Under the microscope: Consider your future as a body of science

Have you ever considered what you want to have happen to your body after you die?

I’m not talking about choosing to be buried or cremated, or planning a funeral service. I’m talking about donating your body, or parts of it, to science.

Earlier this week I went to the Real Bodies exhibition in Sydney, and it was absolutely fascinating. The exhibition is a collection of perfectly preserved, perfectly real, human bodies and organs. Visitors can see, up close and personal, every single detail of the human body, inside and out. The bodies and body parts used in the exhibition are all donated, and are carefully preserved using a technique called plastination, made famous by German anatomist Dr Gunther van Hagens. 

Although I loved it, I understand that this kind of exhibition is not everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, it’s quite a controversial exhibition. But it certainly got me thinking about my own choices for my body. 

Donating your body to be plastinated and preserved for the whole world to see is perhaps a bit extreme for some people. But donated organs and bodies are extremely valuable in medicine, education, and medical research.

Most people are aware of organ donation programs, where you can choose to donate your organs for transplantation into living patients who need a new heart, or lung, or kidney or liver.

The first successful organ transplant was of a kidney, way back in 1954. These days it’s become a routine practise. Last year over 1400 organ transplants took place in Australia alone. That’s a lot of donated organs. But with over 1500 people on the transplant waiting list at any given time, more donations are always needed.

Not all organs are suitable for transplantation, but they can still be donated for medical research. You can, for example, choose to donate your brain. In NSW there are two “brain banks”, where donated brains are used to research various brain diseases.

These kind of organ banks allow researchers to compare diseased organs with healthy organs, to understand more about human disease. This kind of research can allow us to develop new treatments and medical procedures.

Donating organs can save lives, but few people pass away under circumstances that allow for organ donation to take place. Instead many people choose to donate their whole body for medical research and education.

Nearly every university with a medical program (including our very own University of New England) also runs a body donor program. Donated bodies are used to teach anatomy and to help train doctors, surgeons and medical scientists. Working with real bodies helps to provide the best possible training to these students – which seems like a good idea given that our lives will be in their hands one day.

Donated bodies are used to teach anatomy and to help train doctors, surgeons and medical scientists.

I like the idea that one day, when I no longer need my body, it could still be useful to save someone else’s life, to help unravel the mysteries of human disease, or to train another generation of doctors. Might be time to go and fill out those forms.