The ultimate gift after death - your body that can help 10 million people
You might give blood, and possibly you're on the organ donor register - but have you ever thought about donating your body when you die?
“A single donor can affect the lives of 10 million patients,” says Dr Claire Smith, head of anatomy at Brighton and Sussex Medical School and mum of two.
“If you count all the doctors who can train thanks to that donation, and all the patients they’ll see during their careers - I can’t think of any other gift a person can give that will affect so many people’s lives in a positive way.”
Donor bodies are a vital part of the training done at the medical school, based at Sussex University.
They are used for everything from year 1 training about the body to allowing our hospitals’ top surgeons to hone techniques at the very forefront of medical technology.
Now Dr Smith, who lives in Storrington, has written a book to answer some of the many questions people may have about the process of body donation.
“Public attitudes are changing,” she says. “We are an era where people have the right to know more and for sectors to be more transparent.
“The organ donation sector has done loads to raise awareness. You’d struggle not to know about that. But how much do people know about the body donation sector? It hasn’t received the same level of attention.
“People have the right to choose what they would prefer happens to their body when they die. It’s their last choice in life, their first choice in death.”
Brighton and Sussex Medical School trains doctors working across East and West Sussex.
“Our job is to ensure we produce safe doctors through our training,” says Dr Smith.
“Our students go into the NHS as junior doctors and when they specialise, eg cardiolpogy, they come back to us to become safe specialists. We never stop developing skills. We see doctors working at the forefront of medicine and it’s really exciting.”
The school trains professionals in all areas of the NHS, from mortuary technicians, A&E doctors, to surgeons and anaesthetists.
While some training can be done on models, for many things there is no substitute for the real thing, says Dr Smith.
“For example, keyhole surgery is done using camera work,” she says.
“New and amazing bits of kit are being developed, but no patient is going to allow a surgeon to perform a procedure if they know it’s the first time they’ve ever tried that bit of equipment.
“A surgeon might come to us and say that he’s got a challenging procedure booked in a week’s time, and he needs to prepare.
“Our operating theatre is set up exactly the same as in the hospitals. A doctor might come to us with his team and ask for 10 shoulders to work on. Any new procedure is a process, if things go wrong in our simulations that’s part of the learning curve - a doctor can talk to colleagues and make notes. By the time he sees the patient, all that preparation work is done.”
Dr Smith has frequent Freedom of Information requests about isolated pieces of information, and says some pieces written have failed to give a balanced picture of the work they do, and the processes they observe.
Her book - The Silent Teacher: The Gift of Body Donation - has sought to give a wider context and provide answers for anyone considering body donation themselves, who has concerns about a relative’s wishes, or just finds the subject interesting.
“Death is still quite a taboo subject,” she says.
“Families don’t always discuss it, and we sometimes find that a family will know nothing about their loved one’s desire to donate their body. They might find out it’s in the will, but the family has never had an open conversation about it. That can really throw their grief into turmoil.
“The other problem is that some people may want to donate their body, but unless someone tells us, we might never know, and it doesn’t happen.”
The book explains the process of body donation in detail from the donor’s decision, to what happens to remains after death, the way it may be kept and used, and the process of returning the remains to the donor’s family, if they wish. A person who opts to donate their body can make choices about how it’s used, for how long, and what happens afterwards.
“A donated body may be used for a couple of months, or as long as three years, depending on need and consent. We notify next of kin a month before we release the remains so they can prepare,” Dr Smith says.
“Some relatives want to have the ashes, or attend a cremation or memorial service. Others don’t wish to be contacted and that’s fine too.
“We do have families fighting, and have to try to work to resolve those problems.
“It’s important for people to think about their decisions and communicate their wishes with family members as clearly as possible.”
Dr Smith has 20 year’s experience teaching anatomy and sits on many highly respected national and international bodies as well as being a member of the Court of Examiners for the Royal College of Surgeons.
The book also includes some of her own experiences, from the first time she saw a person die, to how it affected her personally and professionally when she lost her own grandparents and father.
“Even when we work alongside death every day, we are not cold-hearted,” she says. “I am, at the end of the day, a working mum.”
The Silent Teacher: The Gift of Body Donation is available from Amazon in paperback and Kindle or direct from and anatomicallycorrect.co.uk