MEDICAL DISTRICT — Recent FBI raids of two suburban body donation centers, part of a multistate investigation into alleged mismanagement of body parts, have raised questions from some family members about where their loved ones ended up.
Families should do their research long before the difficult time immediately following a loved one's death, to avoid confusion and unwanted surprises about what's involved in the body donation process, representatives of a local body donation center said.
"It’s a conversation you need to have, whether or not you decide to do whole body donation," said Paul Dudek, executive vice president of the Anatomical Gift Association of Illinois.
Most of the bodies donated to the Gift Association, at 1540 S. Ashland Ave. in the Medical District, go to Illinois medical schools for dissection and study by students.
Kyla Gardner explains the process of donating a body to science:
Donors can usually choose which school they want their bodies to go to.
The Gift Association only accepts whole bodies — donors can't have had major organ donations — but other donation centers may deal in the sale of body parts for research and the development of medical instruments.
"The demand continues to grow" for human tissue in those fields, Dudek said.
But students need cadavers in medical school as well, Dudek said, and whole body donations to the Gift Association have declined in recent years.
Callum Ross, a University of Chicago biology professor and doctor on the Gift Association's board, said the benefits to medical students using human cadavers for dissection cannot be replicated with computer programs.
"An important thing for people to ask themselves is, would you like to have a doctor treat you who hasn't dissected somebody?" Ross said. "As soon as people think about that a little bit, they realize."
Dudek said nearly 40,000 cadavers have gone through the Anatomical Gift Association to medical schools since it opened its doors in 1918.
"Those donors have probably trained 35,000 to 40,000 physicians and dentists alone," Dudek said. "How many people did those physicians and dentists impact over the course of their dental, medical practice? It's really significant, that little ripple in the water and how it reaches out."
In 2014, the Gift Association took in about 525 body donations, Dudek said.
For people looking to donate their body after death, cost for the surviving family can also be a factor in the decision, Dudek and Ross said.
"In terms of cost, it shouldn't be at the top of the list, but for some people it is an issue," Ross said.
Many families with a loved one donating to science forgo a funeral, as a cadaver must be embalmed as soon as possible, and the Gift Association uses specific procedures that most funeral directors do not.
After the body has been used by medical students, it is cremated and returned to the family, which usually takes one to two years.
The Gift Association is a nonprofit, and asks families to pay the cost of transportation to the facility, which averages about $1,000 in the Chicago region. Families should shop around with different funeral directors to compare prices, Dudek said.
Other facilities that can turn a profit may offer transportation for free, but Ross said a profit made on his body is not something he is personally comfortable with.
"I prefer the fact that we are not-for-profit. I don't think it's something you should necessarily make a profit on," he said. "I'm not sure it's ethical. I'm not sure it's unethical, but I'm not comfortable with it."
But families may find they are comfortable with it. The important thing is to know what the deceased would want, and to find out while they are alive.
"It's a conversation people need to be having about death and dying in general," Ross said.
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