A Body’s Life After Death
The frozen human head arrived at the laboratory like the others -- by courier, double-bagged with dry ice in a foam-lined box marked “perishable.”
The researchers thawed the head and anchored its protruding spine in an acrylic mold. They slid a fighter pilot’s helmet over the head and tightened the chin strap. With the head wrapped in pantyhose, nobody had to look at the face.
The test -- a neck injury study for the Air Force -- was about to begin.
Randal Ching, the biomechanical engineer in charge, didn’t dwell much on the specimens that came to him at the University of Washington. They were tools in the incremental march of science, costly and sometimes hard to find. He didn’t need to know where they came from or the long journeys that scattered them across the country.
This head had traveled far.
It belonged to 51-year-old Michael Palmore of Searcy, Ark.
This is the story of his afterlife.
Inside the Cloverdale Church of Christ in Searcy, Michael Palmore, a husky man with thick silver hair, was speaking to the congregation on a favorite topic: how science and religion could inform each other.
He flipped to the next PowerPoint slide: a picture of a brain.
“This brain here is probably an 80-year-old brain,” said Palmore, a family therapist. “You see how it looks more like hamburger meat that’s freshly ground in the container? It’s not very nice, but it’s what it looks like.”
As a speaker at the church last spring, he lamented that more researchers did not study the brain. It was the seat of the soul.
The body itself meant little. He had long ago told his wife, Patsy, and their three children that he wanted to be cremated, his ashes stored in a coffee tin.
Palmore was a plain-spoken and independent man. He painted houses and worked as a security guard to support his family while he studied to be a therapist. It was a calling he found later in life, after more than 10 years as an assistant store manager for Wal-Mart in Arkansas, Texas and Mississippi.
His children were grown. He and Patsy had recently bought a house in Searcy. He loved his work.
Then the trouble started. Palmore experienced night fevers last summer but shrugged them off as allergies. Not until Nov. 7 did doctors diagnose him with pancreatic cancer.
In Little Rock, about an hour southwest of Searcy, surgeons removed his spleen, gallbladder and much of his pancreas. By January, he had shed 50 pounds.
One night, when he and Patsy were alone, he told her: “Some good needs to come of this. I want to donate my body to science. If somebody can learn something from this old body, maybe it will do some good.”
They had never talked about this before, and Patsy didn’t want to hear about it. “Tell your doctor,” she replied.
Within days, surgeons discovered that tumors had engulfed most of his internal organs, and they sent him home to die.
Heather Kemper, a family friend who worked at a hospice, stopped by the house that day with a consent form from an Arizona company called ScienceCare Anatomical Inc. She had read one of its e-mail promotions on body donation. She had volunteered to make the arrangements for Michael to donate his body to science.
Patsy was exhausted and barely read the form before signing.
At 2:30 a.m. on Jan. 10, Michael Palmore died with his family at his side.
Kemper dialed the 24-hour toll-free number for ScienceCare, and the hearse arrived from Little Rock two hours later. Somebody asked Patsy if she wanted to say goodbye one last time.
“No,” she said. “That’s not my husband laying in there. It’s just a body now.”
Michael’s body was gone, just like that -- and it was a relief.
The summer before, Patsy had spent days arranging the funeral for her 79-year-old father. The tombstone, made from blue pearl granite, cost $10,000.
Michael’s body was driven to Little Rock and placed in a 38-degree cooler at Ruebel Funeral Home. The next day, it was sent out on a Delta Air Lines flight for Phoenix. The body arrived at ScienceCare packed in a cardboard-and-plywood box.
The for-profit company, started in 2000 by James Rogers, a funeral insurance salesman, promotes body donation as an altruistic alternative to funerals.
It is a leading supplier in a growing industry. While donation of organs for transplant is highly regulated by state and federal law, the willing of bodies for scientific research and training is not.
Last year, at least 676 bodies went to ScienceCare, according to figures collected by the Arizona Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers. In the first three months of this year, the company had taken in 273.
Traditionally, most donors will their bodies to medical schools, which use cadavers to teach anatomy.
