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Campus News

Families grow more comfortable with anatomical gifts

Butterfly sitting on program for memorial service for body donors

The memorial service held on June 19 concluded with the release of dozens of butterflies. Photo:

By ELLEN GOLDBAUM

Published June 26, 2014

“Anatomical donation is becoming more acceptable and people are more comfortable with it.”
Ray Dannenhoffer, director
Anatomical Gift Program

Increased social acceptance, economic considerations and the fact that more baby boomers are dying have significantly increased the number of people opting to leave their bodies to medical science.

“Anatomical donation is becoming more acceptable and people are more comfortable with it,” says Ray Dannenhoffer, associate dean for support services and director of UB’s Anatomical Gift Program. “As baby boomers grow older, there are more people of dying age, so demographics also play a role.”

More than 500 family members of people who have donated their bodies to the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences attended a recent memorial service to commemorate loved ones whose ashes were interred in a communal grave. UB holds the service every other year; other families choose to have the ashes of their loved one returned to them or buried in a service that they arrange.

The memorial service on June 19, held in Skinnersville Cemetery on the North Campus, featured testimony by UB medical students who spoke compassionately about how the anatomical gifts have informed and enhanced their medical education. “When our medical students speak, they always hit it right out of the park about their gratitude to the donors,” says Dannenhoffer.

Jo Wiederhorn, president of the Associated Medical Schools of New York, says that by holding the memorial service, “UB is clearly communicating to donors and their families how much UB faculty and students value these unique and extraordinary gifts.”

Wiederhorn notes that New York has some of the strictest rules governing anatomical donations. “Individuals and families considering such donations can be confident that they are handled with the utmost, care, sensitivity and respect.”

The increased interest at UB also is due to economic considerations, says Dannenhoffer. “There are no costs to families donating a loved one’s body to the UB medical school, so long as the body is located within 100 miles of UB,” he says. Families or estates are charged only if the distance is more than 100 miles.

Dannenhoffer adds that increased interest in anatomical donations stems, in part, from increased public awareness efforts, including identification of organ donors on driver’s licenses.

Anatomical donation programs themselves also are getting better at educating the public. “Twenty years ago, nobody talked about it,” says Dannenhoffer. “But now, medical school anatomical gift programs are doing a much better job of making it clear to the families how necessary these donations are and how much the medical students and faculty respect, honor and revere the donations.”

Programs are paying more attention to the ways they can demonstrate appreciation to donor families. UB families received mementos at the service to commemorate their loved one’s donation.

Upon enrolling in the program, UB donors also receive a pin or magnet that says “Greatest teacher,” signifying that they are helping to enhance medical education.

These factors contribute to the fact that UB now has the largest program in the state by far. “We get 500 donations a year and it’s all word of mouth. We do no advertising,” says Dannenhoffer. He notes that the next largest program in the state receives approximately half that number.

Following a UB memorial service a few years ago, an individual who learned about it made a $100,000 bequest to the Anatomical Gift Program.

“Part of the reason that UB’s program is so large is that people in Western New York are very generous,” Dannenhoffer says. “And UB picks up all expenses. Once enrolled in the program, donors know that UB will accept their donation without restrictions. Other programs may have restrictions, but we are the most flexible. We feel like we have a contract with the donors. We think it’s the right thing to do.”