Every state has a process to donate your whole body to science when you die. This week I talk to Kate Serr, organizer of this program for the state of Colorado and parts of Wyoming. Why do people decide to donate their body to science? What does that mean? How do you apply for this and what kind of deaths are accepted? An important take-away from this conversation: whatever your choice for what to do with your body after you die, talk abut it with your family in advance!
Diane Hullet: Hi, I’m Diane Hullett and you’re listening to the Best Life Best Death podcast. Today I’ve got a guest that I’ve been looking to talk with for some time, and I’m so excited that we finally connected. This is Kate, sir. Hi. Hi, Diane. How are you? I’m good. And Kate is the administrative coordinator for the Colorado State Anatomical Board, and I’ve reached out to her because I’ve been wanting for some time to talk about donating your body to science.
This is something that people ask me about or they’ve filled out the paperwork to do, but I think people are curious about it as a really important and good option for end of life. Disposition of your body. So I reached out to Kate and she’s gonna tell us a little bit about all this. So, Kate, launch into this.
Tell us some about what you work for and how this works.
Kate Serr: Sure. So the Colorado State Anatomical Board is a state organization mandated by statute from 1927. It mandates that we be housed and overseen by the Dean of Medicine at the state. Medical school. The state medical school in Colorado is the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
So we are located on the Anschutz Medical Campus and overseen by Dr. John Riley, who’s the dean of medicine. So he’s our
Diane Hullet: chairman. And, and this is a huge, I mean, there’s a huge history. In terms of people coming to understand anatomy mm-hmm. They, they really had to work with real bodies in order to gain an understanding.
How did you get into this work?
Kate Serr: So I was a research assistant for an anatomy scientist, just as kind of a side in between doing things in my mid twenties, but I had more of an administrative background and once the word got out that I had that background the head of the anatomical board at the time approached me and.
You know, said, I really need someone who can be good with, you know, speaking to families at difficult times, organizing, tracking, and also can deal with the anatomy side of it. That was 21 years ago.
Diane Hullet: Wow. 21 years ago. Oh my gosh. So you really, you has, has much changed in that time or is it a pretty standard p.
Kate Serr: a pretty standard procedure as far as the donation process goes. Some things have changed along the way with, with the gross anatomy teaching, but not a lot actually. I mean, we still need donors and they still teach gross anatomy to both, you know, the medical school, dental school, physician assistant and physical therapy school, and then some undergraduate programs throughout Colorado.
We provide donors for their classes as well.
Diane Hullet: Yeah, I mean, one of the things my daughter got to do in high school was to go to a cadaver lab in a science class, and she said it was really incredible and she talked about just the power of that, of actually handling organs and kind of really having this experience of this human body in a different way.
And she found it kind of moving that she said, you know, the face, you couldn’t see the face and you couldn’t see the hands. Mm-hmm. And that those were such tender and identifying features. And I thought that was, that was really powerful. But it was interesting for her at, you know, 17, 18 years old to have this experience.
And I think nothing substitutes for it.
Kate Serr: Well, and unless you are a pathologist or surgeon, you don’t really have the opportunity to see. Inside the human body except for, you know, through scanning imaging, unless you take a, a gross anatomy course. And so it, it truly is a wonderful opportunity and the way I explain it to people that are interested in the program is, you know, at a medical school level, if it wasn’t for donors, the medical students would.
Human anatomy from a book, from a computer or from an animal. And at that level, they really need the hands-on opportunity. And also, like your daughter said, it, it. There’s an emotional side to it, and medical students need that process as well. Yeah,
Diane Hullet: I think so. I think it’s really moving. And I know on your website there’s a really moving letter from a medical student saying, you know, thank you to Yeah.
The, because without that opportunity, it would’ve been a really different experience. What, what is the, what is the history of donating bodies to science? Do you know much about that?
Kate Serr: Well I know with, with our program, it was originally set up to where unclaimed bodies in Colorado were, were automatically sent to the school of Medicine.