But a growing demand for human tissue for research, surgical training and medical marketing has fueled the rise of private companies. ScienceCare officials declined to be interviewed. The company’s public relations firm said in an e-mail that the company “works with sensitive end of life issues” and has a policy of not talking with the media.
The company recently opened a Denver branch and a second firm, Advanced Research International, that provides body parts for surgical training seminars.
To find donors, ScienceCare advertises in newspapers, sets up booths at senior citizen conventions and sends fliers to retirement homes and hospices. “Support the education of society’s doctors and healers,” reads one brochure.
The company sells a whole body for about $4,400. But the value of a body increases as it is divided into parts, which the company calls “anatomical segmentation.” A whole spine goes for about $1,750, a torso with the head attached for about $3,000, and a head-and-neck combination for about $2,000, according to ScienceCare customers. Prices can vary substantially based on supply and demand.
Patsy didn’t know anything about the business of body donations and didn’t think much about what happened to Michael’s body in the weeks after his death. She imagined scientists peering through microscopes at what remained of the pancreas, hunting down clues about the cancer. It is how many donors picture their bodies being used -- to study the diseases that killed them. Michael, she guessed, would be pleased.
In life, Michael rarely traveled far from Arkansas. In death, he became a frequent flier.
Three weeks after Michael’s death, a note arrived from the post office. Patsy sent her 21-year-old daughter Kari, who sobbed as she signed for the small cardboard box. She put the box on the passenger seat of her car and fastened the seat belt around it.
Patsy was surprised that Michael’s ashes were returned so soon, that the researchers had apparently worked so quickly.
She transferred the ashes to a Folgers Classic Roast coffee can, which she set on a living room chair. There it sat, beckoning her to think about the body.
She received a two-page letter from ScienceCare in late February describing what her husband’s body was used for -- a standard practice to assure a donor’s family. It did not name researchers or institutions, but described three uses of Michael’s body. Patsy tried to make sense of them: knee surgery training, something called “kyphoplasty” and some sort of military neck study.
What she knew for sure was that the body had not been used to study pancreatic cancer. It was as if Michael’s suffering had been for nothing.
Even though the consent form she signed allowed ScienceCare to use the body as it deemed fit, she was angry enough to send an e-mail to the company.
“Our family is devastated to learn that nothing of him was used toward the research of the cancer of the pancreas,” she wrote. “Can anything be done to correct this?”
It was, of course, too late.
The reality is that the highest demand for body parts is for medical training seminars. Knees and shoulders are the most requested, and are almost always harvested. They can be frozen for months and sold in batches for about $500 apiece.
The demand stems from the development over the last few decades of minimally invasive surgical techniques, which require special tools and training. Companies compete fiercely for the loyalty of surgeons and sponsor the all-expense-paid seminars to help lure customers.
For example, ScienceCare is a supplier of body parts to Biomet Orthopedics Inc., a maker of artificial joints and surgical tools that puts on several training sessions a month.
Inside Biomet’s training room, 15 surgeons from around the country recently huddled around four knees, carefully cut with about 4 inches of leg above and below.
Two wall-mounted monitors displayed a live overhead shot of the far station, where the lead surgeon was performing a knee replacement. The other doctors, wearing surgical gowns and face shields, followed along on their specimens. After a break for a lunch of tuna sandwiches, another surgeon led a hip-replacement class.
Biomet distributors and sales agents recruited the surgeons and paid their travel expenses to Warsaw, Ind., where the company is based. “As a salesman, that’s your living,” said Mike Davis, who covers the St. Louis area for Biomet. “You want them to use your product. But you want them to use it well.”
It had never occurred to Patsy Palmore that Michael’s body was going to be used to sell surgical tools.
Nor did she understand how his spine was put to use. All that she could tell from the letter was that it had been removed.
His lower spine, it turned out, was sent to Steven Kurtz at Exponent Inc., a Philadelphia bioengineering consulting firm. He is the only researcher conducting the sort of work described in Patsy’s letter from ScienceCare, which supplied his specimens. Kurtz was creating a computer model of an osteoporosis treatment called kyphoplasty. The model requires fracturing vertebrae and repairing them using the new method.
