Maria doesn’t want anyone to decide for her when she dies. Eleven years ago, he specified in his will that he would donate his body to science, and he came to the Complutense University of Madrid to fill out the form to complete the process. “I don’t want them to have a big opinion if I don’t have a way to express my wishes,” says the 76-year-old with determination. With no husband and kids, she doesn’t want her “extended family” to have an opinion when the time comes. She puts the form in her pocket and calmly walks down one of the long corridors of the medical school. When she returns, it will be on a stretcher through another door in the basement of the building, ready to be embalmed or frozen.
It is the Complutense Body Donation Center, a place that has left behind the controversy that erupted in 2014 when images came to light showing the catastrophic state in which dozens of bodies had accumulated. Professor Teresa Vázquez has headed this body since 2016, created to reorganize the administration of the service and inaugurated in 2019. She is one of those people who shows that she was born for the position she holds today. He feels so much in his place that he knows that when he dies, he too will end up in one of those freezers. Death was never a taboo for her. “Here we even do guided tours if someone asks us so there is total transparency, otherwise it seems like we are doing something like satanic rites. Death is part of life,” he says.
The ramp on which the undertakers park is located on one side of the Medical School and leads directly into the room where the bodies are fully shaved, cleaned and embalmed. A room with a marble bed and a metal bed, an embalming machine and an instrument that resembles musical headphones but for the eyes. “In case some liquid jumps on your face to clean it,” explains Vázquez. On one wall a plaque with the last six donors received. Date of entry and gender are indicated. About a hundred donors descend this ramp each year. “When it’s hot, they arrive most often,” says Vázquez. When the heart stops beating, everything has to happen very quickly, the preservation process has to be completed in 48 hours. The environment is scoured with ethanol to preserve the bodies and bleach waves are added to keep everything fully sanitized.
The room is directly connected to a freezer in which about thirty corpses rest in a kind of bunk. There are now around 120 corpses throughout the center. The three operators of the center organize some of them. The frozen bodies make a loud, dry sound as they fall onto the metal stretchers. This sound reverberates unmistakably through this basement. Araceli Borbolla, a technician in the dissection room, organizes the work together with Miguel, Kevin and Adriana, the operators. “Here you have to remove the limbs,” says Borbolla. “If there’s a frozen body and they just need to rehearse surgery in a certain area, we just take that part out. No foot is wasted here, it’s the least we can do given the generosity of donors who know everything will be useful,” says Vázquez. Against one of the walls rests the powerful saw used to cut the corpses while they are frozen.
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In the adjoining room, a room simulates several operating theaters. In many cases, teams of specialists rehearse and prepare important and pioneering operations here. “People come from all over Europe, the advantage of our center is that it is very big, has a lot of space and these exercises are carried out by large teams,” says the director. 4,000 square meters are available for examining lifeless bodies. There are screens, cameras to record the interventions and colored boards to separate them if there are several at the same time.
Two hundred years ago, so-called resurrection artists stole bodies from cemeteries and hospitals to sell to medical schools. A lucrative business with which some hustlers earned their living and doctors expanded their knowledge. The Spanish Nobel Prize winner for medicine, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, even stole the brains of fetuses that were only a few hours out of the uterus in Madrid in the 19th century. In this work she was assisted by some charitable nuns who assisted in the birth. This is how he managed to describe (and draw) neurons. Thankfully, to understand how a lung or a brain works, it takes a long time to resort to desecration and theft.
Upstairs are the dissection rooms, where students enter the intestines of corpses. Learn from the dead to save the living. “Students come to develop a very special relationship with their corpse,” says the director of the center. Each group of students meets with the same committee on a weekly basis throughout the course. The packages now rest under blue plastic as the students await the end of the course.
In these rooms it is also taught how to face death, not to fear it, not to be paralyzed. Many Madrid firefighters meet the deceased for the first time in these rooms. They look at them, they touch them, they share space with them. “They have to be sure that if they find a dead person on an operation tomorrow, they won’t be shocked. If they are in shock at such a moment, it can be deadly,” Vázquez specifies. In these practices, they are accompanied by psychologists.
All bodies entering these facilities have a first and last name. This is not a destination for unidentified bodies. The deceased who rest in these chambers decided in life that this would be their destiny, like María, the lady who just filled out the form. Anyone can donate, there are only a few exceptions such as morbidly overweight people, for logistical reasons, autopsied corpses or people with an infectious disease. “In order to formalize the decision, two witnesses must be present with the person who will donate. Some call every now and then to see if everything is still ok, others come to look at the facilities… Some of us have some kind of relationship but I can’t really relate to them emotionally because I I’ll see her here later,” says Vázquez, pointing to one of the stretchers.
The director regrets that there have been times when families have not respected this last will: “Often out of ignorance or for religious reasons… You are sorry but there is nothing you can do, so I insist very much on showing it what What is being done here and what is it for? After death, if you can help save the life of a… I don’t know, a child, then that becomes as valid an option as burial or cremation.” Determined to break taboos and myths about what happens within these four walls, she explains that donors come in all forms. “Even Muslims only require a ritual before using the body, but of course we had it,” he emphasizes.
María has full confidence that her family will respect her, so she calmly disappears down the corridor, she didn’t even need to see the facilities. “I know that they are excellent and that I will be useful, that’s enough for me,” he says in a sweet Colombian accent. And he leaves the building where the corpses may serve to save a thousand lives.
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