So it wasn’t, it wasn’t like it is today. It wasn’t a volunteer process. It was more of a way to deal with unclaimed bodies in the state and then also to benefit. Medical students, so, but there’s, I mean, there’s a long history going back all the way to medieval times of. Of gross, of gross anatomy dissection.
Diane Hullet: Yeah, for sure. I’m actually, I’ve mentioned this on podcasts before, but I’m reading this huge book series called Master and Commander, and it’s about these men who worked on ships basically and the era of ships when, you know, when the British Navy was really at its height and the seas were such a huge.
Place for trade and warfare and all of this. And one of the characters in the books is physician and he’s very interested in anatomy. So, you know, any chance he gets, he’s doing brain surgery or, you know, messing around in someone’s insides and Right. Yeah. And I, it has got me thinking about that history of how humans had to learn what was going on inside our bodies.
I mean, they just had no idea. And you think exactly how much they know now, both through. Gross anatomy classes and through imaging. It’s just a world of difference in terms of what they understand. Oh,
Kate Serr: absolutely. Yeah. It’s fascinating to go back and learn the history of it.
Diane Hullet: Yeah, I think so. How you know, how can someone become a donor?
Like how is this typically, how does this typically come to pass? No, it’s not
Kate Serr: actually a very difficult process. It, I think it’s somewhat difficult to find us more than it is to do it because we don’t solicit and we don’t advertise. It’s, you know, word of mouth or somebody that is gone through the process in their own lives through gross dissection, gross anatomy, dissection.
But just to reach out to us or our website, we have a one page consent form. That’s pretty much it. And then the determination of acceptance is what’s a little bit strange. We don’t, we accept everyone that turns in their application or turns in their, their consent form as a. A possible donor. But acceptance into the program has to be determined at the time of death because we do have to consider what the cause of death is.
It has to be a natural cause. It can’t be due to anything trauma to the body. Anything that would cause a corner to get involved into an autopsy, things like that would rule somebody out from being a donor to us. So acceptance isn’t guaranteed.
Diane Hullet: I see. So you kind of, you kind of make this plan, you sign, the papers apply, but there are some caveats about whether that will work or not.
Is it, are, are bodies that have disease accepted if you died of a kind of a, a cancer or a l s, are those kind of bodies taken?
Kate Serr: So, yes. The only medical reasons that we would deny somebody would be for infectious disease tuberculosis, h i v hepatitis, anything communicable different. C diff is one drug resistant bacterial infections.
Would it, and then right now covid, we don’t take covid patients.
Diane Hullet: Interesting. And I’m guessing this varies widely from state to state or, or are most states kind of the same?
Kate Serr: It, it varies some in the process and definitely in the paperwork. Every state’s a little different with what they require for consent.
But as far as who the acceptance process it, it, we’re all kind of on this. Same page. We talk to each other and see, you know, what, you know, what issues each program is having. And then also there’s more than one program in, in some states like ours, ours is the mandated by the state of Colorado statute, but other states aren’t.
They’re just, every medical school has its own donation program and. Every state in the United States has a medical school except for Wyoming. So Wyoming. If you are in Wyoming and you wanna donate, you can either come to our program here in Colorado or in
Diane Hullet: Utah. Every state and every medical school has some way to do this.
And in Colorado, it sounds like it’s sort of regulated through one organization, but in other states it might be individual to the school. Great. You actually, your website has a great frequently asked questions set. I mean, I thought that was a really good way to learn about the program. So I, you know, I encourage anybody who’s listening, who’s interested, you can just Google it.
I mean, I just kind of ask my phone like, how do I donate my body to science in Colorado? And you can get a lot of information right there. Yes, absolutely.
Kate Serr: I mean, there are private whole body donation programs that will pop up if you Google it in Colorado. But if you, if you ask specifically for the Colorado State Anatomical Board, you, it’s easy to find us.
Diane Hullet: What can you tell us about how bodies are used? I mean, y you know, without getting into details, but I mean, this program is really for whole body. It’s not, this is not about donating your eyes or donating an organ.
