It was around 11 o’clock on a January evening when Antonis Mazarakis got a phone call. The medical professor was out to dinner with friends. “My brother has died,” he heard a woman’s voice telling him. “He’s a donor.” Mazarakis had to leave the table and find a quiet place to talk. He needed to explain to the caller that he could, unfortunately, not accept her brother’s remains. “That’s a shame,” she said. “He had hoped that something good could at least come out of this.”
“It saddens us more than anyone,” said Mazarakis, who is an assistant professor at Athens University Medical School and has worked for over 20 years at the anatomy lab. The lab operates almost exclusively thanks to people who have signed a declaration prior to their death donating their body to science. Mazarakis said that in the past five years, the lab has received 370 donations.
In January, however, the anatomy lab was unable to accept any new bodies. The reason was that the facility’s only embalmer quit after suffering serious acid burns to the chest and face while on the job. There is no one to replace him as the second technician retired in 2014. This is a crucial job, as the donor’s body has to be embalmed within the first 72 hours after his or her death and around 80 percent of the process needs to be completed in the first four to six hours after a body is brought in.
Repeated efforts by the management of the anatomy lab to be authorized more staff have been futile so far, while the lab upgrade of the refrigerators and freezers, which would reduce the risk of accidents, has been pending since 2013.
The fact that no embalming can be carried out has not only affected donors but also the progress of the medical students. There are currently 378 students training at the lab, many of whom are postgrads. It is believed that the existing bodies will suffice for the coursework to be covered just until the end of the current semester.
“Their education will continue but it will be on plastic dummies, which is not the same thing,” noted Mazarakis. “Research, of course, cannot continue without cadavers.”
It is noted that at other universities, such as Patra, students are not taught with real cadavers but on special computer programs or dummies.
An increasing number of Greeks have been considering donating their bodies to science in the past few years. A small percentage of the cadavers that end up at the Athens University anatomy lab belong to poor people whose families could not afford a burial.
“Most, however, are just people who wants to give something back,” said Mazarakis, adding that he believes the idea gained some acceptance in 2008 when the popular author Antonis Samarakis donated his body to science.
To become a body donor in Greece, the interested party needs to fill in a declaration and have it certified at a police station. It needs to be signed by the donor and their next of kin, who have the duty to inform the anatomy lab when the donor dies.