Still working to be part of the solution

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By Jenna McKenna

Last July, the Cedar Key Beacon's then-editor Jenna McKenna's mom passed away. She had donated her body to science. Here are some thoughts on that donation in a column that ran a week after her death.

While her family and friends were celebrating her life and mourning her death last week, Mom was nowhere nearby.

She was on her way (back) to college. Sometime around her third cancer surgery, Mom and her husband decided to will their bodies to science.

For our purposes, this mainly meant we wouldn't have her on hand for the funeral. For her, a seasoned world traveler, it meant a new adventure starting where the old one left off. Universities, laboratories and lots of other training and research facilities need human tissue and bodies. You can't be any kind of doctor without knowing how a body works. Emergency personnel also need to practice on real human tissue for some procedures. Safety equipment is sometimes tested on cadaver tissue, and forensics labs use human tissue to understand how it responds to ambient conditions.

That's too delicate a phrase to really say anything - what I really mean is that investigators need to understand how flesh decays under a variety of conditions, and this understanding helps them solve crimes. Everybody dies - fact. The strangest thing is, when you're alive and lively, you can't understand how that happens. How does your animating force leave your body? How do diseases work to erode our physical and mental power? Where does infirmity begin? Early last month, when I first went up to help care for my mom, she was still somewhat able to get around in her wheelchair. She made an astonishing request, considering her energy level at the time - to attend the showing of "Bodies: The Exhibition" at Cincinnati Museum Center.

If you've seen this show, you know it is fascinating, comprehensive and exhausting - I mean exhaustive. Takes a good three hours to see in any detail. Mom was fascinated with every exhibit and demanded every explanatory card be read to her. We were all wrung out when we left, but so happy we'd gone. Among the exhibits at the show we saw examples of diseased lung and liver tissue, as well as samples of breast cancer, skin cancer and other diseases.

Mom was probably thinking of the interest her own tissue might provoke when it entered the lab. She had suffered three different kinds of cancer, the last of which was probably what killed her. We don't know all the different places Mom's chassis will travel in the coming three years (the estimated time between tissue donation and final cremation of remains). We do know, however, that her wiring harness - brain and spinal cord - have gone to Indiana University's neurology department, where they specialize in the study of Progressive Supranuclear Palsy with Frontotemporal Dementia. This is a nasty degenerative neuromuscular disorder that contributed to Mom's difficult end, and I know she was proud to do her part in unraveling its insidious mystery.

As we sat around the house on the morning of Mom's death, my friends and family were talking about organ, tissue and whole body donation. For a bunch of people raised in relatively conservative, religious communities, a surprising number of us had decided to opt out of conventional burial, instead choosing to donate their bodies to science.

It's really easy to do: just contact your local medical college and ask about body donation. Because many people (reasonably) fear abuses, the University of Florida - State Anatomical Board maintains a list of body donation programs at http://www.med.ufl .edu/anatbd/usprograms.html. Most body donor programs are very accommodating to the prospective donors and their families, and will think of your comfort in that difficult time.

Many people think tissue donation stops after the harvest of healthy organs, but that's really only the beginning. Whether you are an organ donor prospect or the unhappy sufferer of an unpronounceable disease, please consider letting your tissues keep working after your heart stops beating. You could save lives and change the future. How's that for a legacy?