Kate Serr: Right. So it’s, it’s much different than people ask like the heart on your driver’s license.
What is that for? And that specifically is for organ and tissue donation, for transplant purposes. Our program is speci, is whole body donation specifically for the purpose of teaching human anatomy. It’s, it’s much different than donating your, your eyes or your organs for transplant
Diane Hullet: purposes. Yeah, that makes sense.
So this is very specific and specifically used in medical classes, basically. Correct. Do you, what’s the range of people that you see who are interested in this? You know, and a
Kate Serr: lot of, a lot. Well over 22 years, it’s changed. And I, I’d say 15 years ago, I was seeing mostly people who had gone to medical school, who had taught science biology, human anatomy themselves, or knew somebody that did or was encouraged through like their physician or their oncologist to, you know, seek out whole body donation.
More and more I’m seeing people. For financial purposes, for altruistic purposes, you know, for environmental purposes seek out whole body donations. So, and, and that’s good. I mean, it’s good that people are finding out about the possibility of donating
Diane Hullet: more and more. Yeah. In most bodies, I assume are preserved.
And then at the end of the time that they’re used, they’re probably cremated Yes. And returned to the family. Is that typical
Kate Serr: here in Colorado? It, it, that is correct. We keep the donor’s bodies for approximately two years. It depends on what class that they’re assigned to, you know? Start at different times of the year.
And also the length of the class varies. So we say approximately two years and then we go ahead and arrange for the cremation of the donor, and then I reach out to the family to return the ashes to ’em if they wish to have ’em. Now in, in other states that’s different. Like in California, I think most of the programs in California do not return the ashes.
So it depends on what state you’re in on. On whether the donor’s ashes are returned.
Diane Hullet: Sure. L Let’s talk a little about, like, I’m, I’m guessing that if this is something you wanna do, it’s really important to have it in your advanced directive, and it’s really important to understand that it, it’s an application, but it may not come together as you said.
And then I’m guessing it’s really important to have a conversation with your family members because, I bet there’s situations where people say they want this and the other people didn’t know that they wanted this. Does that happen? Yes, absolutely.
Kate Serr: I mean it, the best advice I can give is to let the people closest to you know that this is what your wish is.
Because without them, we’re never going to know, like, no one notifies us when you pass away. Really through the people that are going to take care of your affairs at that time. Or if you, you go into a hospital or a hospice situation where you can’t communicate your wishes, it, the people closest to you are gonna take care of that.
And so yes. They have to know. Right. Right. And they have to be okay with it.
Diane Hullet: Yes, because on your frequently asked questions page, it really says like upon your death, you have your loved ones, and it has to be, I think your executor, your power of health person really has to be the one to call the phone number and say, okay, they died and we’re ready for this.
But if they don’t make that phone call, you don’t get notified.
Kate Serr: Right. We, there’s no notification to us and we’re not going to step over anyone’s toes to, to take you. I mean, your next of kin definitely has to be okay with the, the idea of the donation and then also the timeframe is hard. A two year timeframe is, is somewhat hard for families.
So I encourage people to really talk that over with. Loved ones.
Diane Hullet: Right. Think that through. I imagine some people have some kind of a ceremony at the time, and then they do something else two years later when they get the ashes, maybe. Who knows?
Kate Serr: Yes. And, and also the school has a annual donor memorial service to honor all of the donors from the previous year.
And the students here on our campus are the ones that prepare that and put it on. So we do invite the families to participate in that as.
Diane Hullet: That’s really neat. Do a lot of people come to that?
Kate Serr: Oh, yes. Yes. And the students do a fabulous job every year. Wow. I think this year we have. About 257 families invited.
Now not all of them will be able to attend, but it will be large.
Diane Hullet: That’s really amazing. That’s really powerful. So the donor families are invited and the students who’ve been involved with the, with the, with the donated body. Donated body. Oh, yes. Yeah. Wow. What, what else, what do you think is important to understand about this option of donating your body to science?
