Tag Archives: autopsy

More on Cadaver Donation Selection

Debbie says:

I owe an apology to MedCure for sitting on their response to my post about their policies for so long; the reasons have to do with me and my situation, and not with Body Impolitic or their response.

Valere at MedCure sent a long email a day or two after I posted, most of which is below with my comments interspersed:

In a nutshell, MedCure’s sole mission and reason for existence is to create an opportunity for people to donate their bodies after death in support of medical education and research. The criteria for acceptance or suitability for donation is driven by the medical researchers and educators that rely on us to find them suitable donors for their purposes. In other words, we are not the decision makers on what is acceptable and not acceptable but follow criteria handed to us in screening potential donors for research purposes.

Let me be completely clear. I think this is a marvelous service and I’m very glad it exists. I’m still interested in exploring and understanding specifics.

So regarding the finer points discussed in your blog…

We do not actually conduct autopsies. Autopsies are scheduled by a medical examiner if there is a suspicious cause of death or to rule out how and what a person died from. If someone does require an autopsy after death, it is usually because death occurred by some misfortune other than natural causes. An autopsy will prevent a person’s donation from being suitable because of the added time in getting this completed. In addition, once the body has been “opened” for inspection, it creates potential problems for transportation (e.g. leakage). I know that might be TMI (too much information), but that is the case.

I’m not sure how I got the impression that autopsy was included; looking at their site now, I can’t find that information anywhere.

Regarding infectious diseases… We screen for diseases not to discriminate; this is requested and required by us from the medical researchers. Some diseases are still contagious after death. VERY rarely, we receive a request for a donation with the very diseases we state we do not accept. The request is so infrequent however that I feel it is more honorable to tell people that we DON’T accept those donations so they aren’t mislead into thinking they will be accepted. It seems to cause families more grief and despair for the body of their loved one to be unsuitable and learn of this after death has already occurred than to be up front that it will likely not happen at all.

Of course, screening for diseases makes perfect sense, and I said so in the original post. And I completely agree that it’s more honorable to state refusal policy up front.

All of the criteria for donor suitability is determined AFTER DEATH. We do have a pre-registry screening process that we offer to those who are severely ill or on hospice and their life expectancy is less than 6 months. Whole-body donation is much like transplant donation in that HOW and WHAT you die of along with the body’s condition may prevent donation. We know people like to “make a plan” and know that it is certain, but the only assurance we can give is to provide this screening to identify anything we foresee (red flags?) that might prevent a donation being accepted in advance. Even then, we still encourage prospective donors and their families to have a plan B “just in case”. Another problem we encounter sometimes is weather problems! If we cannot make transportation arrangements for a donor to get to us in a timely manner, that is also a reason for decline.

The uncertainty is completely understandable to me, and not especially relevant to the points I was making. It does seem that in many cases, it would be possible to confirm that a body was unacceptable for donation long before death, including both in the case of the infectious diseases in the case of someone in prison and (if severely underweight or overweight was quantifiable and/or consistent) in those cases for someone whose weight was unlikely to change in the months or weeks before death.

History of illegal drug use depends on the drug used and the method of delivery. It is very common for persons to test positive for Hepatitis or HIV if they had a history of drug abuse. Many never had any symptoms of having these diseases during their life. This is the same for incarceration. We define incarceration as serving time in a federal prison for 6 months or more. There is a really strong correlation with people being incarcerated and a high incidence of testing positive for Hepatitis especially. I’ve always wondered why this is the case, but it is. I’ve seen the test results to prove it over and over again.

As I suspected, these regulations are about the correlations between certain behaviors and certain infectious diseases. If they test the bodies anyway for infectious diseases, why involve the correlating factors? Why exclude prisoners or drug abusers who do not have HIV or hepatitis? Any correlation that is not 100% is a form of stereotyping, and the tests have to be conducted anyway. I do see that the correlations probably lead to cost savings, which is almost certainly a factor.

Overweight and underweight more than just a body image problem. When it comes to transporting an overweight donor, it can add a significant cost as well as create injury to our employees and the medical researchers that are the recipient of the donor. The expression “dead weight” is a real one. We all feel like we weigh twice as much once we spiritually exit our bodies for some reason. But it is important to distinguish that this criteria is at the time of death. A person’s weight can fluctuate a great deal if they are ill for several months or years prior to death so we do not prevent people from registering their intent to BE a donor but I want people to know in advance this may prevent donation from occurring. In regards to low body weight, donors that are severely emaciated are not requested by researchers because they do not represent the norm. But again, sometimes the researchers request these donations. …This criteria fluctuates often so I just list it as “severely under or overweight” to represent what is usually the truth. This criteria is subject to change so I don’t put an actual BMI number on our website. Many people register their intent to donate far in advance of their eventual death and I am certain that criteria will continue to evolve and change.

