworking.

It all began over Christmas break. I learned how to use a laser cutter, and before I knew it I was hooked. Drawing from my love for all things science, I started cutting anatomy-related objects out of wood. As it turned out, enough people liked what I was doing and now I have an Etsy store with an entire line of anatomy-themed keychains.

Lasercut Walnut Anatomy

I’m learning a lot more about wood. So far my favorite is this beautiful red wood called padauk. It’s perfect for making anatomical hearts!

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And, of course, I had to make some space-related items too.

Lasercut Planets

Most recently, I added some radiology-themed items to the shop.

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I love making them. If they make others happy too, great!

The Best Shoes for Medical Professionals [Review]

One of the unique things about my school is that clinical experience is interwoven into the entire program. My clinical rotation started the second week of the first semester, rather than being introduced later into the program. We started out with two eight-hour days in the radiology department and three inside the classroom. That lasted for two semesters. Now that I’m in my third, we’ve upgraded to three clinical days and only two classroom days. While that means a lot more experience for me, it also means that I’m on my feet a lot more.

There isn’t a lot of down time when you’re juggling outpatients, inpatients, ER patients, and fluoroscopy exams. At the end of the day my feet were less than pleased—specifically my heels. But it wasn’t until my two-week surgery rotation that I realized the shoes I was wearing weren’t cut out for the demands I was putting on them. The pain from my feet started radiated up to my knees and lower back. In surgery, radiographic technologists usually stand in the operating room until the surgeon needs an x-ray. There isn’t always a place to sit, and as a student I usually let the lead tech enjoy that luxury if it’s available.

There were times when I wanted to excuse myself from the OR just to go stretch or sit for a moment, but I didn’t want to miss out on anything important or seem unprofessional. Seriously, if a nurse or a surgeon can stand for the operation, so can I. But they had better shoes! As a student, we have to wear white leather shoes, which really limits our choices when out shopping. Trust me, I would much rather wear my running shoes. So at the end of my surgical rotation I set out to find a new pair of clinical-appropriate shoes.

timberland pro renova shoes

I had bookmarked these Timberland PRO Women’s Renova Professional Slip-on shoes a while back. The price tag just didn’t meet my student-friendly budget. But I was desperate. I talked with friends and classmates and they all told me that splurging on shoes, especially since I’m on my feet so often, is totally worth it. So I did. And I wish I had done it sooner.

The breaking in process was a little annoying. While my heels didn’t hurt as much after a full day at the hospital, my ankles were sore from the sides of the shoes rubbing against them. This has subsided a lot after a few weeks of wear, but it’s something to consider. I recommend breaking them in at home before taking them out for a full shift. They do squeak a little when I walk, but it’s a small price to pay for comfort. Other than that, I’ve been very happy with my purchase. They’re non-slip, breathable, and easy to clean.

If you’re a healthcare professional in need of a change, I definitely recommend Timberland PROs. Yes, spending $120 on work shoes might seem like a lot of money, but it’s well worth it. Foot health is important, and if you’re a student, you’ve got a lot more long days ahead of you! Be kind to your feet.

Side note: The company didn’t ask me to review the shoes, so all opinions are my own.

How The Beatles Helped Fund the CT Scan

Computerized Tomography (CT) is one of the most important developments in diagnostic imaging over the past 50 years. It creates virtual slices that allow doctors to see inside the human body without having to make an incision. Unlike x-ray, CT is able to visualize soft tissues—more importantly, bleeding within those soft tissues. This is critical in trauma cases because CT scans can provide an incredible amount of diagnostic information in an extremely short amount of time. Every second counts when someone’s life is on the line.

But enough with the radiology lesson! Today in my Imaging class I learned a really interesting fact about the history of CT machines: The Beatles actually contributed to its creation. Now The Beatles weren’t actually moonlighting as physicists or engineers, but their crazy success allowed Godfrey Hounsfield to invent the CT scanner.

Fun fact!