“That letter was so technical,” Patsy said. “This is just made to be gibberish to the normal person.”
In her distress, she wrote to one of Michael’s lifelong friends, Wayne Waggoner, for advice. The two men had attended Bible camp together as boys.
“The way [ScienceCare’s] website reads you would think ‘tissue’ means at least some type of cancer research,” she wrote. “Do you think I am over-reacting to this, it’s tearing me up. I haven’t said anything to the kids yet.”
Arian Lee, from ScienceCare customer service, wrote back to Patsy: “Sometimes the placement of tissues for specific research can be complicated, as may have happened in this case.”
There was also a phone call from the lab manager, who tried to calm her.
She was still upset and puzzled. She couldn’t figure out the third use of Michael’s body that was listed in the letter from ScienceCare.
What exactly was a “tensile neck injury tolerance” study?
“Do they do this with the body intact?” she wondered.
A jet fighter pilot who loses control has one last resort: the striped yellow and black ejection lever at the base of the seat.
It is likely that someday a pilot will eject from an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a next-generation attack plane that will be the most maneuverable fighter in history. Potentially, it will also be more dangerous upon ejection.
The reason is a new helmet design. Mounted with state-of-the-art equipment to project velocity, altitude and other information on a visor, it will be bulkier than the current models -- and thus more likely to snap a pilot’s neck on ejection.
Safety engineers need to know how much force a human neck can tolerate, which is why Michael Palmore’s head traveled to Seattle to be placed in a helmet and on a hydraulic machine known as a load frame.
Only one lab in the country is doing such research for the military.
“I’m passionate about this,” said Ching, who runs the Applied Biomechanics Laboratory at the University of Washington. “We need to prevent people from getting spinal cord injuries by getting the data out there.”
The study could have broader implications, since jet-ejection injuries are similar to those caused by car air bags.
Because most fighter pilots are in their 30s, Ching needed relatively young heads. Male specimens could be from donors no older than 50, and females had to be 40 or younger.
For six months, no heads came in. The military finally raised the age limit to 60 for both sexes. Even then, it took a year to obtain the 12 heads needed for the experiment. They came from eight males and four females.
General Dynamics Corp., the Air Force contractor that hired Ching to do the study, paid ScienceCare $2,000 plus shipping for Michael Palmore’s head and neck.
After the head was anchored in place, a tap on a computer key initiated a precise tug from the load frame.
The tug lasted less than a fifth of a second, but that was long enough to help engineers determine that neck ligaments and discs between the cervical vertebrae gave out at about 670 pounds of force.
The reply that eventually arrived from Waggoner, Palmore’s friend, was a surprise to Patsy. After agonizing so much over Michael’s fate, she didn’t expect to hear a contrary voice.
Waggoner wrote: “If Michael were here to discuss this, I’m pretty sure he would dismiss the whole notion of doing any otherwise than has been done. He might even just say, ‘Pshaw!’ about it all.”
It was true. Little ever upset Michael. His mantra was “Don’t let them get your goat.”
Even as she learned the gorier details of her husband’s cross-country adventures, she began to accept that even a training seminar for knee surgery could help someone. Perhaps that was all Michael wanted.
Patsy sent an apology to ScienceCare.
“There’s probably some of his parts still waiting to be sold off,” she said later. “He would find that hilarious.”
Patsy eventually took the red coffee can of Michael’s ashes and put it on the bedroom dresser. It weighed 3 1/2 pounds, less than half of what the complete ashes of a man his size usually weigh.
As for the rest of his remains, ScienceCare requires that they be cremated. Those ashes are not returned to the family.
Ching’s lab sent Michael Palmore’s head to a Seattle mortuary, which placed the ashes, a half-cup or so, in a plastic urn alongside dozens of others.
Every few years, the mortuary buys a single cemetery plot and buries the urns together in an unmarked grave.