Kate Serr: mean, it’s not something, death is not something that any of us want to think about our own death or our loved one’s death. But if it’s important to someone, then it’s definitely a conversation you have to have. Don’t don’t leave it up to your family to make that decision at the time. It’s, it’s a tough decision to make.
So have that tough conversation ahead of time. If it’s something that you. Yeah. And make, and make the arrangements ahead of
Diane Hullet: time. Yep. So make the arrangements ahead of time. Talk to your loved ones. And I also really heard you say, and, and don’t count a hundred percent on it, because depending on how you die, you may not be accepted to the program.
But, but it sounds like for the most part people are, I mean, that’s a small percentage where something happens.
Kate Serr: Yes. I, I’d say for the most part the people that sign up, Like 95% are accepted. I mean, I, I don’t know, 95% is, is accurate, but a high number, right? A high
Diane Hullet: number to pass. Well, I just, I think this is really interesting, Kate.
I know I know two people who I’ve talked to in the last couple months who said, oh yeah, I’m donating my body to science. I just did the paperwork. Or another woman said, oh, this is my family’s tradition. This is what my grandparents and parents did, and. That is so neat to think of it as a legacy gift like that that goes beyond your own immediate family and your own physical body to educate.
Kate Serr: I, and I’ve seen the legacy part of it a lot throughout the years. A husband and wife will sign up and then, you know, upon their death, their children get involved and deal with our program, and then they ask how, well, how, how can I sign up? Or, you know, it just goes down the line. My own, my own family has many people in it that have donated so,
Diane Hullet: That’s great.
That’s great. Yeah. Well, I mean, I think without this, our medical lives, our scientific lives would be less rich. Right. And with this program, there’s so much to be said for that like that extension of your life through your no longer living body.
Kate Serr: Absolutely. I mean, I, if people can have a good sense of humor about it, we can make the joke that you’re actually gonna go teach in medical school.
I mean, you really are teaching medical school. So
Diane Hullet: after we die, I’m gonna teach in medical school. I like that. Exactly.
Kate Serr: I had one lady tell me her husband always wanted to go to medical school and, and didn’t, and now he’s actually teaching it so,
Diane Hullet: I love it. I think, I think we have to have a, have a sense of humor around all this, cuz otherwise it’s just a little hard to face, you know?
There’s such good mortician humor. Oh, absolutely. Thanks Kate. I’m thrilled that we had this conversation and put this on people’s radar as a body disposition option, and I hope lots of people go and look into it.
Kate Serr: Yeah, absolutely. And we’re, you know, we’re always here to answer any questions for, you know, people that are thinking about it.
And, and it’s also something that you can rescind if you change your mind later on. That’s an easy process. We just take you out of our registry and if you’re thinking about it,
Diane Hullet: look it up, take it out of the registry, and nobody makes the phone call and it doesn’t happen. Yeah, absolutely. Did Kate, how can people find out more?
What’s the best website for Colorado?
Kate Serr: So it is, it’s through the Uni University of Colorado School of Medicine, so med school, m e d school.cu anschutz.edu/state-anatomical dashboard. Edu Perfect.
Diane Hullet: Or you can just speak to Siri. Yeah, speak
Kate Serr: to Siri and ask her to take you to the Colorado State Anatomical Board.
Awesome. And we also, we have a, a main phone number for questions and for packet requests I can give to you if you want. Sure. Our main number is 3 0 3 7 2 4 2 4 1.
Diane Hullet: I love it because I think this might be something that requires an old-fashioned phone call, right? Like you just might wanna talk to a real person and get inform.
Kate Serr: yep. A lot of people do. And we have a, I mean, you can get everything through our website, but we also have an informational packet that we can send out along with a hard copy of the consent form. So yeah, whatever you’re comfortable.
Diane Hullet: Terrific. Well, thank you so much, Kate. You’ve been listening to the Best Life Best Death podcast with Kate sir from the Colorado Anatomical Board, and I’m Diane Hullett.
You can find out more about my work at Best Life. Best death.com. Thanks so much, Kate. Thank
Kate Serr: you.