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July 08, 2010

UVM's Cadaver Donations Are Back in the Black

Last year, it felt like invasion of the body snatchers at the University of Vermont. This year, UVM is once again grateful for all its dead.

As Seven Days reported last October, for the first time in living memory the UVM College of Medicine faced a critical shortage of cadaver donations in 2009. At the time, the problem was so acute that if the numbers didn't pick up soon, the school faced the unpleasant prospect of hunting around for cadavers at other medical schools or worse, purchasing cadavers from a for-profit body broker. After all, gone are the days when 19th-century UVM's doctors-to-be raided the military cemetery in the Old North End for bodies to practice on. 

Rod Parsons, who chairs UVM's anatomy and neurobiology department, can't quite put a finger on what caused the body count to dry up last year by nearly half. It may have been a statistical blip, he theorizes, compounded by the fact that the supply hasn't kept pace with the growing demand for whole cadavers and assorted body parts used in education, research, and training. For sure, the Grim Reaper didn't take a holiday last year, as the usual 5000 or so Vermonters shuffled off their mortal coils last year, at a rate of about 100 per week, according to Vermont's chief medical examiner.

Parsons theorizes that the shortfall may have had something to do with the economic downturn. Counterintuitively, body donations sometimes drop off in lean economic times, in part because there are costs associated with leaving one's body to science — as much as $1800 in the Green Mountain State, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Vermont.

This week, however, Parsons is pleased to report that UVM's body count is back in the black.

A contributing factor may be a UVM policy change: As of January 1, the College of Medicine now reimburses families for the cost of transporting a loved one to Burlington, assuming the deceased died in Vermont or within a 50-mile radius of Burlington. (Apparently, a large number of donors come from the greater Plattsburgh area.)

Currently, UVM is at pace to receive 35 to 45 bodies this year, which Parson says is roughly enough to meet the school's needs this year. He cautions, however, that UVM isn't exactly rolling in bones, either. For those who are interested in making one final gift to humanity before plunging into the Great Hereafter, contact UVM's Anatomical Gift Program at (802) 656-2230 or email Lynn Bateman at [email protected]

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