Life After Death

Bobbie Graves holds a photo of her late son Dlanty, whose body she donated to the Medical Education and Research Institute. Thanks to such donations, physicians from around the world learn new procedures and surgeries at the MERI.

Shocked and grieved by her son Delanty's death in April, Bobbie Graves takes comfort in a decision she made about his remains. To give some meaning to his sudden passing, she donated his body to the Medical Education and Research Institute. "This way," she says, "he might help somebody else."

Located at 44 South Cleveland, the nonprofit MERI was founded in 1995 by Dr. Kevin Foley, a neurosurgeon with Semmes-Murphey Clinic and chairman of the institute's board. Through the MERI's Genesis Donor Program, bodies are accepted and then kept frozen -- not embalmed -- until they're used in research or education. As such, they offer doctors the best opportunity, aside from a live person, to learn on a real patient.

Since the MERI's founding, hundreds of people have signed up to be donors. "We have 1,300 pre-signed right now, but there's always a need for more," says Brenda Belk, R.N., the Genesis program director.

Legal next-of-kin may also donate loved ones into the program upon their death. And if the family members desire, they can visit the MERI at any time and watch the physicians at work. The organization also keeps a record on the research each donor has made possible. Says Belk: "If a loved one calls and says, 'Brenda, can you tell me what Mom's been doing lately?' I can say, 'Sure, let me pull her file.'"

While other institutions also accept donor bodies, the MERI is unique in several ways. "Physicians who come here for training turn around and take that knowledge back home with them to be used in their own city or country," Belk explains, "so its impact is immediate and has a wider scope than some programs." In the last year alone, she adds, some 5,000 physicians from as far away as Japan and Australia came to the MERI. Here they performed operations on various parts of the body, from hips, knees, and spines, to ears, throats, skulls, and hearts.

Beyond that, all MERI services are free. For instance, the program pays to transport the body to Memphis from anywhere in the U.S., files and pays for death certificates, and contributes $600 towards the cost of a memorial service to the church or facility of the family's choice. After the body has been used in research (within nine months after death), the MERI pays for cremation and then either returns the ashes to the family or gives them the option of interment at a local mausoleum. It also provides the family with a list of all procedures in which their loved one's remains have been used.

Though Bobbie Graves will always miss Delanty, her niece Diane Anderson says Graves is confident in her decision to donate his remains. "She has a strong faith," says Anderson. "She knows his body is just a shell. And since he was always helping people while he was here, he can keep doing that now."

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