Cadaver surge timed with the seasons

16:00, Mar 15 2014
Wendy Hawkins
WENDY HAWKINS: Wanted to help educate fellow health professionals, even in death.

The end of winter is the season for lambs, daffodils, and . . . signing up to leave your body to science.

It's an unexplained phenomenon, perhaps not the most pressing of our time, but research by Otago University anatomy professor Jon Cornwall shows registrations for people donating their bodies to science inexplicably doubles in the month of August.

Figures from our two body-dissecting universities, Otago and Auckland, show there were 1320 corpses donated as dissection aides from 2000 to 2010 - an average of 110 per month. For some reason, August had double the average with 217 donations.

Study author Jon Cornwall said there was no data from other countries so he had looked at other research on seasonal patterns of behaviour. Suicide rates were also highest at the start of spring indicating "not only mood alterations but the performance of drastic decisions that involve significant or extreme behaviour".

Cornwall agreed with Otago University bequest administrator Kathryn McClea who said most people who donated their bodies were elderly and winter may have given them thoughts about their mortality.

"The majority of people who want to donate their body have gone through many medical procedures and have that mind-set of ‘how can I give back'," McClea said.


Cornwall's previous research showed that the typical body donor was a European man or woman with a long-term partner, siblings, not particularly religious, politically centrist and probably working in a mid-range clerical, trade, service or education fields.

"It is interesting to note that several studies have suggested that medical students, medical doctors, and anatomists are particularly reluctant to become body donors," he wrote.

Real dissection was necessary and many medical schools overseas which had abandoned the practice in favour of virtual dissections had now returned to a body programme, Cornwall said.

"Almost nothing is like you'd find it in a book," Cornwall said. "When you see something in a book it's all nice and clean."

In reality, it was very difficult to identify structures as "everything is bound in together".

Bodies can only be accepted in Auckland, Dunedin, Christchurch, Nelson and Invercargill as the person must be near a specialist embalmer who can quickly preserve the body after death.

Both medical schools accept about 50 bodies a year, which meets Otago's needs though Auckland has capacity for about 80.

Those interested must register first, which includes basic screening. Donors cannot suffer certain medical conditions, such as Hepatitis B and C, tuberculosis, HIV and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and must weigh less than 90kg.

McClea said the weight restriction was a health and safety issue for those who had to move the bodies around, particularly as embalming added 5kg to 10kg.

A donor signs a consent form, along with a next-of-kin, but after death close relatives can veto body donation.

Embalming is done within 24 hours of death, which means families are unable to have the body at a funeral service.

They also did not get to see them after embalming because the process was very different to normal embalming and changes their appearance.

"It would be quite upsetting for families. We don't do cosmetic embalming," McClea said.

Typically, bodies were kept for about 18 months as students worked on different structures of the body.

All material was kept together for cremation afterwards.

The ashes could be returned to families but if not, they are on the rose garden at Andersons Bay Cemetery in Dunedin or in a memorial plot at Mangere Lawn Cemetery in Auckland.


She dedicated her life to helping others. In death, Wendy Hawkins kept doing just that.

When she lost her five-year battle against cancer in January, aged 49, her family and close friends knew she planned to bequeath her body to science.

"I think she just wanted to keep on giving," says her partner, Brian Coumbe. "She didn't want her body to go to waste or be buried anywhere. We're both more practical than sentimental about things."

She hoped her body would help to teach medical students and other health professionals about human anatomy.

Her decision meant she had to die in Christchurch rather than on the West Coast, where she and Coumbe lived.

Special embalming is required for donated bodies. In the South Island, that can only be done in Nelson, Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill.

"We even had arranged a friend's house that she was going to die in but we didn't quite get there as it turned out."

She also had to enrol with a Christchurch doctor, who would later certify death.

Prior to her death, the couple visited the Christchurch funeral director to arrange her body donation.

"That was quite hard because everything was just a confirmation that you were giving up and you were going to die," the 55-year-old tour guide says.

About five years ago, a story on National Radio led Hawkins to discover her breast cancer.

"It said as well as lumps, you're looking for depressions. She found a depression in her breast and went over to get it checked and it turned out to be a big tumour," Coumbe says.

A mastectomy followed but she decided against chemotherapy because of its risks.

Unfortunately, her cancer's progress was relentless and many hospitalisations for treatment or care followed.

Several years ago, it became clear it was terminal.

Even on her sick bed, she kept teaching staff while they treated her.

"One of the things that came out after she died was when Wendy would be sick and had to have treatment, she would be still tutoring people. One nurse said she didn't want to nurse Wendy because it was like nursing Florence Nightingale," Coumbe says.

She also kept developing her own career, working for a while as a rural nurse in Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier, a role she loved but was forced to stop when spinal cancer made it too difficult.

Hawkins worked until five months before she died but stayed on the hospital's books as a casual consultant.

"She feared not being allowed to work. She never did quit. That was her passion, nursing. She was a people person and it was something that she was good at."

Last August, the couple received the devastating news that no further treatment was possible.

‘That was the hardest thing. That was really the line in the sand. After that, it was just waiting. Back then, she knew she had lost the fight and there was a lot of anguish about that. She cried for about three days."

Their focus turned to ticking off her bucket list, visiting places such as Denniston Plateau, near Westport, and gliding in Omarama.

In her final year, they bought a campervan and took frequent trips away, joined by their 13-year-old "fur children", two miniature fox terriers Al and Nocte.

She died surrounded by close friends and family. Coumbe says it was no problem that her body was not at her funeral because of the embalming process. However, he has requested her ashes are sent to him once the medical school is finished with her body in about 18 months.

While he admits he is struggling without his partner, he gains comfort knowing she is continuing to educate fellow health professionals in death. "I think it's a story she would like to have told. People were very accepting of it and were very proud of her. Me too."

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