Page last updated at 06:15 GMT, Thursday, 24 December 2009

Preparing for life after death

Shirley Harrison
VIEWPOINT
Shirley Harrison
Chair of the Human Tissue Authority

Scientists weighing a human brain
Donated brains help research into diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's

Christmas is often a time for taking stock of what has happened in our families in the past year. We think about those we have lost, but very few of us think about what will happen to our bodies after death.

In this week's Scrubbing Up, Shirley Harrison, the outgoing chair of the Human Tissue Authority, argues that we all need to be aware of the ways we can help future generations by donating parts or all of our bodies.

Many of us have made a will and left instructions about what kind of funeral we want, but few of us give much thought to what happens to our bodies when we die.

We all have choices about what happens to us.

You may have thought about donating your organs for transplantation, your body to a medical school or your brain for research into conditions like Parkinson's.

You have a right to be given full information about your options and to know that your body will be treated with respect and dignity when you die

When asked, people give their views on these matters, but not so many act on them.

For example, most people say they would like to donate organs for transplantation after death, but only 27% of us have joined the Organ Donor Register.

We just don't get round to talking about it with our families and those close to us, or to signing up.

If you care about what happens to your property after your death, why not think about what happens to your body?

'Proper consent'

Whatever that is, it can only happen with your consent.

The Human Tissue Act (HT Act) enshrines the principle of consent in law.

It is the job of the Human Tissue Authority (HTA) to protect public confidence in the storage and use of human tissue for purposes including post mortem examination, patient treatment, medical teaching and research.

Tissue from the deceased provides a valuable resource for medical research into illness and disease, and for teaching

As well as ensuring proper consent, the HTA makes sure human tissue is used safely and ethically.

You have a right to be given full information about your options and to know that your body will be treated with respect and dignity when you die.

Did you know that, without a post-mortem examination, or autopsy, the recorded cause of death can be wrong in up to 30% of cases?

So these examinations perform a very valuable function.

'Clear instructions'

During a post-mortem examination, tissue may be removed from the body for analysis by a pathologist.

Once the investigations are complete, the tissue can be returned with the body to the family for funeral arrangements to be made, or it can be kept for research or other useful purposes such as teaching.

The family must be asked what they would like to happen after the examination and must give consent if the tissue is to be kept for research.

Tissue from the deceased provides a valuable resource for medical research into illness and disease, and for teaching.

Most people are willing to allow this gift of tissue, but it is crucial that the options are discussed fully with families and that their views are clearly recorded and acted upon.

Healthy brains are as valuable as those from people with the diseases, as researchers need to make comparisons between the two

Giving the gift of life through organ donation is one of the few things that might help alleviate the distress caused when someone dies.

Most people say they want this to happen, but to be sure they must discuss their wishes with their family and sign up to the Organ Donor Register or document their wishes in some other way.

Your family cannot veto what you want to happen when you die, but it makes the process much less difficult and distressing if you have left clear instructions.

Your organs may save someone's life.

But your tissue - such as tendons, skin, nerves, heart valves, cartilage and corneas - can be used to improve the lives of patients with heart disease, poor sight, limited mobility or burns.

'I want to leave my body to medical science'

What does this mean in practice?

When you die your body will be taken to the medical school and preserved so that it can be used to teach the next generation of doctors, dentists and other health professionals.

HOW TO REGISTER AS AN ORGAN DONOR
Fill in a form online at www.organdonation.nhs.uk
Call the NHS Donor Line on 03001232323
Text SAVE to 84118
Register for a driving licence and opt
Apply for a Boots Advantage Card and opt
Register at a GP surgery and opt
Register for a European Health Insurance Card and opt

To do this, you need to contact your nearest medical school (which will be licensed by the HTA) and fill in the consent forms they send you.

You can find details of your nearest medical school on the HTA's website.

You should also tell your family and your GP and keep a copy of the form with your will.

You can register as an organ donor and offer to give your body to a medical school - you just need to make your wishes known to those closest to you and record them in your will.

Medical schools will not usually accept a body if organs have been donated.

You can give any part of your body to be used for research. If you want to help scientists researching multiple sclerosis or Alzheimer's, for example, you should contact their tissue banks, all of which are licensed by the HTA.

Healthy brains are as valuable as those from people with the diseases, as researchers need to make comparisons between the two.

We have many choices about what happens to us when we die.

Whether you want to have a green burial, or to donate organs, tissue or your whole body for the benefit of others, or even if you would like your body to be preserved and displayed to the public - you need to make sure your wishes are known so that they can be acted upon.

By spreading awareness about options available after death, the HTA helps to make sure your wishes are followed.

And our regulation means you can have confidence in how your - and your loved ones' - tissue is used.




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