Anatomical Gift Program alive and well received
“That family just gave us a gift we can’t buy.”
When Ramona Obrochta first learned about the Anatomical Gift Program at UB’s School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, she was so impressed with the care, respect and honor that is afforded the donated bodies, she and her husband, John, decided to participate. After speaking with Ray Dannenhoffer, director of the Office of Medical Computing and program director, she says, “I thought, I want my body to be treated like that when I die. When I saw how much he cared, I thought that’s the type of person I want with my loved ones.”
When her husband died, Ramona made one call and everything was respectfully taken care of. John’s body was used for more than a year in the service of medical education.
“That family just gave us a gift we can’t buy,” says Dannenhoffer. “People donate because the university makes it clear that we respect and honor the gift people give us, and our actions are such to demonstrate that. It’s real and the family members see it and feel it, and that makes all the difference.”
The program was started about 50 years ago by the late Harold Brody, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor and a faculty member in the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences for more than 40 years. Dannenhoffer assumed the directorship of the program in 1990.
Dannenhoffer says the program, part of the Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences, is well received in Western New York, with increasing interest in enrollment and donations. He feels there are two reasons for it: With emphasis on organ transplantation, it’s no longer such a foreign concept—not a big step from donating organs to donating your whole body. “I also think that it’s a long, well-established program that has always been run very professionally and that the experience for donors and their families are positive so that the word of mouth is positive.”
There currently are 15,000 enrolled in the UB program, with about 300 bodies donated each year. UB’s program is the largest among the four major upstate cities, including Albany, Syracuse and Rochester. Dannenhoffer, a New York City native, says that response doesn’t exist in medical schools in the New York City metropolitan area.
“I think it’s because there’s a sense of belonging to a community here that doesn’t exist down there. There’s only one medical school in town. If you need any kind of high-level care, you’re going to a university physician. There’s an identity and connection to the school of medicine among the people in this community that doesn’t exist in a bigger city,” Dannenhoffer reasons. “But it’s also because we run a good program. We go out of our way to accommodate the families to make it easy for them to do this. We do things in this program that other schools just don’t do.”
The program does not charge the donor or next of kin for services, except for those bodies that must be brought to the university from beyond a 100-mile radius. The university bears the considerable expense of this program as part of its teaching and research responsibilities.
When a donor passes away, the next of kin receives a condolence letter immediately from the program, with a paper butterfly with forget-me-not seeds embedded in it for planting. (The butterfly, a sign of rebirth, has become the program’s symbol.) A couple of weeks later, he or she receives a dual-folded picture frame with a place to insert the donor’s picture. The other side is a poem written by one of the department’s students called “The Greatest Teachers,” a tribute to the ultimate gift for learning.
Depending on the particular need at the time someone passes away, a body could be used for as short as a month to up to two years.
“A lot of what we do is traditional anatomical instruction. The students work on a cadaver, doing a thorough dissection over the course of a semester,” says Dannenhoffer. “But we do a lot more than that. There’s a fair amount of research that occurs among our faculty, developing new medical procedures and techniques and surgical implements. They have the anatomical material to use to develop that technique. We also do a fair amount of training of medical students, residents and others on the techniques of doing procedures so that they can practice and develop the skills that they need to apply to living patients in clinical practice.”
Dannenhoffer says it is his responsibility and duty to the donors to insure that their donation is maximized to the fullest. “I have to shepherd the resource so that the community gets the most benefit,” he says. “These people are not donating their bodies to the university but to the people of Western New York. They’re doing it for their families, their neighbors, their friends. We just happen to be the mechanism by which that can occur.”
The remains of all bodies are cremated after the studies are completed. Each donor has a choice of interment at no charge in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Kenmore or in the university cemetery on the grounds of the Little White Church on the North Campus. Private arrangements also can be made.
A memorial service is held outside the campus church about every 18 months, conducted by the campus ministries. At the service, 100 monarch butterflies are released at the gravesite. Those who attend receive a rose, a vase and a custom-designed “The Greatest Teachers” suncatcher as mementoes.
“Memorial services make people feel a part of things. People talk to each other and it builds a sense of community,” says Dannenhoffer.
After a recent service, the family of a donor was so moved that it made a significant anonymous donation to the program to help the education of the students.
The students are grateful for the opportunity to learn from those generous individuals who gave the ultimate gift. At the close of the anatomy course, they organize and run their own memorial programs, remembering those whom they got to know in poetry, prose and song.
The following, excerpts from “The Greatest Teachers,” written by Jeff North, Class of 2003, has come to embody the spirit of the program:
“The greatest teachers we could ever ask for
Were once among you and me.
Walking the streets, going to work,
Making a living, living a life,
Probably very rarely thinking
About all that we would learn from them.
The greatest teachers we could ever ask for
Were people we don’t even know,
But ones we know everything about.
They will forever be with us,
Still teaching and reminding us every step of the way.”
For more information about the Anatomical Gift Program or to enroll as a donor, click here.