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Giving the ultimate gift: The people who donate their bodies to medical science so others can live

With some 25 people a year here leaving their remains to Queen's University for research, a poignant BBC documentary explores their motivations, writes Ivan Little

Published 05/11/2016

Denise Wilson and her husband Alan with a family photograph of Denise’s mum Jessie Morton Smith
Denise Wilson and her husband Alan with a family photograph of Denise’s mum Jessie Morton Smith
Firefighter Noel Henry is leaving his body to Queen’s
Alison Allen, QUB technician
Linda Harper and Jennifer Magowan with a picture of Jim Harper, who donated his body to Queen’s University

They say that life is the most precious gift of all. But it's death that presents a rare breed of benefactors in Northern Ireland with what might be called a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to leave the ultimate bequest for the good of future generations by donating their bodies for medical research.

Upwards of 25 people a year leave their bodies to Queen's University in Belfast, but they are in fact only "lending" them out.

For after teachers and students in the Medical Biology Centre (MBC) are finished with the cadavers, they are returned to their families for burial or cremation - sometimes up to three years after their deaths.

A new documentary on BBC One Northern Ireland is about to lift the lid, so to speak, on the rarely discussed subject of body donations - the ultimate sacrifice from people who want to play an unsung, but vital role in the education of young doctors at Queen's, where up to 1,000 students a week learn about some aspect of anatomy.

True North: Gift from Death digs down into the reasons why people donate their bodies and what happens when they die, with most of the documentary filmed in the MBC on the Lisburn Road. But for the squeamish viewer, it has to be stressed that the programme isn't Casualty or even the last series of The Fall, where graphic depictions of medical procedures were the order of the day.

The producers of the documentary linger on the faces of the students and doctors, rather on the bodies that they're examining or dissecting, treating the deceased with the same respect shown by medical teams who give all their cadavers names.

One student says: "You realise it's a human being. It's someone's mum, someone's sister, someone's daughter. We don't treat them like an object - it's like a person in front of us."

A number of people who've agreed to leave their bodies to the university are interviewed for the programme, and they really are living proof that selflessness is still alive and well across Northern Ireland.

One donor who's thinking ahead is 49-year-old firefighter Noel Henry, a father of two sons who says that his job gave him a new outlook on death and dying and showed him just how fragile life really was.

"I was thinking about what's going to happen whenever I go, and what I would like to do with my body when it's left behind," he adds. "The only thing I could think of was the last act of giving, which was to donate it to Queen's."

Noel talks of the difficult discussions he had with his family about his decision. "We have sat and talked about it at such length," he says. "What I wanted in place was so much preparation for my sons and for my wife that a lot of the work was done beforehand."

On a day out with his family, Noel tells the documentary producers that his body donation will be talked about regularly as the years go by, but he adds: "At the same time, I will talk about how much I love them (his family) and how much I care about them while I'm alive. And a part of me will always be with them whenever I die."

Noel rues the fact that many people put more preparation into their nights out or holidays than properly prepare their family for what's going to happen in the future. But he also makes light of his decision to donate his body, joking that his nose is so big that the university would be able to do a skin graft from it for a small village.

He says he also took stick from his colleagues, but once the banter calmed down one firefighter asked him for more information because he wanted to donate his body to the university, too.

Noel explains that he told QUB to hold on to his body for as long as they needed it. "Put me in whatever jar you want, and whatever's left hand back to the family," he says.

Noel adds that after his death he doesn't want undertakers putting rouge on him and people saying that he'd never looked better before "putting me in an oven and burning this very expensive bit of MDF".

Elsewhere in the documentary, relatives Jim Harper, who died aged 64, speak movingly of their heartbreak at not being able to give him a normal funeral. His wife Linda says that after she and her husband watched a TV programme about body donations, he asked her to email QUB's anatomy department. She joked to him that there was so much wrong with him, the university probably wouldn't want him. "But they did," she adds, "and I think he was happy when he got the letter saying they were going to consider taking his body."

Jim's daughter, Jennifer, says that after doctors told his family to prepare for the worst, her father gathered them all together to make his wishes clear.

"They were shocked to begin with that they wouldn't have a body to bury," she explains.

Linda tells how the family had until the following day to say their goodbyes to Jim before the university came to collect his body.

She explains that her husband believed that people couldn't be cured without doctors, and the donation was his way of letting Queen's train new doctors and a means of thanking medics for all the treatment that he had received from them.

But for Jennifer, the hardest part has been not having a grave to visit. Fighting back tears, she says visiting her grandmother's grave enabled her to deal with her death. "But I have found it tough that with dad I have nowhere to go and remember him, and I won't have that for possibly two years," she adds, but admits she wouldn't stop her mother from donating her body because "it's an amazing thing".

Surgeon Brian Wilson says students occasionally faint during their first visit to the dissection room, but once they get used to their surroundings they look forward to coming back again.

"It's a standard joke that if you're going to fall, you don't fall into the cadaver, you fall on to the floor," he says.

Another retired surgeon, Victor Loughlin, talks of the "extreme" altruism of body donors. "If we are to follow their wishes, we have to dissect it as much as we can," he says. "It may look at times brutal, but it is the way to learn."

The producers are told that while QUB staff have representative models of body parts in the anatomy learning room, there's nothing like real bodies, which are also used by dental and ear, nose and throat trainees for learning purposes.

Stephen McCullough, from Queen's, says: "It's a very generous act to donate your body, which is the one thing you can definitely say belongs to you."

Technician Alison Allen adds: "It is a gift. People that donate their bodies are very thoughtful. They thought about what they could do to help society, and that is a very honourable thing."

Alison has worked in the anatomy department for 30 years, but she says she still gets sad when she realises that a body that has arrived with her was someone she had talked to just a short time earlier.

She adds: "But life comes and goes with everyone, and it's just part of it."

Most of the MBC donors are in their 70s or 80s, although there are younger people,such as Noel.

Students also feature. First-year student Ciara says: "A scheme like this shows how death can have a life. It is going full circle. You have lived and donated your body and you are helping someone else to save life."

Many of the families whose loved ones have donated their bodies to Queen's University have memorial services for them after their deaths. But eventually the bodies are returned to their families for a funeral.

Alison says: "Whenever a body is finished with, every part of it would go back into the coffin, placed in sensitively and with discretion as well. The only difference is that it's in a dissected form. It still is a person."

At Roselawn, tearful relatives are filmed gathering for the cremation of Jessie Morton, who died aged 97.

A cleric tells them that Jessie enjoyed a rich, full life, adding: "She wanted after her death to do something for people who are in desperate need, and she bequeathed her body to medical science nine years before she died."

Jessie's granddaughter, Linda, says: "She did a good thing, but at the same time it has been hard for the family, because although when she died we had a memorial service, there was no coffin and there was no body. It has been a long 15 months waiting."

Jessie's daughter, Vivienne, explains that they respected her mother's wishes regarding her body donation because they knew doctors would give her the respect that she deserved.

"I'm very proud of the way it all went," she says.

Jessie's granddaughter, Lesley, says she would like to do what her grandmother did.

The last word on what will be his final act goes to Noel, who says that after his cremation he wants his ashes to be scattered on top of Slieve Donard, which he explains has always been a home for him, a place of calm and serenity in the Mourne Mountains.

"Whenever I am scattered there, I can live with that," he adds. "I can live with dying."

  • True North: Gift from Death, BBC One Northern Ireland, Monday, 10.45pm

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