What will become of us when we die? For some, the answer may be an immediate burial. A growing number of people want to be cremated. But there is another after-death option — whole-body donation. Oregon’s School of Medicine has a program that allows the deceased to become body donors for advanced medical education.

Paula Olch (right) poses with her daughter Karen. Paula died on June 22, 2019. She became one of the first people to donate both her body and her brain to OHSU programs for medical research and education.

Paula Olch (right) poses with her daughter Karen. Paula died on June 22, 2019. She became one of the first people to donate both her body and her brain to OHSU programs for medical research and education.

Courtesy of Karen Olch

Eighty-seven-year-old Paula Olch knew what she wanted to happen after her death. Before the time came, her daughter Karen Olch, found all the paperwork to help make her mom’s wishes a reality.

“Donating her body for medical research and education made total sense to her,” Karen said. “She was curious and thoughtful and kind and compassionate. And, to me, it completely fit with who she was.”

Since 1976, more than 4,300 people have donated their bodies to Oregon Health Sciences University. The Body Donation Program provides hands-on opportunities for medical students and physicians to learn the foundations of anatomy and perfect surgical procedures.

In life, Paula Olch understood the importance of science. She had a degree in biology from Stanford. Late in life, she became a massage therapist, putting her intimate knowledge of the human body to work. Thirteen years ago, Paula was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. When she died in June, Karen said her mom was among the first whole-body donors to also donate to the OHSU Brain Bank.

“Her brain tissue is of vital importance in doing Parkinson’s research,” Karen said. “You can’t find things out when you’re alive with Parkinson’s. Doctors just treat the symptoms. You don’t really know what’s going on with a Parkinson’s brain until after that person’s passed.”

Karen is proud of her mom.

Paula Olch lived in Eugene when she died from complications of Parkinson's Disease. She had already made plans (with her daughter's help) to donate her body and brain to science.

Paula Olch lived in Eugene when she died from complications of Parkinson’s Disease. She had already made plans (with her daughter’s help) to donate her body and brain to science.

Courtesy of Karen Olch

“She was not a person to call a lot of attention to herself,” Karen said of her mother. “She wasn’t a person to get up in front of people and say, ‘I’ve done this wonderful thing.’ After her death, she’s having such a huge impact in this quiet way.”

Tamara Ostervoss agrees. As director of OHSU’s Body Donation Program, she sees how much medical students can learn during their year studying the bodies of donors.

“I think once they are in the anatomy lab,” Ostervoss said, “and they do interact with the donor and they see how a textbook could not teach these things that they need to know. I think it really clicks for them then.”

People interested in donating their bodies should know there are steps to the process, including pages of consent paperwork. And it’s virtually impossible to confirm in advance that a person will be a body donor. At the time of death, a risk assessment must be performed to ensure a body does not carry a communicable disease or active infection.

Body donation doesn’t mean a family must forgo a funeral service for their loved one. Ostervoss said after a body donor’s teaching period ends, usually about three years, there are embalmers and crematory operators are on staff to help.

“We try to accommodate many different religions and many different personal preferences and wishes when it comes to final disposition,” said Ostervoss.

Ostervoss said besides teaching the foundations of anatomy, each body donor helps med students grasp the complexities of life and death, sickness and health. And that has a ripple effect.

“They do really take that knowledge with them and use it on every patient that they see for the rest of their career,” Ostervoss said. “So many people end up benefiting from this donation.”

Like a legacy.

“Dearest Stranger, I know very little about you. I know how many decades you lived. When your heart stopped beating and why.”

Emily Mitchell is a second-year medical student. After spending a year together, she was moved to write a poem to her body donor.

“But I don’t know your name or your hometown or where you lived or how you spent your days or who you loved or who you hurt. Or what your eyes saw in the years you passed on this earth. Yet I do know that the human body, your body, is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.”

A choir sings during the private 2019 Service of Gratitude held in Portland for loved ones of body donors to OHSU programs.

A choir sings during the private 2019 Service of Gratitude held in Portland for loved ones of body donors to OHSU programs.

Tiffany Eckert/KLCC

Each year, OHSU students and faculty hold a private Service of Gratitude event to thank donors and their families for their selfless gifts. Poems are recited and music is performed. Karen Olch attended the 2019 event in Portland in early December.

“Um, I almost didn’t come to this because I thought well, what would it be? And, my mother was Paula,” Karen told the crowd. “And, I can just see her. She’s elated that you all are working with her so respectfully. And you know I can almost hear her saying, ‘Check out my hip, here’s where I had a hip replacement!’ I’m just very moved by this more than I can say.”

The Body Donation Program expects about 150 people will make the “ultimate gift” to medical science education at OHSU in 2020.