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Students form bond with family of a cadaver donor
GARY, IND. (AP) - Dot Purcell always knew she would donate her body to science. Even when young, the mother of 11, a doctor’s daughter, would say, “there’s something good in here” that might help others.
That death talk made her doting husband squeamish, and Jim Purcell tried to talk her out of it, saying, as they aged, that her body would be too old to be useful. He didn’t want to contemplate losing his beautiful, fun-loving wife, who cherished life but accepted death. But when the moment came, after 64 blissful years of marriage, and her wish was carried out, neither of them could have imagined just how much Dot’s decision would help, and heal.
Every year, thousands of people donate their bodies to science, becoming an essential part of hands-on medical training. Their gift allows students to study human anatomy and the effects of age, trauma and illness in close-up detail.
Yet, despite this intimacy, usual protocol calls for some distance. Donors are anonymous, and while many U.S. schools hold memorial services to honor them, details of what goes on in the dissection lab just aren’t talked about much, certainly not with the surviving family members. It’s all too awkward, too indelicate, too personal.
At the tiny medical school, a vibrant oasis in Gary, an otherwise decaying steel town, medical students are told the donors’ names, given their medical records, and encouraged to get to know their families. These cadavers are the students’ first patients, with lives worth knowing, not just for humanistic reasons, but to help students better understand the bodies they dissect.
Ernest Talarico, assistant director of medical education at IU Northwest, is the brains behind the idea. When he was in school, students often gave the unidentified cadavers crude nicknames. “Salty” was the moniker given a cadaver whom Talarico helped dissect _ because the man had a nude woman tattoo on his chest.
“I found that disrespectful because they had a name and a life, and we should respect that as part of the tremendous gift they give to us,” Talarico said.
So last October, a year after Dot’s death, Purcell got a letter from Talarico. Dot’s body, donated to the state anatomical gift association, had been sent to the Gary school, just 10 miles from the family’s home in Munster, and they were invited to meet with the four first-year medical students who would be working on her.
“I was not that eager to meet them,” Purcell said. At 90, the retired public relations executive is still grieving for the woman who ran their busy household and made him feel whole.
Dot had been mostly healthy until she was diagnosed in early 2008 with an extremely rare type of melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer.
“It was devastating to me and to everyone in the family,” Purcell said with a deep, heavy sigh, “because it just came on suddenly, and then she was gone.”
More receptive to the idea of meeting the students was his son, Mike, ninth out of the 11 kids and more like Dot _ an outgoing, glass-half-full kind of guy. He gently tried to convince his dad that it might be a good idea.
“The more my dad and I thought about it, we were like, you know what, she’s come home. This is great,” said Mike Purcell, 46.
By Mangosuthu Buthelezi
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