Learning from corpses

PROVIDENCE, RI – It takes years of medical education and practice to become a doctor, but what happens when school is over? How do physicians learn to use the latest tools and surgical techniques? Rhode Island Public Radio's health care reporter Megan Hall visited a local center that offers an essential element for medical training- dead bodies.

Valere Beck knows some people think her job is gross. She remembers one day she was buying coffee when a woman asked her what she did for a living. Beck says she told her "I help people donate their bodies to science." The woman literally took two steps back.

Beck has a ready response for people like that. "I explain to people-look one, if you can still fog a mirror, if you're still breathing, you have nothing to worry about, and two, I'm not a predator. I'm not after to make people do this. We have options. It's just happens to be one," she says.

Beck works for MedCure- a national company that connects body donors with medical researchers. Last year, the for-profit business built its first east coast facility in Cumberland.

The building is in an office park on the edge of Cumberland. It looks like your typical conference center- beige carpet on the floor, a reception desk, and a few sofas for lounging. But if you walk around the corner, it looks more like a hospital.

Between two bathrooms is a set of shelves, holding medical scrubs of various sizes. The lab space is behind a wooden door marked "Warning. Authorized Personnel Only."

Inside the turquoise room are fifteen exam tables, arranged in rows. Above each one is a white adjustable light, hanging from the ceiling. Some have cameras connected to LED screens on the walls. Dr. Charles Rardin from Women and Infants Hospital taught a course on pelvic reconstructive surgery in here.

"We would have one of the professors performing their part of the surgery and the images would thenbe displayed on these large televisions so that the attendants could get detail on the monitor there and then take a few steps over to the next station and do what they just learned," he says.

Here's where the story gets a little gross. There are different ways to preserve corpses- anatomy labs usually use embalming, but that makes the skin leathery. Medcure freezes its donors. Rardin says it's the closest you can get to operating on a live patient.

"That's what makes it so valuable as a teaching tool. Is that the embalming process radically changes the way tissues behave and it really bears no resemblance to surgery. So from the point of view of the educational value, there's just simply no substitute," he says.

The use of dead bodies for medical education is not new. In the 1700s, medical schools got the bodies they needed from professional grave robbers. It is now illegal to sell corpses or body parts, so Medcure doesn't charge for the bodies it provides. Instead, it makes money on things like surgical labs and the cost of preparing, screening, and delivering the donors. Valere Beck says her company sells its services to non-profit and for-profit medical researchers.

"We're very strict on who can obtain a donor for research. Whatever we do we have to be prepared to tell that family that's what we did. So if we think a family is going to be uncomfortable with that, then we actually turn down the research project," she says.

Beck says sometimes Medcure sends escorts with its donors to make sure new researchers follow proper protocols and treat the bodies with respect. That protectiveness of Medcure's donors applied to our interview too. Beck said she couldn't take us back to the cooler where the bodies are stored. She says Medcure's business depends on donor trust. "No one is going to donate if they're not assured that respect is going to be given to their body," she says.

That philosophy has worked for the company so far- Beck says more than 50,000 people plan to donate their bodies to Medcure when they die. But that's still not enough to meet researcher's requests. At least with the facility in Cumberland, local surgeons will be closer to the source.

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View more photos of MedCure's Cumberland location here

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