2014-08-08 / Front Page

Final wish denied by university

By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – The family of a woman who wanted to donate her body to science after her death said they were disappointed when the donation was rejected by the University of New England – even though she had been accepted into the program and approved to be a donor.

Scott and Kevin McPherson said their mother, Delores McPherson, applied to be a donor on June 1, 2002, when she retired as a certified nursing assistant. She died at age 84 on Friday, June 27.

“If we had known (her body could be rejected), we would have looked into it,” Kevin McPherson said. “We thought it would be taken care of. We didn’t know if we needed anything else; we figured everything was all set.”

“It was mom’s final wish, she just wanted to help someone else,” said Scott McPherson. “She wanted to make it as easy as possible, but it ended up being as difficult as possible.”

“She didn’t think it would even be an issue,” Kevin McPherson said.

The Hope Memorial Chapel at 480 Elm St. serves the university by transporting donated bodies to the college. When Delores McPherson’s body was brought there however, Kevin McPherson said university officials told chapel workers that itdidn’t fit the parameters to be used for study by medical students.

According to the University of New England’s website on the body donor program, age and amputations do not preclude acceptance of a body, but diseases such as HIV or hepatitis, extensive trauma to the body at the time of death, advanced decomposition or extreme obesity would “make the body unsuitable for anatomical study.”

Hank Wheat, diener of the university’s medical school, said conditions that would preclude acceptance may not exist at the time of enrollment but may appear before the time of death.

“People can always check in when the time gets close to make sure all the records are up to date and to make sure any of the conditions (are not present),” Wheat said.

Scott McPherson said his mother had put on extra water weight in her final weeks while at a hospice in Saco, but he didn’t consider her to be “extremely” obese.

“She put on 30 pounds since being in the hospice,” he said.

When the body was brought back to Hope Memorial Chapel, Kevin McPherson said he received a call from chapel staff at 8:20 a.m. on a Saturday morning asking him what the family wanted to do with his mother’s remains. The brothers were told they had to make a decision by noon the same day.

Kevin McPherson said being told so abruptly that his mother’s body had been rejected was hard to endure while grieving.

The staff at Hope Memorial Chapel ultimately agreed to keep Delores McPherson’s remains for several days to give the family time to make a decision, said Kevin McPherson.

Scott McPherson said he then tried contacting officials at the University of New England about the donor program to find out how they defined “excessive obesity.” When he finally got through to an official at the university however, instead of getting an explanation, Scott said the official told him, “If you don’t like it, go Google ‘obesity.’”

Scott McPherson said the official also told him if the university had known how big Delores McPherson was, it wouldn’t have had her body picked up and delivered to the university.

“I know she had put on a lot of weight, but ‘extreme obesity’ seemed a little much, especially considering how big the average person is these days,” Scott said. “They could give out better information on what they consider is ‘extreme obesity’ instead of asking a family member to ‘go Google it.’

“On the other hand, the family involved should do a better job of following up to make sure everything is still in place,” he added.

Wheat said there is a weight cutoff for each body that is measured according to their body mass index.

The more a person weighs, the more fluid will have to be used to embalm their body. For example, a body weighing 150 pounds would gain 80 pounds after embalming, said Wheat, but one weighing 200 pounds could gain 100 to 120 extra pounds after embalming.

Kevin McPherson said if his mother had known her donation was in jeopardy, she would have likely watched her weight and eaten less of her favorite sweet foods in her final weeks to help keep within specified parameters.

All of her doctors and hospice workers knew of her intention to make an anatomical donation, said Kevin, and nobody questioned whether the donation would be received.

“Everybody thought it was a done deal,” Kevin said.

According to the university’s website, “Acceptance of an anatomical gift is contingent upon the needs of the University at the time of donor’s death or at the time of notification by the next-of-kin or executor of the will of the deceased person that a gift is to be made.

Accordingly, donors should always make alternative arrangements for cremation or interment in the event that the University is unable to accept a gift.”

On average, Wheat said 140 new donors enroll each year, and 65 to 70 bodies are accepted. Nearly 3,000 people are currently enrolled as donors, he added.

While about 10 percent of donors get rejected at the time of death, Wheat said most rejections are due to the donor moving out of state.

The university does not accept donations if the person moves away from Maine because of the high cost of transportation.

Kevin McPherson said he has nothing against the University of New England, but would like to spare other families from going through the same ordeal, or simply assuming their relative’s wish will automatically be accepted.

“There could be better clarification,” Scott McPherson added. “If you have a loved one signed up for this program, be sure to inquire as to whether they meet their qualifications.”

Wheat said doctors and nurses occasionally call to ask questions while their patients are still living.

“If they have any questions, we try to talk them through it,” Wheat said.

“With over 3,000 people enrolled, there’s no way we can keep in touch with them all,” he added, “and even if we kept in touch with donors, the families may have no idea.”

Wheat said although state law allows the university to receive a donor against the will of their next-of-kin, the university’s policy is to reject it if there are strong objections from the family.

While the McPhersons had no objection to Delores McPherson’s remains being used for medical education, her BMI at the time of her death prevented the university from accepting the anatomical donation.

In the end, the brothers decided to cremate their mother.

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