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Final gift

The body donor program at OU’s medical college provides essential medical education

By Anita Martin

June 18, 2009 

The practical study of human anatomy has been a historically touchy subject. Even as Renaissance anatomists debunked countless myths about the body, they faced stigma for the dissections that revolutionized medicine.

But Kim Resanovich, a local registered nurse who has arranged to donate her body to OU-COM, discusses her decision unabashedly, even enthusiastically. 

“My husband, Dan, a physician assistant, and I have always wanted to donate our bodies to science,” said Resanovich, who assists OU-COM’s Community Health Programs and teaches nursing at Hocking College. “We know how crucial anatomy is in medical education.” 

Resonavich compared it to another of her passions, teaching piano. “I could draw you a diagram of a keyboard, teach you to read music and how the notes correspond. But you’re not going to hear the music or feel the ivories.”

In short, she says, you wouldn’t perform very well.

Nora Burns, OMS IV, agreed. “We could read text books all day, but we need the real thing to fully understand how everything interconnects.”  

Donald Kincaid, director of OU-COM’s Body Donor Program, said that he and the college anatomy professors emphasize respect and gratitude in the lab. This culminates at the end of each school year with a donor memorial service, in which OU-COM students, physical therapy students, and the families and friends of donors meet to affirm the lives of those who have given their bodies. 

The multi-denominational service allows donors’ families and friends to meet students who benefit from their loved one’s decision, and to connect with others experiencing similar losses.  

This year’s service, held June 4, was standing-room only, with more than 300 attendees packed into the softly lit Baker University Center Ballroom, decked with colorful floral bouquets.

Resonavich played the piano, and local clergy spoke, including Rev. Jeff Bartlett, of the First Christian Church; Fr. Martin J. Holler, of Christ the King University Parish; and Rabbi Danielle Leshaw of the Hillel at Ohio University.  

Other speakers included OU-COM Dean Jack Brose, D.O.; Chad Keller, OMS III, Ohio physical therapy student, Stephen P. Kramer. 

“I am honored to stand in front of you and say thank you,” Keller said. He referred to the donors as “first patients” for him and fellow medical students and emphasized the generosity and educational importance of the gifts.

“Because of their donation and your support, we medical students are able to look beyond ‘skin deep,’ to fully realize the beauty of what a person is made of,” he said: “lungs that breathe air into life and science, a brain that understands the value of education, muscles that guide each person through life and a heart that gives generously – that has given the gift of knowledge.”

Lawrence M. Witmer, Ph.D., professor of biomedical sciences and director of the OU-COM anatomy lab, says that students benefit from honoring the lives of the individuals who taught them so much.  

“Few things in the human experience are as profound as death and dying,” Witmer said. “We want our students to be incredible clinicians, but also to understand the human, emotional side. This memorial service and the respect with which we approach anatomy help them gain the empathy that separates a good clinician from a great doctor.”

OU-COM’s anatomy program differs from most other medical schools’ in both its clinically integrated approach and the month-long intensive course that begins it. “When students first arrive and learn about the musculoskeletal system, they spend at least three hours a day in the anatomy lab, supplemented with labs where students identify the muscles and bones on one another,” Witmer said.

During the rest of their first year, students often return to the anatomy lab, which is woven into the rest of the curriculum.

“When students dissect the cardiovascular system, they’re attending lectures and working on case studies about heart and respiratory diseases,” said Audrone Biknevicius, Ph.D., chair of the OU-COM Department of Biomedical Studies. “Most other schools teach anatomy separately, devoid of clinical relevance, and expect students to make connections on their own.”

This tactic helps students apply anatomy training directly to patient treatment, a powerful legacy for those who give their bodies. “A donor who died of congestive heart failure will train future doctors to save lives of people with that disease,” Witmer said.

Burns has noticed how her anatomy training helps in the clinic. “Every time I do a physical exam, I’m visualizing the anatomy of my donor,” she said.

It’s a universal among physicians, according to Witmer. “For the rest of their careers, they will remember their donors while looking at x-rays, CT scans, charts and data – at representations of what they encounter firsthand in the lab. Anatomy training is their ultimate resource. That brings a very deep sense of gratitude.”

OU-COM currently receives about 90 body donations each year. If the donor is pre-registered with OU-COM’s donor body program and the donation goes through, the college pays expenses related to transportation and cremation of the body.

The college also has one of the very few body donor programs that allow viewings and open-casket funerals before donation. “Our donors are all from Ohio,” Kincaid said, with many from the Athens area. “We are adaptable to our community to give people the closure they need while honoring the wishes of their loved ones.”

The body donor program contract is revocable at any time, Kincaid said. “Sometimes a person signs up and doesn’t tell anyone. If there are misgivings, we let the family work it out. We certainly don’t want to cause additional strife. 

To prevent that scenario, Kincaid suggests that anyone interested in the body donor program inform family members and encourage open discussion.  

“Some good conversations come out of this,” Resonavich said of her decision. “As an educator and a person of medicine, I know how important this is – how it is incredible to be able to go on teaching through a gift like this.”

To learn more about the OU-COM Body Donor Program, contact Donald Kincaid at (740) 593-2171 or kincaid@ohio.edu.

 
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