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The silent tutor: How your body can help science

CAPE TOWN - Ever wondered how your doctor became the person that could heal you?

A major component of a doctor's academic training involves the dissection of dead bodies.

But where do those bodies come from?

Most of them are donated by people who hope that, in death, their bodies can still be useful to humanity.

DONATE YOUR BODY TO SCIENCE

There is an ethical debate around the world and, particularly in South Africa, around the process of body donation.

Because of religion and culture, many people may not be sure whether they should donate their bodies to science, says Professor Graham Louw of the University of Cape Town's Department of Human Biology.

"When you bequeath your body to a medical school it means that your cultural beliefs and spiritual beliefs allow you to do that."

WATCH: What happens to your body after you donate it to science

WHO DONATES THEIR BODIES?

His department often receives unclaimed bodies of homeless people or bodies of prisoners from Pollsmoor with the permission of the Department of Health.

"A source of bodies for us would be the group that we call indigent people. These are homeless people, paupers, they don't have IDs and we don't know their names."

The medical school has had incidents where families came to identify bodies after they had started with the dissection process.

"We'd cover the bodies and only show their faces for the family to identify so that they can take the body home."

In these cases, they did not know the religious beliefs of the deceased and could only guess at them.

"There is a feeling that we may be violating some of those people's personal beliefs. Ethically, this is a very tricky area to be in."

He says police would try to trace the families of unidentified bodies before they are handed over to the anatomy facility.

This is why he is pushing for the university's programme to only accept the bodies of people who have agreed to the process of body donation.

Louw says most people who donate their bodies to science are white South Africans, and are often people who don't subscribe to any particular religion.

Occasionally his department is approached by the Salvation Army. The organisation takes care of the poor, and doesn't have the funds to bury those who die. If no family claims the body, the Salvation Army will donate it, in return for a decent burial.

WHAT'S BEHIND THE PROCESS?

Louw, like many other medical professors and students, needed to study cadavers to better understand human anatomy.

He says it's the best way for students to learn about the structure of a body.

Body donation actually advances the study of medicine.

Think about it this way, you may be dead, but your body has still has a lot to offer to the world of science.

To get started you'll need to find a university that accepts cadavers or find an accredited medical institution.

If you're serious about the process you will be required to fill in a form to bequeath your body and you will need to sign a contract.

Entering into an agreement does not automatically mean that your body will be used for medical research.

People who are grossly overweight are not candidates because experts say heavy bodies just don't fit on the stainless steel dissection tables; they also take longer to dissect.

"If there is a lot of body fat, it takes a very long time for students to clean those structures."

At other times, a body may be too far away to transport. Louw says the process of transporting a body can be pricey and so they enter into an agreement with the family about how to cover these costs.

The bodies of people who've sustained trauma prior to death are not accepted either.

"Any kind of motor vehicle accident, physical assault, the amputation of limbs or if a post-mortem exam or an autopsy has been done, we can't use it because the students need to study relatively normal anatomy."

Louw says these bodies are difficult to embalm as embalming fluid may escape from places that have been damaged.

At the same time, a body will only be used if no organs have been removed. Louw says the only part that be removed before body donation is the cornea.

"Medical students need to study the relatively normal anatomy of the human body."

If your body is accepted, the embalming process gets underway.

Students will remove all the soft tissues from the bones. These tissues are put in small boxes and incinerated.

If a family wants the ashes back however, the department would need to cremate the bones as well because it is the bones that make the ash.

Some body parts, including bones, may be kept by the department with the permission of the family.

Next, departmental assistants would perform a process known as plastination, which involves extracting water from the body. This process allows for body parts to be preserved and used for years by medical students.

When dealing with a diseased body, or one with a fungal infection, the embalming process will destroy the organisms. They eventually die as there is no life or oxygen to sustain them.

There are concerns about prions, which are small proteins that can multiply and may not be die out during the embalming process. Mad Cow Disease is an example of this. Students wear gloves and white laboratory coats for their safety in all instances.

And while they're often intrigued by a cadaver and the dissection process, it can become quite personal.

"When you first get the body, it's whole, untouched and it's another human being. The students are very aware of that. There's always this silence in the dissection hall when we kick off."

He says that students understand the value of body donation and the importance of treating each body with dignity.

What is scientifically beneficial would largely depend on research projects that the university supports. They've often used cadavers to determine the amount of force needed to break particular body parts.

This, he says, is extremely beneficial for people who are victims of trauma. Fresh tissue, which is thawed, is also used for workshops and training sessions at the university.

The process may not appeal to you, but it is a gift to the medical world that helps medical students become the doctors who heal others.

To learn more about UCT's body donation programme click here and download a consent form here.

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