At the University of South Florida College of Medicine, they are known as "silent teachers."
Thirty-five or 40 arrive on campus every fall to teach anatomy, surgery, disease progression and the effects of aging, among other lessons. They aren't paid for their service. In fact, it can cost hundreds of dollars to participate.
That's partly why they are honored at a ceremony every May where students and faculty formally thank these teachers and their families for their selfless gift. They have given themselves fully to the study of medicine. They are whole-body donors.
'We always need donors'
Dr. Orhan Arslan, course director of anatomy at USF Health, has taught human anatomy for more than 20 years. He says there's no substitute for a human cadaver for teaching. Arslan arranged for a group of graduate students to gather in the anatomy lab to show me how a human heart, brain and liver are used to teach the major features of each organ.
"The virtual approach can't substitute for the real thing. It cannot be taught by looking at slides or listening to a lecture," he said.
Body donation to Florida medical schools is coordinated by the Anatomical Board of the State of Florida. About 400 people donate their bodies to the Florida medical education program every year, said board director Dr. Moira Jackson.
"We send schools as many as possible with what we are lucky enough to receive, but we always need donors," Jackson said.
When a donor dies, survivors choose a funeral home to take care of embalming and transporting the body to one of two reception centers, in Gainesville or Miami.
Survivors or the estate must pay these costs, which can range from $500 to $1,800, depending on the distance to the reception center. The Anatomical Board reimburses families $500. The bodies then go to Florida medical and other schools to help with training. After a period of three months to two years, the bodies are cremated and the ashes either returned to the family or scattered in the gulf.
Crushing injuries, obesity and infectious diseases like HIV or hepatitis can keep some donors from being accepted. But Jackson said "bodies of individuals who may have had surgeries or died of cancer can be very helpful to our program. They have something unique to teach."
While the idea of having strangers examine or dissect your body may discourage some from donating, it doesn't bother 84-year-old Millie Steckman.
"We just feel like it's a blessing for us to be able to do this," said Mrs. Steckman, a part-time resident of St. Petersburg. She and her husband, Bud, have decided to be whole-body donors, and have the blessing of their two adult children.
"Our children know we've always been givers, and we're concerned about others," she said.
The Steckmans have participated in a huge National Institutes of Health study on aging for more than 10 years. They travel annually to Baltimore and undergo tests to help researchers learn more about the changes that occur with age. Two years ago, they joined the program's Autopsy Study, so scientists can analyze tissues, organs and other biological specimens after death. They look particularly for changes in the brain that may give clues to Alzheimer's disease.
"I hope they find a cure for Alzheimer's. That's our main objective …," said Mrs. Steckman.
Bodies in demand
Morbid as it may sound, there's an element of competition for your corpse.
Private medical research companies are also looking for donors but not all want the whole body. Meridien Research, based in St. Petersburg, only wants the brain. Meridien is partnering with Avid Radiopharmaceuticals in Philadelphia to test an experimental imaging agent that may help diagnose Alzheimer's before death.
In this study, volunteers near the end of life undergo a brief memory test. Then they are injected with the experimental radio isotope and have a PET scan of their brain. The process helps doctors measure the amount of amyloid plaques, which are associated with Alzheimer's disease, said Dr. Mildred Farmer, medical director and principal investigator at Meridien. After death, Meridien further studies the brain.
"This (research) is one of the key things that has to be done for early diagnosis of Alzheimer's," Farmer said.
Many other private companies supply bodies, organs and tissue to medical research and educational facilities worldwide. They cover all costs associated with whole-body donation and make the necessary arrangements. University-based medical schools generally can't afford that.
One more way to volunteer
Both in their mid 80s, Millie and Bud Steckman still drive, travel, play tennis three times a week, are active in their church and volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House. Millie says their participation in the study on aging is just one more way in which they volunteer.
And when the Steckmans pass away and scientists take a look inside, they will be able to add one more accomplishment to the story of their lives. They'll become silent teachers.