Hounsfield was a researcher at Electrical and Musical Industries (EMI). You might remember EMI as the record label that signed The Beatles, but in the 1950’s it was actually an industrial research company. Long story short, when the band was signed to the label in 1962, Hounsfield was given permission to conduct independent research with the funding from The Beatles’ insane success. With that funding, he was able to invent the CT scanner, which EMI released in 1972.

The Beatles CT Scan

What’s even cooler is that Lurie Children’s Hospital here in Chicago has a “Yellow Submarine” themed CT scanner in honor of The Beatles’ contribution. It’s just one of the many fun-themed rooms at the hospital, but it’s certainly a memorable one!

So there you have it. Feel free to share this fun fact with the Beatles fans in your life!

My NASA Social: OSIRIS-REx & Bennu the Asteroid

I feel terrible that I haven’t been writing here because I’ve been involved in some really cool things that deserve to be mentioned. School and work have kept my brain so busy that I just haven’t had the energy to write for me. But I’m hoping to change that!

During my spring break, I attended a NASA Social to learn about the first-ever NASA mission to travel to an asteroid, retrieve a sample, and bring the sample back to Earth.

During the one-day event, I got to see the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft at Lockheed Martin. In addition to that, I got to speak with engineers about the inspiration behind and challenges facing OSIRIS-REx, took a tour of the mission operations center, and got an up close look at Lockheed’s massive asteroid wall.

Why is this mission such a big deal?

Asteroids are composed of leftover debris from the solar system formation. This can teach us about the history of our planets, as well as answer the question: Where did we come from?

OSIRIS-REx will launch in 2016, meet the asteroid in 2018, depart the asteroid in 2021, and return home with samples in 2023. What makes this such an incredible mission is that the spacecraft will only make contact with the asteroid for about five seconds while it gets its samples!

What is OSIRIS-REx?

OSIRIS-REx, or Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer, is the first NASA mission to bring samples from an asteroid back to Earth.

It will launch this Fall, and orbit the sun for a year until finally using Earth’s gravitational field to move it long its path to Bennu. It will spend another year mapping potential sample sites on the asteroid.

OSIRIS-REx TAGSAM

A picture of the sample capsule and TAGSAM.

A sampling arm, called TAGSAM, will release a burst of nitrogen gas which will cause rocks and soil to be stirred up and captured by the samples head. After this brief encounter with Bennu’s surface, the sample capsule will separate from the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft and return to Earth. NASA hopes to collect between 60 and 2000 grams of asteroid material.

Where is OSIRIS-REx going?

Meet Bennu.

Bennu asteroid facts

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will travel to the asteroid Bennu. Scientists chose Bennu because of its composition, size, and proximity to our planet. It’s considered a rare or “primitive” asteroid, meaning that it hasn’t changed significantly since it formed nearly 4.5 billion years ago. Because of this, scientists hope to find organic molecules on Bennu like those that led to the origin of life on Earth.

Admittedly I knew nothing about OSIRIS-REx when I applied for the NASA Social. After attending the Orbital ATK rocket launch (which was sadly scrubbed) in December, I jumped at the chance to attend another event during my break from school. I would have gone to any one of them, but I’m so glad this was the one I ended up at. Learning about this mission and touring Lockheed Martin was such an incredible experience.

And the other attendees made this social one to remember. Everyone was so interesting and I loved hearing about what got them interested in science and space exploration. I really hope to see some of them at the OSIRIS-REx launch in September!

OSIRIS-REx Scale

If you’re interested in attending an event like this, check out the list of upcoming NASA Socials and apply.

How Radiography Students Decorate for Christmas

radiography christmas tree

Our school participated in a Christmas tree decorating contest earlier this month.

A classmate had a brilliant idea for our tree’s theme: bones! We took bones from a skeleton and turned them into ornaments. One of our clinical instructors cut out x-rays, which are a bit difficult to see in this picture, but trust me they’re awesome. And who needs a star when you have a skull?

Needless to say, we won the contest 🙂