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A Body's Life After Death

Michael Palmore's family gave his corpse to science, but they never thought its parts would be used by the military or to sell surgical tools.

June 03, 2004|Alan Zarembo | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — 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.

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