May 31, 2012

Medical students learned on the bodies, now honor the donors


Harder for students to process were the moments when they see glimpses of nail polish, feel a strand of hair, and especially, touch fingers and hands.

Mark Real, 22, became momentarily unnerved when his hand accidently slipped into a handshake with the table's cadaver, a 94-year-old woman. "It felt very familiar," he said. "I stepped back for a second. I had to compose myself."

His tablemate, Mark Mariorenzi, 24, had a similar experience when he touched her hair.

"That's when you realize that it's not an objective lab like we're used to in biochemistry," he said. "You get flooded with emotions, of your own mortality, of loss and sorrow."

Medical schools don't pay for body donations. Georgetown's medical school gets about 225 requests a year from people who want to donate. Some restrictions apply — no autopsies, no major surgeries, no bodies weighing more than 200 pounds. Also excluded are those outside a 50-mile radius from Georgetown's campus in Washington, D.C., unless the family can pay for transportation. Bodies are typically used 18 to 24 months after donation. Most donors choose to remain anonymous.

All remains are cremated. About half the families request the ashes. If the families choose, they can receive the remains after the donor Mass, as was the case last week. The others are buried at a nearby cemetery in a section reserved for Georgetown's anatomical donors.

Donors include blue-collar workers and "people of note," said Mark Zavoyna, operations manager for the donor program. Some people choose to donate because their disease was cured and they want to give back to medical science. "They know this is a game changer for students," he said.

Arnold Linn was a carpenter. The longtime Vienna, Va., resident was 76 when he died of pancreatic cancer in 2009. His wife, Nancy, a retired Defense Department budget analyst, wanted someone to learn from his disease.

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