Willed bodies give the gift of education

DALLAS, TX (KXAS/NBC) - Thousands of Texans have signed up to be organ donors when they die, but some people are choosing to go a step further and will their bodies to science.

Willed body programs are a different kind of post-mortem gift that helps medical students, not individuals, in ways that textbooks never could.

Anatomy professor Dr. Rustin Reeves said the University of North Texas' program is the lifeblood of its anatomy program.

"If we didn't have the bodies donated, we wouldn't have a program, so we have a lot of respect both for the families as well as those who are donating to our program," Reeves said.

Robin Belcher, the director UNT's program, said nine schools in Texas have willed body programs. Twelve programs use the donor bodies and body parts as part of their curriculum, including two chiropractic schools and one dental school.

People do not get paid to donate, and federal law prohibits the buying of bodies. But donating to a willed body program can ease the financial burden of funeral and burial costs, which can easily run upward of $10,000.

Approximately 1,500 people donate their bodies to willed body programs each year in Texas.

Belcher said donors tend to divide into two categories - those who want to save their family money and those who want to help medical science.

At UNT, donors' bodies are studied behind closed doors in a private lab facility. The school has security as well as protocols before anyone is allowed in the area.

After bodies are studied, the remains are cremated according to state law. Families typically pay to cover cremation costs, but each school has its own procedure.

The cremated remains are then either returned to the family or, at schools such as UNT, scattered on a memorial garden or placed in a mausoleum.

"We do want to thank them as well, because it is a great sacrifice they have given in order for our students to benefit from this," Reeves said.

UNT erected a special memorial on campus for donors, complete with flowers and a Magnolia tree.

"We have a respect ceremony where we invite all the families of the donors," student Josh Payne said. "We tell them how much their gifts have meant to us, how important they were to us in our education. We basically thank them for the gift they have given us, and the families are giving the gift as well."

Participation in willed body programs is simple. Donors filled out a set of forms, and anyone can change their mind at any time by simply revoking the authorization in writing.

Donor bodies are used from one month up to 10 years, depending on the program. An average body is utilized for about two years.

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