Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Final Gift: My Body For Medical Science -- and Humanity.

When Dianne M. Person, Administrator of the Anatomical Gift Program at the UMass Medical School in Worcester, Mass., shown here, speaks of her donors and their families, sometimes her eyes moist up and her voice breaks.

Her donors are people who make a “final gift” ... donating their bodies after death to the UMass Medical School to help future doctors learn the human body close up. Ms. Person is nothing if not appreciative and protective of these donors. And that is fine with me, since I am one of them.

Way back in 2,000, when Ms.Person had been on the job for only five months, and after discussing it with my wife Barbara, I trooped down to the UMass Medical School and signed up to be a donor. I had Barbara's full support.

When I die, she will place a call to Dianne Person, who will set in motion and oversee the pickup of my body and tend to Barbara's emotions. She will walk hand in hand with her through the Anatomical Gift Program. And the body of the late George Francis Pollock III will become available for anatomical studies for from one to two years.

But that will be then. Now, still alive and kicking, I recently met with Ms. Person one morning at the Medical School to talk about the Anatomical Gift Program. I wanted more of an idea of what was ahead for my precious bod. Excuse me while I give it a little kiss on the shoulder.

Ms. Person greeted me with a warm smile at the ground-floor canteen of the UMass Medical School and immediately offered to buy me breakfast. I settled for black coffee and so did she. “Great,” she said, “we can sit right down with our coffee and talk.” An hour and a half later, our coffees were cold and largely untouched.

Almost the first thing she said was that I would not be able to go into the anatomy lab. “I'm sorry,” she said, “but there are donors there and we have to be respectful of them.”

“I understand completely,” I said.

The anatomy lab -- that is the mysterious place in the basement behind forbidding black doors with the sign saying “Absolutely No Admittance.” First-year medical students pass through these doors the first time scared and unsure of how they are going to feel dissecting a human body.

This is the realm of Dianne Person's partner of five years, Mike Doyle, shown here with Dianne. While she takes care of donors and their families, Mike is the manager of the anatomy lab and works with medical students, residents, and physicians. As partners, Dianne and Mike are a matched pair. They like and respect each other, as I saw firsthand.

I wasn't looking forward to meeting Mike. He's an embalmer, after all. He works with dead bodies. He spends most working hours in the dreaded, secretive, public-not-allowed chamber where medical students dissect human bodies. I expected him to be suspicious, slightly weird, maybe a little ghoulish, and certainly close-mouthed. And I thought: This guy is never going to allow me to take his picture.

Instead, what I find is a genuinely nice young guy, only 36, who is friendly, laughs at my jokes, and is easy to talk with. He is the proud father of three adorable little girls, the youngest of which is eight months old. He shows off photos of them. There is nothing weird about him.

As for my taking his picture, the photo of a smiling Mike speaks for itself. He seems to enjoy having his picture taken. Far from being close-mouthed, he is quite happy to talk about his work. What gives him the most satisfaction is helping people. Mike, I had you all wrong. I apologize to you and all embalmers.

Mike is just as passionate as Dianne -- we're now on a first-name basis -- about protecting the dignity and privacy of donors. Once donors arrive at his anatomy lab, they become “patients,” following the example of Dr. Sandy C. Marks, founder of the Anatomical Gift Program. For the first-year medical students introduced to a cadaver for the first time, it is their “first patient.”

Mike tells the future doctors that these patients deserve the best possible treatment. How they treat this first patient is a good predictor of how they will treat patients later when they are doctors, Mike says.

I never intended to ask to go into the anatomy lab. The truth is, I have no desire to do so. I don't think I belong in there, at least not yet. I think the patients there have a right to not be stared at by a stranger with a notebook and a camera slung over his shoulder.

As for taking a picture of them, not that Dianne or Mike would ever allow it, I could never do it. It feels so good knowing that when I am in the anatomy lab, my body won't be an object of curiosity for sightseers.

In describing myself here as a donor, however, I make a presumption I have no right to make. I have no assurance that I will be accepted as a donor. Dianne offhandedly refers to me as a “potential donor.” What she is saying is that I may be accepted as a donor if my body is found to be suitable.

It could be disqualified by infectious disease, such as AIDS, TB, MRSA, and Hepatitis which would put medical students at risk. A morbidly obese body may be declined as too difficult for medical students to work with. Extensive trauma at the time of death and advanced decomposition may also render a body unsuitable.

One of Dianne's most painful duties is telling a family that its deceased loved one cannot be accepted as a donor. She is acutely sensitive to the fact that she must deliver this news to people already devastated by losing a family member.

As she says this, her voice falters and her eyes well up. She pauses to regain her composure. Dabbing her eyes, she said, “Sorry, you see that I get emotional about this.”

“Yes, I see.”

The story continues in "I Cadaver," an Amazon E-Book by George Pollock. Click on its link below.

E-Books by George Pollock

"State Kid: Hero of Literacy" is fiction based on his  real-life experiences  growing up in foster homes; "Last Laughs," is the true story of how five foster kids (he and four younger siblings) found their way in life and each other. "Killers: Surprises in a Maximum Security Prison," is the story of the author being locked up for 23 hours with killers in a maximum security prison;  "I, Cadaver" is about the author's postmortem adventures and mischief in the anatomy lab at UMass Medical School. “A Beautiful Story” demonstrates the art and process of creative writing as a 16-year-old boy goes all out to write a story good enough to get him into an exclusive college -- on full scholarship; and "A Long, Happy, Healthy Life," which is about how to live the title every single day.