Thinking About Donating Your Body to Science? Here's the Scoop

Caregiver, patient expert

Many people sign a form to have body tissue or organs donated to others after their death. They often have this information recorded on their driver’s license to expedite procedures necessary in case of an accident. But far fewer choose to donate their whole body for scientific research — despite the fact that this type of donation is vital to help train new doctors, as well as to develop cures for diseases.

While curious about body donation, a significant number of people remain squeamish about the idea of actually following through. I admit to being in this segment of the population, so when I had the opportunity to interview Katrina Hernandez of Science Care for HealthCentral, I enthusiastically accepted.

According to the Science Care website, the company serves the U.S. and global medical research and development communities with donation centers across the United States (Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver, Miami, Chicago, Philadelphia) as well as through a nationwide network of partner lab facilities. Science Care was founded in 2000, and has a long history of linking whole body donors with medical researchers and educators. They actively lobby for responsible non-transplant tissue banking.

Following is an email interview between HealthCentral and Katrina Hernandez, Science Care's Director of Donor Service.

Hernandez told HealthCentral that "at the core of everything we do is our mission to serve and honor the gift of tissue donation. We create mutually rewarding relationships with donors, clients, and employees through respect, ownership, and amazing service. Our primary goal is to link those who wish to donate their body to science with some of the most prestigious medical programs, improving the future for all.”

HealthCentral: Many people are intrigued about body donation but feel that since they have cancer or another disease, their body isn’t useful. Who qualifies as a body donor?

Katrina Hernandez: Most all qualify for donation, including those with illnesses or disease such as cancer, heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes. There is no upper age limit, but you must be at least 18 years of age to participate. Most common disqualifiers for donation are contagious disease (Hepatitis B & C, HIV/Aids), and extreme obesity. Science Care is proud to say we have a 90 percent acceptance rate!

HC: I feel good about some organs being used for research and squeamish about others. Can I specify the research I donate to?

KH: We do not perform directed donation as we cannot guarantee suitability or researcher need for specific projects at an individual’s time of passing. Our mission is to honor the intent of donation by placing each donor with as many medical or scientific research and training programs as possible. On average, each donor through Science Care is able to participate in six different programs.

HC: How will my body be used?

KH: Just a few examples of the impact your donation can make in advancing medicine are:

  • Developing new, less invasive surgical techniques
  • Learning how to reduce recovery times and improve patient outcomes
  • Medical device development so people can regain mobility
  • Hearing device advances (think of cochlear implants -- a child being able to hear Mom’s voice for the first time)
  • Pharmaceuticals, which aid in the treatment of disease and cancer

HC: Will it cost me anything to donate my body?

KH: No, there is no cost. Science Care takes care of the transportation, filing of the death certificate and permits, cremation and the return of cremated remains within three to five weeks to your family or to the location of their choosing within the U.S.

HC: What is the difference between saying that I’m an organ donor on my driver’s license and going through a process with Science Care?

KH: There are a couple key differences between organ donation and body donation. The main key difference is Science Care is a non-transplant tissue bank. This means we do not take living organs and tissue and transplant it into another live human body. Also with body donation, age and cancer are not a factor so you will find the acceptance rate to be much higher than with tissue donation.

HC: What if I am also an organ donor and want to keep that status?

KH: Typically, organ donors can also be whole body donors through Science Care's program. You will need to register separately through each program and let your family know that you want to donate organs first, and your body second. We work with the local organ transplant organization to ensure both types of donation are possible. In fact, organ donation stands on the shoulders of body donation. Without body donors, physicians would not know how to successfully transplant organs. It is the true circle of donation!

HC: I’ve considered body donation but haven’t taken the steps. How do I get started?

KH: You can join our registry by visiting our website, or by calling (800) 417-3747. Registration is not required but it is a great way to express your wish to donate. If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with a terminal illness or has gone under hospice care, we do have our HOPE Program®. Science Care’s HOPE Program is a no-cost pre-screening program that allows patients, families, and healthcare providers to know with certainty if a donor meets current research criteria before the time of passing. This gives your family peace of mind when it’s needed most.

HC: I’ve thought this through and talked with my family, but what if I change my mind?

KH: Registration is a way to express your desire and intent to donate. It is in no way a contractual agreement and can be changed at any time. Science Care only gets involved after passing once we are engaged by a next of kin. It is very important to make your wishes known to everyone around you as they will be the ones to make the call at the time of passing. That is whether it is to a funeral home to arrange a burial, a cremation, or donation.

HC: Do you help families through any emotional challenges that they may face when making this decision?

KH: Yes, every day. Donation is a very personal decision. There are many influencers surrounding the decision adding more complexity. This may be complicated family dynamics, lack of support, or an overwhelming amount of grief. As you know, the passing of a loved one raises many emotions and having to make the final arrangements adds increased stress and anxiety. We help families by first educating on all of the end-of-life arrangements, offering any resources, and most importantly, lending a helping hand and ear when they need it most. Our assistance extends well past donation on almost every call.

HC: Your work is certainly non-traditional. Do you enjoy what you do?

KH: Imagine a career where you have the opportunity to advocate for what you strongly believe in and have the ability to improve, in some cases, transform grief for those in need. I am living my purpose!

HC: Thanks for this enlightening information. I know that I learned a great deal and feel less squeamish about body donation. I hope that many readers can say the same.

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