Spokane Journal of Business

WSU willed-body program ensures bodies for health studies

School hopes to gain more through end-of-life plans

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-—Washington State University
The WSU Willed Body Program has moved to the Spokane campus from Pullman.
-—Washington State University
David Conley, inset, says the program needs to double its donations for when the new medical school opens.

As Washington State University ramps up to open a medical school in Spokane in fall 2017, school leaders are getting the word out now about a program crucial to its anatomy lab studies.

The Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine is expected to have 60 medical students next year, assuming final accreditation approval, on the WSU Spokane campus. Under those preparations, leaders are increasing community awareness about the WSU Willed Body Program, a way for people to pledge donations of their bodies after death for students’ studies of the human anatomy.

With such a large group of students studying medicine at WSU Spokane, the number of body donations through on-file agreements needs to increase significantly in 2016 and into the future, says David Conley, the program’s Spokane-based director.

“We’re trying to make people aware that with the medical school coming about, we are here and our need is greater than ever,” Conley says. “We want to make sure people know it exists.”

Currently, the WSU Willed Body Program receives about 20 cadavers a year for student anatomy studies.  

“We feel we need to double the number of donations to meet the needs of our medical school in Spokane,” Conley says.

It’s often people above age 50 who fill out forms for the program, although some are younger, says John Lagerquist, WSU Willed Body Program manager. The forms and information can be found online at medicine.wsu.edu/willed-body-program. People who contact the program include some who are making end-of-life plans and updating their legal paperwork.

“Most of the forms that come in are from people generally from their mid-50s and older, up into their 90s,” Lagerquist says. “Our donors have been younger, some as young as their late 30s, and some are over 100.”  

Conley describes people’s decision to register with the program as a generous gift equivalent to a financial scholarship, because donating bodies to science directly impacts the knowledge of multiple future physicians and other health professionals.

Anatomy studies from real human bodies are considered foundational for understanding body structure, function, and disease. It teaches about how muscles, organs, and body functions work.

Conley adds, “Instead of a monetary donation, they’re giving their bodies. Many students learn from their donations, and what they learn, they pass on to their patients and future doctors. It’s a perpetual gift, a really unique way of giving to a university. We don’t want medical students learning from models or computer programs. We want students to learn from a real human body.”

That knowledge gained and visual understanding can’t be replicated by computer or plastic models, he adds.

“You learn about relationships of structures,” Conley says. “You learn about layering of the body, and not only about normal body structure and function, but you also learn about pathologies, like diseases and variations from person to person.”

He adds, “Students learn about other important things besides anatomy; they’re exposed to death and dying. They’ll have to deal with that as physicians. It’s about professionalism and learning about mortality and humanity.”

The WSU program began in 1972. In the past, it was housed primarily on the Pullman campus. However, with development of the medical school in Spokane, the program now will be located on the WSU Health Sciences Campus here, Conley says. 

Anatomy studies on a body are usually completed in one to four years. After that time, the next of kin are notified, and the body is cremated. The program pays for cremation, and all bodies are cremated individually. 

Families have two options for final disposition arrangements. One includes burial of cremated remains in the Medical Sciences Memorial Plot at Greenwood Cemetery, in Palouse, Wash. Under the second option, families can request return of the cremated remains to the residence of the legal next of kin.

As part of other preparations for the medical school in Spokane, WSU has hired more than 40 local physicians as instructors, along with support employees. WSU’s relatively new state-of-the-art anatomy lab in Spokane is already in use by University of Washington medical students and by health sciences students from WSU and Eastern Washington University. 

Hundreds of students each year study in WSU’s anatomy lab, representing a broad range of health fields, including first-year medical students, pre-medical, pre-dental, pre-physical therapy, pharmacy, nursing, and nutrition students. 

Lagerquist adds that health care professionals often register with the willed body program because they understand the need for medical students’ anatomy studies. Other people who hear about the program for the first time are often enthusiastic, he says. 

“They think it’s a great program,” Lagerquist adds. “Some people find out through physicians, hospice, the hospital or friends and family who did it. People in the health care profession, they’re aware of it because they went to a human anatomy lab. They’re aware of the need.”

Lagerquist says that with the donations, bodies are in use for WSU student studies in Pullman also. “We also loan out to other institutions. Most don’t have a willed body donation program.”

University of Washington medical students are using the WSU Spokane anatomy lab because one doesn’t exist on the Gonzaga University campus, where UW and GU have partnered in Spokane for medical school training. UW medical students are part of a five-state, community-based program called WWAMI, for Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho, and UW-WWAMI classes are now held at GU.

UW had taught medical classes in Spokane previously at the Spokane campus, located just east of downtown, but forged the partnership with GU after former WWAMI partner WSU decided in the fall of 2014 to pursue an independent medical school. However, UW is interested in extending its contract to use the WSU Spokane anatomy lab, according to Lagerquist. He says UW-WWAMI separately brings in cadavers for anatomy studies.  

“The needing of more body donations is really for WSU and its medical program,” Lagerquist says.

He echoes Conley’s comments that any anatomy-learning alternatives are limited.

“If you don’t have a human body to learn about the body structure, the other options are from computer model or plasticized model,” he says. “Nothing can surpass learning anatomy from a real human body. Anything else is a step backward.”

“I wouldn’t want anyone to do surgery on me who learned on a computer model,” Lagerquist adds. “To be able to teach the future generation of health care professionals about the human body from the natural human body is so critical.”

According to WSU Willed Body Program instructions, potential donors need to consider certain factors. Anyone 18 years of age or older who is competent to make end-of-life decisions can enroll in the program. Because it’s necessary to obtain the body as soon as possible after death, it precludes a funeral service with the body present. Families often arrange a memorial service.

If the donations of organs occur after death, other than corneas, a body can’t be donated to the school’s anatomy studies because WSU has a whole body donation program. 

Someone with a power of attorney authority also can donate a body, Lagerquist says. 

Treva Lind
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