by Gay Liddington
The word ‘donation’ conjures up the idea of giving to charity. It is something a person chooses to give away: money, goods, services. It’s usually a feel-good process. However, in the case of a loved one donating their body to science, the bequest may unlock the proverbial Pandora’s Box.
Betty Errington was a woman who knew her own mind even at a young age. Her daughters recall that she was Australia’s first woman radio announcer at 3BO Bendigo in the 1930s; then moved to Cairns against her father’s wishes, established a women’s club and hosted women’s and children’s sessions at 4CA.
When war broke out, Betty joined the WRAAF and held the position of Recruitment Officer. She flew around Australia in Lancaster Bombers to recruit women.
Maleny sisters, Bev Hannam and Ruth Drynan, shared stories about their mother’s end-of-life choice to donate her body to science.
Ruth was first in the family to become aware of their mother’s decision.
“One day after work, I popped in to visit Mum. She was sitting at the table with her friend, Connie, they were having a gin and tonic and laughing. The table was strewn with paperwork. They said, we’re glad you came, we need a witness.
“They told me what it was about but it was all very light-hearted so I signed, witnessing their signatures as requested. I didn’t think too much more about it until the news filtered through the family.”
Bev, who worked in the medical profession had a vastly different reaction.
“What happened and how it works is that a spokesman for the Faculty of Medicine at Queensland University was a guest speaker at the retirement village. He provided key facts about the process of body donation. As far as I know, Mum and Connie were the only two who signed up quickly.
“I remember Ruth and the others thought it was an honourable thing to do but I was a nurse and never comfortable with the idea. I also lived at St Lucia which was near the university where her body would be taken. That alone was unsettling.”
While speaking with Bev she reflected on the friendship between her mother and Connie.
“Mum was aged 86 and Connie 96 when I first knew of their decision to donate their body to science.
“They had been friends since their 20s and lived in a retirement village. Each Monday night, Connie would usually make her way to Mum’s place in the dark assisted by her walking frame. They would have dinner and Mum would walk back home with her. They were great mates.”
Universities body donation programs provide students the opportunity to examine and dissect human bodies. It’s that hands-on experience that supports biomedical science, groundbreaking research and creates surgeons of the future.
While daughter Ruth initially accepted her mother’s end of life choice, there was a delayed reaction.
“I had my moments because I’d never thought about somebody close to me doing this. It would hit me all of a sudden but I kept it to myself. As it got closer I found the idea quite confronting.
“Mum had a stroke when she was 88. Then a year to the day, she had a second stroke and was taken to Redcliffe Hospital. She died five days later.”
Bev, who was still struggling with the idea of her mother’s choice, had accepted the inevitable in honour of her wishes. She elaborated: “The doctor said he would ring the university and update them on the situation. After discussion, they rejected the body on the basis that in the year since her first stroke she’d become wasted.”
On hearing this news Bev felt relieved. However, the acceptance then rejection created a sense of chaos amidst dealing with immense grief.
“We had gotten to a point where all had accepted Mum’s wishes and then all of a sudden it changed. Then we had to make arrangements that we’d not previously thought about.
“It was a shock to realise we had to change tack very quickly. Add to that the fact that Mum always said she didn’t want to be present at her own funeral,” said Bev.
Reflecting on the process of her mother’s passing Ruth acknowledged the value of such an altruistic act as her mother had intended.
“It’s important for the person making this choice to speak with their family who in turn should educate themselves to the pros and cons of such a decision. Also know that things can change from when you sign on the dotted line to when you die.”
Betty died in 2006 and Connie in 2010 when she was 99 ¾. Ruth and Bev visited Connie just prior to her passing, shared stories and laughter. Her choice of donating her body to science came to fruition.
In speaking with Ruth and Bev I am left with a sense of two amazing women who forged a friendship and blazed a trail in spite of war, raising families and distance.
Their ‘wise woman’ years were effulgent. I have a feeling that somewhere in the great beyond Betty and Connie are quaffing a gin and tonic, leaving a trail of laughter and mischief in their wake.
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