LEBANON — The underlying philosophy at Western University COMP-Northwest is that medicine is a hands-on discipline.

That attitude is ingrained in the future doctors starting their first day of classes.

It’s especially true when it comes to studying anatomy. But to accomplish that goal, there must be bodies to explore.

That’s where Steve Carmichael, director of the college’s Willed Body Program, comes in.

For the last three months, Carmichael, a licensed embalmer and funeral director, has worked with mid-valley families whose loved ones want to donate their body to science.

Carmichael, 60, comes to the position after five years with the Oregon Health & Science University program and 30 years in the funeral industry.

“When I started at OHSU, we received about 130 donations per year. It’s about 215 today,” Carmichael said.

COMP-Northwest has started its second year of anatomy classes, with donor bodies coming from its Pomona, Calif., campus.

But Carmichael said next fall’s incoming class members will work with donors from Oregon and southwest Washington.

“We would like to have 30 donors and we have 17 so far,” Carmichael said. “I’m confident we will meet our goal. We have only been up and running since September.”

Carmichael said the need for donors extends beyond medical schools. Universities including Oregon State, the University of Oregon and Willamette University need donors for their anatomy programs.

Donor bodies can be accepted at any time during the year, Carmichael said.

A funeral service can be held before the body is obtained by the university, he added.

He embalms and specially prepares the bodies that are then refrigerated — not frozen — on-site. The donor body will not deteriorate because the chemicals Carmichael uses to embalm it eliminate bacteria.

At the end of the school year, COMP-Northwest will pay to have the donor body cremated and either return the cremains to the family or scatter them at sea.

COMP-Northwest anatomy students work all academic year in teams that are assigned a donor body, said Dr. Brion Benninger, vice chair of the anatomy department. They do not know the person’s real name, but Benninger said the students become so attached to their donor body they usually name it.

“We are unique in that our anatomy lab is set up and runs much like a hospital surgery suite. It adds a tone of respect,” Benninger said. “Our donors are covered at all times with green sheets. We do not wrap them in plastic. We only uncover the area of the body that is being studied, just as it would occur in surgery.”

Benninger said donating one’s body to science is “the last and final gift.”

“It’s an amazing gift,” Benninger said. “It’s a huge decision and commitment. But it’s also a tremendous opportunity to train doctors who will affect the local community for decades to come. We tell our students, even those who come to us with previous medical experience, this is their first patient. It’s the first time they will work with someone for months.”

Benninger said having donors come from the same region as the students studying them can also lead to medical breakthroughs.

“The donors are an indigenous population,” Benninger said. “It’s possible that the students will find there is a higher incidence of a condition by noticing something among several donors. That’s not possible when the donors are intermingled from other areas.”

How to participate

Participants in the Body Donation Program must be adults, whose application is signed by two witnesses.  

There is a weight limit of 235 pounds for men and 210 pounds for women.

The university can refuse a donor’s remains due to the diagnosis of Creutzfelt-Jacobs disease, hepatitis, HIV, tuberculosis, jaundice, amputation, extensive burns, trauma or surgery four weeks prior to death.

To learn more, contact Steve Carmichael, Western University of Health Sciences Body Donation Program, 200 Mullins Drive, Lebanon, OR 97355. Call 541-259-0256.

Alex Paul is the Linn County reporter for the Democrat-Herald. He can be contacted at 541-812-6114 or alex.paul@lee.net.

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