Well, “dead weight” may be a real phrase, but in terms of pounds, if I die tomorrow my body will weigh then what it weighs now, or very close to it. I would personally be happier if they gave a maximum number of pounds, rather than “severely overweight,” since (as our readers know), a 300-pound football player is not considered overweight and a 300-pound woman is. And if the issue is that researchers’ needs change, then why not just say something like “we may have weight restrictions at given times depending on researchers’ needs”? Meanwhile, I cut material about Valere’s own weight, which she might not want to see plastered over the Internet. She’s discovering the crazy randomness of BMI, which I’m always glad to see someone learn.

As far as race, age, ethnicity, disability and any other things that make us human, that criteria has never been a consideration by our researchers. In other words, they are not requesting donors of a specific race or ethnicity but they do sometimes request certain disabilities or age ranges. Our program does NOT consider these factors for donation acceptance however and neither do the researchers we work with. The more you “live” in your body, the better for medicine I say!

Fabulous! One way to make this policy operational would be to disconnect incarceration and history of drug abuse from HIV and hepatitis, and just use the tests for those diseases to set criteria for donation, although again I acknowledge the cost-saving factor.

Once again, I’m really glad MedCure is in the world, and I thank Valere for her detailed and thoughtful response.

You’re Not Good Enough … And Neither Will Your Corpse Be

Debbie says:

(If reading about dead bodies is hard for you, skip this one.)

For reasons that are neither especially morbid nor related to my current health, I was looking last night at a service called MedCure, which arranges autopsies, uses cadavers for medical research, and cremates after they’re done, all for free. (Frequent commenter Lisa Hirsch pointed out to me in conversation that autopsies are less and less common, due in large part to budgetary concerns, and that much useful knowledge is being lost.)

I clicked on the common questions, and got to “who cannot donate,” and here it is:

Suitable donors are U.S. Citizens free of an infectious disease or condition such as Hepatitis B or C, HIV/AIDS, active tuberculosis, history of illegal drug use, incarceration or severely under or overweight at the time of death.

The infectious disease issues seem straightforward enough. I can imagine that useful knowledge could be gained from cadavers of people who had HIV, hepatitis, or active tuberculosis, but I can also imagine risks and expensive extra precautions.

History of illegal drug use? Of course, it depends on what that means. I’m very close to 60 and I would conservatively guess that at least 80% of my age cohort in this country (including me), not to mention younger people, have some kind of history of illegal drug use, maybe thirty years ago and maybe last week. I imagine that they mean “certain illegal drugs used recently” or they wouldn’t get much resource material.

History of incarceration? Well, again that’s me, if you count a half-day in a cell after a political protest some forty years ago. It’s also way more common in my age cohort and younger than it was in my mother’s generation. Other than that, I can’t make any sense of this one. Some incarceration correlates with illegal drug use, of course. Some correlates with tax fraud. Mostly, it correlates with race, ethnicity, and class: could they really be trying to get mostly white middle-class corpses and using this way of saying it? Seems unlikely, but you never know.

And then, “severely overweight or underweight at time of death.” Well, first of all, a great many people are severely underweight at time of death, because many dying people stop eating. Comparatively few are severely overweight at time of death for the same reason, but it certainly happens. What does “severely” mean? By the ridiculous BMI charts, I’m noticeably more than 100 pounds “overweight,” but I’m active and healthy and not on the medications overweight people are presumed to take (blood pressure, cholesterol, insulin/blood sugar management). If the cost of transporting my corpse is the issue, I weigh roughly as much as an average pro football player, and a good deal less than an average offensive tackle, and I’m sure that MedCure would take those bodies.

I’m writing to them to ask what their issues are with underweight, overweight, and incarcerated. I’ll let you know what they say. But in advance of hearing from them, I can make a prediction: I suspect their reasons will have a slight medical overlay, but it will be easy to see that they are kneejerk social preconceptions disguised as science.

Let’s see if I’m right.