If you have ever wondered what happens when you donate your body to science. My Dad, Geoff Cunningham left his body to Cambridge University Medical School and a lot of people have been interested in what happened. I promised I would write a blog tell the story.
Getting his wish fulfilled was a bit of a mission but as you can see from the letter above, its so worthwhile.
I had experienced in the cadaver room at a London Medical School
This wasn’t new to me. A few years ago I did some training sessions in the cadaver room with a professor at a London hospital medical school. It was a life changer and an absolute honour.
I went with my friend Mark Whitton, a young man who had just become blind. Mark was studying anatomy and physiology as part of a reflexology course. As he couldn’t see diagrams of the body, he wanted to hold a liver and a heart and feel how everything connected up in the body. At the lectures we put on a pair of gloves and did just that. I remember being really nervous the first time but the process is so respectful to the donors or cadavers as they are then called and it was just fascinating.
We felt honoured to be there and realised that without donors, medical staff just wouldn’t be able to learn. That’s why there were body snatchers many years ago.
I met a doctor there who was part of an air ambulance crew. He was practicing an emergency procedure that he had never seen done but might be called to carry out one one of the rescue missions. He would never have had the chance to practice on a living patient.
The student doctors, physios, nurses and osteopaths were dissecting anything and everything and practicing all sorts of procedures.
Call this number as soon as possible after death.
Dad had filled in a simple form that was kept with his will. He had told me about it years before and I knew that if he died, action had to be taken very quickly. When I knew he was really poorly, I found the paperwork and had the phone number ready.
As soon as Dad had passed, I called the phone number and left a message. The lady was out of the office for the day but called me back the following morning. She told me that Cambridge was full and didn’t need more donors but she was calling her colleagues in different medical schools to see if they could take another donor. The following day she called to say that her colleague, Michelle at Leicester might be able to take him and I would have a phone call from her.
In the meantime, I made an appointment at the Registrar in Southend to register the death and went along two days after dad had died. The Registrar straight away said she had bad news as the death certificate had been completed wrongly by the doctor and had to be referred to the coroner which was likely to take two weeks.
Luckily this all got resolved quickly because I jumped into action with massive determination and the coroner’s office were really helpful too.
A seven day window to get a donor to the university.
There is a window of seven days to get a donor to the university. In the meantime, they stay at the chapel of rest.
A long medical questionnaire to be completed by GP
The next stage was for the GP who had signed the death certificate to complete a questionnaire. A donor must die of natural causes and their body be in a good state of repair. The GP was too busy so, with my nursing knowledge I was able to get this done quickly with Michelle. Otherwise the donation wouldn’t have happened.
My mum and grandmother had also left their bodies to science but mum had died of tuberculosis and donors can’t have contagious illnesses or infection. My gran had advanced breast cancer which meant she couldn’t be accepted. My great grandfather died at ninety nine years old and just his corneas were used.
Would dad weigh enough? Had he lost too much weight?
The last question was how much Dad weighed and I knew that might be a challenge as in the papers it said that if a donor was emaciated they would be unsuitable. He’d hardly eaten for two months.
This is because if a donor is too obese or too emaciated the embalming doesn’t work so they can’t be used. The body can be used for several years to come so embalming is an essential part of the process.
The undertaker where dad was in the chapel of rest had a look at him and estimated his weight at something acceptable, thank goodness. By this time I was really nervous in case he wouldn’t be accepted. I did phone up to say that he was now about five foot five inches instead of the five foot ten as they would never have taken a man of five foot ten who weighed nine stone and he had shrunk a lot in recent years.
Your father was now in the care of Leicester University.
On the Monday, six days after dad died, Michelle, the Donor Secretary from Leicester University called. They had gone through all the paperwork and Dad would be accepted as a donor. I was excited! The following day the Coop collected him from Stibbards. At 4pm on the Tuesday, exactly a week after dad had died, Michelle phoned me to say that Dad was now in the care of Leicester University. She thanked me as he would be helping doctors, nurses and physiotherapists for many years to come.
We had a simple, rather special memorial service at our church in Southend a few days later.
A year later, in July 2018, I was invited by Leicester University to Dad’s cremation.
I was a bit shocked when a year later I had an email inviting me to Dad’s cremation. I thought they would have dad much longer but at the end of the university year, they take new donors and dad’s body wasn’t needed anymore.
Three staff from Leicester University attended the cremation. They feel such gratitude for the donors. It really was touching. This was at Burton on Trent crematorium. By concidence, my Dad was evacuated to Burton on Trent and lived there for a few years with his brothers, mum and grandmother.
The donor’s family don’t have to pay roughly £2000 that a cremation costs so the money went to build a well in a drought stricken part of Kenya instead.
I had his ashes then to scatter, at low tide on the Ray in Westcliff-on-sea.
It feels very complete and somehow easier to know that Dad is still useful, he really got his wish.
I have now completed all the forms so I can donate my body to science too.
In 2022 I was invited to attend a memorial service at Leicester University & met the medical students.
In August 2022 I was invited to attend a service to remember and honour the donors and their families at Leicester University.
Only five medical schools in the UK now have these facilities where the students actually get to handle the donors. In other schools they use modelling or prepared parts that have been dissected by someone else. Nothing beats actually investigating for themselves, really seeing what connects where, what the body hides and most importantly how different bodies are.
Some wonderful medical students were really happy to tell me how working on the donors in the dissection labs helped them.
For instance, they told me that when working on the spinal cord, every donor in the room had a different spinal cord. They were amazed and then, if looking at a patient in pain, operating, giving an epidural, they truly know what might be underneath the skin. What a difference from just looking at a flat text book.
In the lab, every part of a donor’s body is retained and when the university is finished with them which can be up to five years later, a memorial service and cremation is held. The university also holds an annual memorial service for everyone who has left their body to science.
Do feel free to contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions. I’m so glad I’ve had this experience.