When Joel Ozburn dies, he wants his flesh, bones and muscles to still serve a purpose on Earth.
The North Augusta resident said he believes he has found a way to do that.
Ozburn, 63, has begun the process to donate his body to science. He started paperwork last week to leave his remains with the body donation program at Georgia Regents University.
Over 12 months, first-year medical students in anatomy courses will slice through his skin and inspect the muscles in his legs and the arteries to his heart.
They’ll tie numbered strings of yarn to the dozens of ligaments in his neck and try to memorize the proper names without peeking at their notes.
They could very well cradle his brain in their curious hands.
“I have two daughters and three granddaughters, and I feel a little responsible to their future,” Ozburn, a retired criminal investigator for the Internal Revenue Service, said about his decision. “A lot of people don’t want to talk about this kind of thing, but maybe I can help them a little. Or a lot.”
The Anatomical Donation Program at GRU takes in, on average, 110 bodies per year. They are used by medical students in anatomy courses and by residents getting training on a procedure.
Most donated bodies are from the elderly and have suffered cancer, heart failure, dementia or other diseases, according to program coordinator David Adams.
Adams, a former funeral director for Elliot Sons Funeral Home, said the overwhelming theme he hears from donors is that they want to make a difference. With the insight the bodies give to students through irreplaceable hands-on experience, he said they do.
“I’m not hearing, ‘I’m doing this because I can’t afford a funeral.’ It’s more like, ‘I’m doing this because I don’t want my children and my grandchildren to have to suffer through this disease,’ ” Adams said. “They start thinking about what does their life really mean and what will it mean down the road. To me, it’s the ultimate sacrifice.”
Better than books
In a laboratory on the third floor of the GRU research building, about a dozen cadavers lie on tables sealed in blue body bags, surrounded by students in white coats.
There is an 83-year-old electrical contractor who had dementia, a 75-year-old concert pianist with gastric cancer, an 84-year-old graphic designer with pulmonary disease.
On one cadaver, five students in the nurse anesthesia program are examining the structures in the head and neck. This cadaver has already been dissected, preserved with formaldehyde and laid open.
“It’s really good to see it first-hand, because you can actually see how the structures look in real life,” said Courtney Voss, 25. “You’re not just reading the textbooks. It’s way different.”
One lab over is Bill Pearson, an assistant professor in the Department of Cellular Biology and Anatomy. He is holding a donor skull and pointing out crevices and features to students huddled around, scribbling notes.
“You all are going to be sticking stuff in people’s nasal and oral passages, so you need to know these areas well,” he said.
Charys Martin, an assistant professor in the Department of Cellular Biology and Anatomy, said most students don’t have much experience with cadavers when they enter medical school. Some have dissected cats, but that’s it.
She said students leave the anatomy course with huge respect for the body donors after seeing the impact they have on their education.
The university holds a memorial service every year for donors’ families. They sing songs and talk about how the donors’ gifts have touched their lives.
While textbooks are necessary for learning, the illustrations that show the heart being bright red, veins a soft blue and all the cartilages and ligaments different colors are not what they’ll see in surgery.
The inside of the human body is a more flushed-out color that doesn’t offer the convenience of different shades.
“Those colors are there (in the book) to help students understand concepts of anatomy, and textbooks are necessary for student learning, but to be able to literally see a human body that’s there right in front of you, that’s when the learning happens,” Martin said.
Anatomical examination of the human body can be traced back to ancient Egypt, where they discovered organs and blood vessels through dissection and mummification. An early pioneer of medical dissection was the ancient Greek philosopher Alcmaeon of Croton, who classified the brain as the seat of intellectual activity.
Grave robbing became an issue in the 1800s, when medical schools had a shortage of bodies obtained from prisons and had to find their subjects elsewhere.
Today, donors must register and consent to their donation before their death. At GRU, university staff will pick up and transport the bodies and embalm them at the facility on campus. After a dissection is completed, the university cremates the bodies and either returns the remains to the family upon request or inters them in the school’s memorial garden.
There are about 150 body donation programs at universities and colleges nationwide, along with other private and for-profit groups, according to a University of Florida database. Brandi Schmitt, the director of anatomical services at the University of California’s Office of the President, said donated cadavers have contributed to improved surgery techniques and the development of devices used in treatment.
Adams said the process of death and dying is complex, but there is a real generosity from those who donate their bodies.
“It’s truly a gift,” Adams said. “These are people who really want to make a big difference in the scope of life.”
That is Ozburn’s reason for wanting to be a donor. He said he has considered it ever since his mother
made the decision a few years before she died around 2003. A practicing Presbyterian, Ozburn said he hasn’t really struggled with the idea of having his body defiled after death or what that means for the prospects of his afterlife.
When he decided to file the paperwork and register as a donor with GRU this month, he discussed it briefly with his two daughters and in depth with his wife. He worries about his family not having a body for a funeral, to grieve over or see its way into the earth for closure. But he said there’s comfort knowing his body will affect his family’s future – and others – as his soul rests.
“I don’t think religion should factor into it, because the body is a vessel that is used and when it’s used, it’s gone and you go on without it,” he said.