Six years ago, Belmont woman Merrilyn Stone gave a gift to thousands of people.
When she died of breast cancer in 2009 at the age of 58, her body was donated to the University of Newcastle's School of Medicine and Public Health in New South Wales.
Ms Stone's journey with breast cancer started in 1990.
Despite having a mastectomy and eventually being given the 'all clear', she was re-diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001 and was given three to five years to live.
But she outlived the prognosis, and over the next eight years, Ms Stone discussed her desire to donate her body to science with her family.
"She loved teaching, and I think the fact that she wanted people to be able to learn from her, not only in life but in death says a lot," Ms Stone's 65-year-old widower, Darrell Stone, said.
"I think I did a lot of my mourning for her during those eight years I was looking after her. It gave us time to talk about things.
"It was tough. Being a carer 24-hours a day, seven days a week progressively became worse."
The process of body donation
In the week before her death, Ms Stone signed paperwork with the university formally allowing her body to be used for research and education, initially for four years.
"She had no concerns with it [and] I had no problems with it, because I knew somehow or other, her body was going to be dissected in all sorts of ways," Mr Stone said.
"So what's the difference between getting cremated and being cut up for research, or to teach medical students?"
Within hours of her death, Ms Stone's body was taken to the university laboratory.
The anatomy laboratory has a cold, sterile feel to it.
Twenty long steel benches are assembled in neat parallel rows, with fluorescent lights casting a soft uniform glow on the room.
Model skeletons dangle next to each row of benches, alongside plastic anatomical models.
Dressed in a white coat and navy trousers, the anatomy laboratory manager Douglas Gillespie, 61, has worked at the university for 15 years.
He had always been fascinated by the human body.
"We need to get [the body] reasonably quickly to do an embalming process to preserve the tissue," he said.
Twenty litres of formaldehyde mix is injected into the body via the femoral arteries, in a process that takes up to two days.
"[The embalming fluid goes] pretty much wherever the blood goes, because it's following the same route," Mr Gillespie said.
"It gets through all the little vessels, capillaries and into the tissue.
"In a funeral home, you embalm for aesthetic purposes because people want to view the body.
"In the university, we're embalming to make sure all that tissue is fixed and will not deteriorate further."
The bodies are then dissected, in order to reveal organs and bodily structures.
Each year the laboratory accepts about 20 bodies, which range in age, but are predominantly 70 to 90 years old.
When prospective donors sign up there is no guarantee that when they die their body will be accepted.
For example, if the person had an infectious disease at the time of their death or was obese or emaciated, the university may not accept the donation.
People also need to have died of natural causes.
The body donation process is heavily regulated by NSW Health, with meticulous records kept and thorough annual inspections carried out.
The university can store 64 full bodies in large cool rooms, as well as up to 150 dissected organs and body parts for students and researchers to study.
Anatomy class can be confronting
In the first university semester of the year, about 1,200 students file in to the laboratory every week for anatomy class.
Four years ago, Dominic Ku, 23, was one of those medical students arriving at the lab for the first time.
There was a sense of nervous excitement in the air as the students assembled before class.
Despite the veil of enthusiasm, Dr Ku tried to mentally prepare himself for what was ahead.
"You're confronted at first by a sense of mortality. You're reminded that people age, they get sick, and they do pass away in the end," he said.
"I guess not all of us are mentally prepared, but when you're in the lab, you realise it's a great privilege to be there.
"A very special aspect of medicine is that you do confront life and death issues, daily. That's something we all forget about when we happily stroll along the beach."
Each week students study a different aspect of the body.
Dr Ku said without anatomical classes, it was difficult to appreciate the body's complexities.
"When you go into the lab every week, it reminds you of how transient and how little time there is to human life," Dr Ku said.
"Much of learning in anatomy labs is disassociating yourself from the specimens.
"Sometimes it's difficult. When you see a human face or the brain, that is very confronting.
"I'm not sure if I've pushed through that, and I think that's a good thing that you don't completely disassociate yourself and see that as a specimen.
"It is someone's human body, so that respect needs to remain."
Five years after his wife's death, Mr Stone wanted closure and contacted the university to have his wife's remains returned.
"All the tissue that's been taken from the body during its dissection process, and then all the parts of that particular body go back into a coffin," Mr Gillespie said.
"The coffin is then cremated.
"Ashes can then be returned to the family, or sometimes they're just scattered on a memorial garden, depending on the donor's wishes."
For the Stone family, the process did bring the closure they desired.
Body donation gives a fresh perspective on life
Dr Ku is about to enter the workforce as a hospital intern and said working with donated bodies had helped shape his medical education.
"It gives you the perspective that much of medicine is to improve and prolong life," he said.
"[Body donations] contribute to the future of human knowledge.
"These labs do grow you as a person [and] allow you to think about our human bodies in different ways than what we used to."
Mr Gillespie said the Newcastle laboratory had enough donors at present, but the situation could change.
He said working with human anatomy had been an enriching experience.
"You appreciate life," he said.
"You're always aware of the fine line between living and dying.
"If anything, it really should make you think to make the most of every day."
Article by Robert Virtue from 1233 ABC Newcastle. All photos by 1233 ABC Newcastle: Robert Virtue.
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