McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

Tributes made to those who give "their most treasured possession" to science

Published: April 29, 2010
Linda Geller holding photo of husband Irv Geller
Linda Geller holding photo of husband Irv Geller

Linda Geller easily laughs through her tears when remembering her husband, Irv Geller, who lost his battle with Lou Gehrig’s Disease 19 months ago.

He was a man who loved sports and race horses — but mostly, he loved people. When he died, Irv was still as close to the boys he first met back in Grade 3 as his university and football buddies. "He just collected people," Geller recalled.

The Gellers were married for 32 years: It was his third marriage, her second. Over his lifetime, he alternately worked in sales, as a private investigator, actor, dance instructor and substitute teacher.  As clever as he was at crossword puzzles, ordinary things perplexed him — like the location of his new car’s gas tank which forced him to race back to the dealership for a quick lesson.

Many years ago, the Waterdown couple read a newspaper account of a man who decided to donate his body after his death to a university for purposes of anatomical study and medical research. The story went on to say that in order to obtain detailed and essential knowledge of the structure and function of the human body, future doctors, rehabilitation therapists and scientists need to study human remains as part of their training.

This thought of a special gift to future health-care professionals struck a cord with the Gellers. When Irv died, his body was donated to McMaster University’s Education Program in Anatomy.

"I never felt any guilt. He was a great husband. I was a great wife," Geller said. "We know people who have gone into $10,000 debt for funerals because they feel guilty. We thought it would be much nicer to spend $10,000 on traveling together."

Bruce Wainman, director of the Anatomy Education Program, said there is an increasing need for bodies to be bequeathed because of the expansion of McMaster’s Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine. The school has doubled enrolment during the past decade, and added two new regional campuses in Niagara and Kitchener-Waterloo.

Last year, 28 bodies were accepted by McMaster’s program for the purposes of anatomical study and medical research. To obtain detailed and essential knowledge of the structure and function of the human body, future doctors, rehabilitation therapists and scientists need to study the body as part of their training.

In one year, 1,200 students — medical, nursing, engineering, midwives, rehabilitation and fine arts students — acquire a deeper understanding of the body through the anatomy program, as do other professionals in the broader community, such as paramedics and massage therapists.

Students often think of the donated body as their first patient, he said, always maintaining the individual’s dignity and confidentiality. "It is often one of a student’s first chances to deal with the finality and reality of death.  It hits them because it’s not like a textbook."

Wainman said a person’s whole life is written out on their body: fractures, surgeries, stiffened arteries from hypertension or metastasized cancer from tumours. "When you’re handling the leg of someone who suffered from polio, you can’t help thinking that that would have been a tough life."

An information pamphlet for prospective donors entitled Body Donation to the Education Program in Anatomy provides contact information, the roles of next-of-kin, cost, who is acceptable, criteria (for example, patients with heart, lung and kidney disease are acceptable donors but those with infectious diseases and degenerative neurological diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, are not). Donations to the Anatomy Education Program must be made within 24 hours.

Each year the faculty and staff in the Education Program in Anatomy invite families to a Service of Gratitude to express their appreciation for the generosity of those who died. This year the service was held April 28.

Several students gave personal accounts on how the thoughtfulness of donors has provided them with new knowledge which may one day save someone’s life.

Nicole Kraus, a Bachelor of Health Sciences student, told the families that texts and notebooks only go so far in teaching about the wonders of the human body. "Your loved ones are the greatest teachers we will ever know."

"With their greatest gift, they have taught so many students so much," said Melissa Decloe, a first year student of the Physician Assistant Education Program. "We are indebted to you for what they have committed to our educations."

"It was beautiful to hear the students talk," said Geller about the memorial service during which a musician played the flute and she listened to Irv’s favourite hymn, Amazing Grace. "The atmosphere was so beautiful."

Further information on becoming a donor is available by calling 905-525-9140  ext. 22273, by e-mail at anatomy@mcmaster.ca or by writing to this address:

McMaster University
Education Program in Anatomy,
1280 Main Street West, HSC 1R1,
Hamilton, ON L8S 4K1
Canada

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