ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – The choice to donate your body to a medical school can make a profound impact on a medical student’s education. But how does one go about donating their body? How does it differ from organ donation? Can I be both an organ and an anatomical donor? Here are some answers to those questions.

People wanting to donate their bodies can contact a hospital, like UNM Health System, either online or by phone. All forms need to be signed by the individual whose body is being donated and notarized. “Essentially, they are willing their body to the school of medicine,” said Amy Rosenbaum, director of UNM’s anatomical donation program.

She said the body will be kept for an average of 18 to 24 months. After that time, the remains will be cremated and either returned to the next of kin or scattered in a cemetery. Rosenbaum said UNM Health Sciences contracts with a funeral home to get a death certificate to the next of kin.

Currently, when the donor passes away, they need to be within a 60-mile radius of Albuquerque. If a person moves outside of that radius after willing their body, they’ll need to make other plans to donate elsewhere. “We tell every one of our donors that sign up with us to have a backup plan because we just don’t know what’s going to happen,” Rosenbaum said.

For a body to be of use to the hospital, the person needs to have died of natural causes. “Everybody dies of something, so you can have cancer or things of that nature,” said Rosenbaum. She does note that bodies with communicable diseases, such as HIV or hepatitis, will not be accepted as it presents a safety issue while medical students are performing dissection.

Also, an autopsy can’t have been performed on the body. If a body needed to go to the office of the medical investigator for an autopsy, the body can’t be accepted by a medical school. So basically, a medical school needs a complete body, with all of its limbs and organs intact.

One common misconception about anatomical donation, Rosenbaum said, is people think that all medical schools are connected to a database and bodies get shipped to wherever there’s a need. “It’s a local, homegrown operation. They stay in the community, they’re teaching people in the community,” she said.

What about organ donation?

Organ donation, on the other hand, is connected to a national database. “UNOS is the national database that holds the list for transplant recipients, and those waiting for transplants,” said Celina Espinosa, director of external affairs and business development with New Mexico Donor Services. They are also connected to what is called an organ procurement organization throughout the country.

If somebody is also an organ donor, that designation will usually supersede a whole-body donation. “It’s very rare to be able to become an organ donor,” Espinosa said. “Only about one in a thousand people die in a way that makes donation possible.” Very often it’s a situation where the body is being kept alive by a ventilator and there is no brain activity with no hope of recovery.

Since the probability of being an organ match and dying in a way that makes organ donation possible is so rare, Espinosa said one option is being an organ donor as well as a whole-body donor and if organ donation isn’t a viable option, then your whole body can be donated. “In all instances, just make sure your family knows what you want,” Espinosa said. “Whether it’s organ donation or anything else because they’ll be your advocates.”

Whether you decide to donate your body or your organs, you’re making a lasting impact after you’ve passed away. “I think it is wonderful because it really molds and shapes these health care providers,” said Rosenbaum. “It’s their first patient and they learn so much from that individual and then they go on and impart that learning to the living. It’s an amazing experience.”