Ohio’s body donation trend driven by costs, cultural shift

All of Ohio’s medical universities reported an increase in donations received through its donor programs over the years

Northeast Ohio Medical University said it has seen an increase in registered donors for its anatomical donation program. In 2010, the university received 38 donations. It received 76 last year.
Northeast Ohio Medical University said it has seen an increase in registered donors for its anatomical donation program. In 2010, the university received 38 donations. It received 76 last year.

ROOTSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – The decision to donate her body to science, rather than have a traditional funeral, didn’t come lightly to Karen Vaughn. The Howland woman said it was important to give back to the medical community, and that was something she feels strongly about.

Vaughn is just one of thousands of people who have made that decision to register as a body donor through Ohio’s medical programs. Those programs say they are seeing a rise in registered body donors, and they cite rising funeral costs and a desire to help further medical education as reasons that people chose to donate.

For Vaughn, she said it was a love of learning that propelled her to sign up several years ago. But, she says, she believes donating your body to science is more acceptable now than in the past.

“A lot of it is to do with, maybe, realizations or changes of personal religious, what used to be taboos – that you shouldn’t mess with a body after it has been deceased, or you need to be whole, or things like that – I think maybe some of that is not so important now,” she said.

Karen Vaughn, of Howland, said she decided to sign up as a registered body donor after hearing about the option through NEOMED's medical program. She was then entered into a registry and given a donor card to carry.
Karen Vaughn, of Howland, said she decided to sign up as a registered body donor after hearing about the option through NEOMED’s medical program. She was then entered into a registry and given a donor card to carry.

People who choose to register as a body donor receive a card that they can carry around to indicate they’re a donor, similar to the organ donor notation on drivers’ licenses. When they die, their cadavers are used by students to study anatomy, to test medical procedures and in some cases, for medical research.

All of Ohio’s medical universities that were surveyed reported an increase in both the donations received and registered donors throughout the years.

Companies like MedCure and Science Care, which provide organ and tissues to researchers and medical schools, also reported an increase in donations.

Melissa Ellsworth, vice president of donor services at Science Care, said she believes a change in culture has led to the increase in registered donors.

“Our culture today is less traditionally bound and knit to the community in which we were born and raised and grew up in. More people are spread across the country. It’s more practical in some ways, to go through a program like this than to have a big traditional funeral and get people from all over the country together for that,” she said. “And also, too, we’re also seeing many more non-traditional memorialization services.”

The University of Cincinnati College of Medicine received 481 donations in 2015, as opposed to 421 five years ago. Program Director Laura Garrison said that number would be much higher if the school accepted all of the applications it receives.

Donations are not accepted if the body is too large, too small or has a contagious disease. If they happen to be an organ donor as well, that takes precedence.

Garrison said the university doesn’t solicit donors, but it has enough to meet its needs.

“I always tell the potential donors and their families that they’re becoming teachers…. There’s nothing like the real thing, so it’s really needed,” she said.

That need for once-living donors is vital to Northeast Ohio Medical University (NEOMED)’s programs, said Dr. Hans Thewissen, who works as a professor of anatomy at the college.

While donations at NEOMED have increased, so too has its student population, making the need even greater.

“If you go take your car to a car mechanic, you expect that person to have seen cars before. They have to learn it somewhere. The same is true for medical students. They have to look at real bodies in order to have the best learning,” Thewissen said.

Thewissen said while most donors are motivated by the importance of advancing medical studies, others see a financial benefit.

“We do not pay anybody for their bodies, but then, they do not have the costs associated with death, such as burial and services,” he said.

All of Ohio’s medical universities that were surveyed reported an increase in both the donations received and registered donors throughout the years.

There is no cost associated with body donations, although some universities have a fee for transportation and for filing a death certificate.

NEOMED’s body donation program, as well as many of Ohio’s medical programs, hold an annual memorial service for the deceased donors, which is well-attended by both family members and students.

The Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine pays for transporting the body, as well as for the cremation. The cremains are then returned to the family or buried at the college’s cost, according to Dr. Richard Drake, director of anatomy and professor of surgery at the college.

“Obviously, it is a savings in money, and I’m sure some people are looking at that aspect of it. Some of the people that pass away want to donate not only for helping mankind, but also to help reduce the financial burden to their family,” he said.

The choice to donate to science is quite a cost-savings, especially as funeral costs continue to rise.

There has been a 28 percent increase in average funeral costs from 2004 to 2014, according to a report released by the National Funeral Directors Association. The average price for a funeral with viewing and burial is just over $7,000.

Stephen Kemp, with Haley Funeral Directors in Southfield, Michigan and board member of the National Funeral Directors Association, said while prices have increased, it is representative of rising costs that other businesses also face. He said costs for funerals vary, and financial programs are available to help families of the deceased plan a ceremony.

Kemp, who used to work in Youngstown, said there has been a move to alternative choices after death, however.

“Yes, our business model has changed somewhat in that people want a different kind of disposition, so we certainly will do that,” he said. “And yes, cremation has grown in terms of what people want to decide to do and some of that in some economic communities, such as where I am in Detroit, it is certainly sometimes an economic decision…”

Kemp added that even if someone chooses not to have a traditional burial and funeral services, funeral directors can assist family members with their options, including body donation.

Those who are interested in learning more about body donation options can contact any of Ohio’s medical schools or the companies, like MedCure and Science Care.

Ellsworth stresses making your wishes known to your family if you choose to register as a donor.

Vaughn said despite some questions from her parents, her family was generally supportive of the process.

“I just feel that the med students have so much information that they have to get into their heads until they get to the part where they start practicing medicine,” she said. “I just think that in any ways that we can help them, that I felt good about doing that.”

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