Left to Science

Marietta resident Barb Moberg, 61, has always known she did not want a traditional funeral.

“I’m not a big believer in big, huge, fancy caskets. I’m kind of a naturalist,” she said.

So it seemed like a fitting decision that Moberg and her husband, Jack, 65, made the decision about five years ago to donate their bodies to the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine for the furtherance of science.

Full body donation is a choice many local residents are making for reasons ranging from wanting to benefit others to financial advantages. Seven different collegiate facilities in Ohio and the Cleveland Clinic accept body donations, which are then used for medical research and student education throughout the state, including locally at Marietta College and Washington State Community College.

When Marjorie Becker’s husband passed away in December, the plans had long been in place for his body to be donated to OU-HCOM.

“He made out his papers nine years ago. He wasn’t in the best of health,” said Becker, 68, of Marietta.

At first Becker, used to the traditions that go hand in hand with a funeral service, was not in favor of the decision. However, the more she thought about it, the more she became convinced that it was the best decision he could have made.

“He was in the military and he kind of had a rough time there for a while. I guess he just thinks if can help someone, that’s what he wanted to do,” said Becker.

Becker’s reservations are not uncommon. Some typical arguments against body donations include that it’s disrespectful to the body, that family members may not agree or cooperate and that it robs loved ones of traditional mourning and closure.

The donated bodies are an invaluable tool to students, said Paula Johnson, laboratory and health and safety coordinator at Washington State.

“We consider it one of our greatest benefits here for students,” said Johnson, who oversees the college’s cadaver lab, which has been in existence for 10 years.

Students in the college’s nursing, respiratory therapy, physical therapy assistant, radiology and massage therapy programs all use the bodies as learning tools.

“I always say that you can’t massage a muscle you don’t know and you can’t x-ray a bone you don’t know,” Johnson added.

WSCC typically keeps two bodies, one male and one female, on hand. The bodies are leased through the Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine’s Anatomical Gift Program, and are typically used for a year before being returned, said Johnson.

“This is realistic preparation for the field. They learn so much about what happens to the body through the aging process,” she said.

Along with helping students learn, donated bodies have led to advances in research in the areas of heart disease, diabetes, HIV, joint replacements, cancer, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s and more.

Requirements and procedures for body donation programs differ.

At OU-HCOM, as in most programs, they can not accept people who are known to have an infectious disease such as hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, or syphilis. There is also a body mass index requirement, said Don Kincaid, director of the program.

Kincaid declined to elaborate on the specifics of OU-HCOM’s BMI requirement.

“What we encourage people to do if they are interested is to contact my office. And we go over all of the specifics with them,” he said.

The Cleveland Clinic’s Body Donation Program does not accept bodies with a BMI above 40, according to its website.

For example, a person who is five feet, six inches tall and weights 248 pounds has a body mass index of 40.

Interest in the Ohio University program has been steadily increasing, with OU-HCOM averaging about 20 people a month signing up to be a whole body donor over the past year.

“We get a lot of inquiries from the Marietta area as well,” said Kincaid, citing the OU-HCOM’s proximity as a likely reason.

Many programs, such as OU-HCOM’s, the Ohio State College of Medicine’s and Wright State’s, generally do not accept body donations from individuals who also choose to be organ donors, said Johnson.

However, the Cleveland Clinic’s program does accept bodies whose organs have been donated elsewhere or bodies who have undergone an autopsy.

Some programs, such as OSU’s, charge a fee whether for the transportation of the body or for the embalming process.

OC-HCOM’s program does not charge a fee. In fact, they retrieve the body within hours of notification of the death, cover the cost of embalming the body, and after the body has been used a medical tool, they pay to have the body cremated and returned to the family, said Kincaid.

OU is also one of the few programs to allow family members to embalm the body locally and hold a memorial service with the body present before they retrieve it.

Marietta resident Linda McKenzie, 59, went through the process with both of her parents. When her mother passed away 10 years ago, OC-HCOM handled the situation so professionally that Linda, and her husband Bryan, also decided to become donors.

“It was easy. Actually I think the hospice nurse took care of it,” said Bryan.

The main reason the McKenzies chose body donation was in hopes that something can be learned from their donations.

“You never know what they may find, using your body as a learning tool,” said Bryan.

Additionally, OC-HCOM’s program does away with any financial burden on your family, he added.

That same positive experience with OC-HCOM’s Body Donor Program also left an impact on the Mobergs. Both of Jack’s parents donated their body to the college.

“It went very smoothly and respectfully,” said Jack Moberg, who added that both times the bodies were retrieved by the college within an hour and a half of notification.

If Jack does have one small regret, it is that they did not have a local service when his mother passed away in 2009.

However, it was a memorial service later that year at OU that finally struck Barb with the impact of what her donation would mean.

At the end of each school year, OU-HCOM holds a memorial service to express their gratitude for those individuals who had passed away within the previous year and donated their bodies to the Ohio University Body Donor Program, she said.

“What struck me, it was very reverent,” said Barb.

Many of the medical students from Ohio University were in attendance, dressed in their white lab coats.

“The medical students talked to us afterward. There was a young man from Marietta there, and he just said ‘Thank you so much.’ They were very thankful that family members had donated bodies,” she said.