Kickin’ the Bucket | A cadaver’s life after death

Kickin’ The Bucket is a bi-weekly blog about death, dead things and the people who work with them.

By Millicent Watt, Contributing Editor

I remember being in my high school anatomy class, dissecting a sheep’s brain and thinking, “Wow, I’m holding this sheep’s entire life and memories in the palm of my hand.”

If I had that realization while dissecting a sheep — an animal that arguably has a total of one and a half brain cells — I can’t even fathom the type of catharsis that occurs when dissecting the human body.

Jim Maksin, director of anatomical programs and Human Gift Registry at Pitt’s Office of Oversight for Anatomical Specimens, oversees the collection and distribution of more than 100 donated human bodies for the University. Maksin said those who decide to donate their bodies in the state of Pennsylvania first begin the process with HGR, and after being deemed a suitable cadaver, are sent to Maksin to be used at Pitt.

The OOAS acts as a system of “checks and balances,” according to Maksin, to ensure bodies are properly donated. When human dissection became popular in the 18th- and 19th-century, grave robbers frequently stole bodies from graveyards and sold them to medical schools with little to no consequences.

All donors are anonymously donated and de-identified, both to respect the donor’s family and any students who could possibly know and identify the donor. The donor is then given a metal tag with a number, and is identified with that number until cremation. But to give a bit of context to the donor, students are told the donor’s age, occupation and cause of death because of anatomical differences caused by such factors — for example, a coal miner’s lungs will look much different than a stay-at-home mom’s. 

Maksin — who is also a licensed funeral director — said once his office receives a body, the donor undergoes an embalming process that differs slightly from a typical funeral embalming. Whereas in a funeral embalming, the body is drained of blood for the purpose of a viewing, Maksin said Pitt’s cadavers are not drained before the embalming process, to allow for long-term preservation. While Pitt has some long-term teaching cadavers, many are typically used for up to two years.

Maksin said the embalming process includes injecting eight to thirteen gallons of embalming fluids and chemicals — such as formaldehyde, phenol and mold inhibitors to disinfect the body — into the donor’s carotid artery. The donors are then stored in Scaife Hall for six months in order to ensure the embalming process is complete.

If donors need a bit of touching up, Maksin said every three months they are checked and given the proper needed attention, such as an injection of embalming fluid in the foot —  the body part farthest away from the initial injection site at the carotid. 

Throughout my conversation with Maksin, he referred to the cadavers as “donors” as a way to humanize and respect them. Maksin also said the cadavers are referred to as the students’ “first patients” in Pitt’s anatomy labs and Health Sciences building.

“It gives the students a way to have a connection that [the donor] is not just an educational piece — we wouldn’t want them to assume that it’s an educational piece of equipment, but it is somebody whose loved one they donated to the University,” Maksin said.

Maksin also mentioned that a Pitt medical school alumnus once asked if he could see the long-term cadaver he dissected as a medical student. This specific donor has situs inversus, which resulted in all of their organs being reversed.

“A doctor who graduated a number of years ago remembered that was his dissection when he was in medical school, and he asked if we still had that for him to be able to see it and come back and relive what that donor did for him,” Maksin said. “That just kind of goes to give you a little background of the folks who are educated using cadavers and still have that thought that that really meant something to them.”

Maksin also said there is an annual Celebration of Remembrance where medical students and the donor’s families can meet, where students can give eulogies and thanks to both the donor and the families.

After their use, Maksin said families can decide if they want to receive the donor’s cremated remains or if they want the ashes to be buried with other donors in a cemetery located in McKees Rocks.

Maksin said he tells people that donating one’s body is the “greatest gift.”

“I always like to tell people that it is the greatest gift that somebody could ever give because they’re giving their body for education purposes,” Maksin said.