Medics make no bones about corpse shortage

SCOTS medics urgently need donations, but in this case they're not talking about cash, blood or even organs. From students of medicine to the most experienced surgeons, they need whole, dead bodies.

The number of people donating their mortal remains to medical science needs to double "with immediate effect", according to the man with the imposing title Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Anatomy for Scotland. Professor Bertie Wood needs 300 bodies a year to keep pace with developments in training that offer new hope to the living.

One of the key new demands is from surgeons who specialise in operating on the joints to help arthritis sufferers and other patients with debilitating conditions related to their limbs. These already highly-trained doctors need a steady supply of bodies on which to hone their skills.

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Wood said he was issuing new guidance to GPs' surgeries explaining how patients interested in donating their bodies can register their wishes. Lawyers will be given the same guidance for clients who express an interest while drawing up their wills.

The number of Scots donating their bodies to medical teaching has increased in recent years from 98 in 2003 to 163 in 2008, but it is still not enough.

Around a dozen body parts recently had to be imported from the United States because there were not sufficient numbers available for use in training surgeons in complex shoulder surgery techniques.

Wood said: "New surgical training has taken off more rapidly than we thought it would. The total number of bodies received has been going up in the last few years. But numbers are going to need to double with immediate effect."

Wood said he wanted to reach the point where it was no longer necessary to import body parts for training. He added: "We are reluctant to start appeals directly to the public through advertising. We think this could be counterproductive and we believe the trend is going in the right direction.

"What we are seeking to establish with the cooperation of GPs and solicitors is an understanding that when someone raises the issue to donate, they are directed to one of the bequeathal secretaries at their local department. We have to ensure that individuals can have an informed discussion and go away with the appropriate addresses."

When a donor dies their body it is handed over to one of five universities in Scotland registered to handle them. The body should be transferred to the facility within 48 hours and embalmed.

Once a body has been dissected by medics, the remains are put back together and given a proper burial or cremation, paid for by the university.

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Universities will generally accept any body except where there has already been a post-mortem examination. It may even accept a body if the deceased had been an organ donor, although in most cases they are over the age of 60, where organ donation would have been unsuitable.

University staff said that far from being "ghoulish" their work was positive. Dr Quentin Fogg, a licensed anatomist at Glasgow University, said: "Almost everyone asks what happens to the cadavers. We tell them straight up they might be looking at tissue in this way or that way – it might be students doing it or researchers doing it.

"Their main concern is that it's some sort of ghoulish dark thing that people are doing, and it's quite the opposite. You think that everyone is working around death and everyone is going to be a bit dark about it and on a bit of a downer, but it's very much a positive experience for everyone.

"Even people who are scared to walk into the room aren't scared for very long; they think it's actually quite nice. We can see the bodies are well looked after and we can see that everyone's acting very respectfully."

One potential body donor is 33-year-old Juliet Wilson, from Edinburgh. As a Humanist Celebrant, Wilson has conducted many funerals and came to the conclusion that bequeathing her body to Edinburgh University's medical school was the right thing to do.

She said: "Some people are buried and some people are cremated and I feel that whatever age I die, if my body is useful then that is quite a nice way to think about dying."

Wilson's family are happy with her decision, and her 54-year-old husband Tim has also bequeathed his body to medical teaching.

"I feel that when I die my body is just a body. OK it's mine and I love it now, but I don't believe in any life after death, or feel that my body is precious to me.

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"I am on the Organ Donor Register, but body donation is a good second option. I really don't care what they do. The thought of my liver in a jar does not remotely bother me. I am not squeamish about it."

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