Jeanne Gardner, Bequest Secretary
Jeanne joined DPAG in February 2017 as a receptionist in Le Gros Clark, joining us from the Bodleian Library. In March 2018 she took on the role of Bequest Secretary in the Anatomy team. The ability of Oxford’s medical students to study the human body is an invaluable part of their medical education. Each year the team needs a number of donated cadavers for this purpose. Jeanne is responsible for managing the donations programme and overseeing around 5000 donors currently registered on the system. Interview on 7 January 2022.
Tell us about your career background so far and what brought you to DPAG?
When I first left school, I worked in retail before moving to Southern California, US, for 10 years as my husband was in the military. On my return to Oxford (I am Cowley born and bred), I had several roles in the criminal justice system. Firstly, I worked for the family court, from courtroom usher to Judge’s Clerk, and finally to Detention Custody officer (transporting defendants to and from court). After this, I became a Probation Service Officer working with recently released high risk offenders to help them re-enter the community and comply with their licence conditions. I then took a year out to reset and work out what I wanted to do next. The idea of being able to speak to people over the phone and in person on reception appealed to me, so I took a part-time reception job at the Bodleian Library. I then spotted a full-time receptionist position advertised at Le Gros Clark (LGC).
What were your first impressions of DPAG?
When I joined it was very busy in LGC, with Finance, HR and many research groups, plus a café in the basement. It was lovely! There were so many fantastic people from the different groups to meet, and all of a sudden students started coming in trying to find the different labs - LGC is a bit like a rabbit warren! Everyone was very welcoming
How did you come to be Bequest Secretary at DPAG?
When I was first on reception at LGC, I didn’t know anything about a body donor programme. Then I had a phone call one day informing me that somebody had passed away and they had left their body to the department. I thought where do I go with this? My colleagues told me to put it through to the Bequest Secretary, which raised my interest. I watched a programme on Channel 4 which taught me information about the two different styles of preserving donors (freezing and embalming). The job was advertised when I’d been on reception about a year, and the Bequest Secretary had already left, so I was getting more and more phone calls! I decided to just go for it! There wasn’t a lot of training initially, but I soon learned that consent is the most important thing. It’s very different from organ donation, because everyone is considered an organ donor unless you opt out. We only accept the whole body with advance signed consent from the donor. Nobody can sign on their behalf.
What exactly does your job entail?
I have the initial contact with a potential donor. I give them an information booklet containing relevant consent forms for them to sign and return. We then rely on their next of kin or estate to contact us when that potential donor passes away. However, there is no guarantee that we can accept the donation. I need to check the consent form is valid and make inquiries with the medical professional who looked after this person about the cause of death and the donor’s condition. I’ll then consult with the Director of Anatomy, Anatomy technicians and Mortuary Supervisor. As with all medical schools, we have criteria we have to follow. There are certain illnesses and other factors that are automatically excluded. It’s a very emotive time for the family. If we can’t accept a donor, I ask the next of kin if they’d like me to check with other medical schools if they would accept. If we can accept a donor, we only have a short time frame to do so (between five and six days from the day of death), and they need to get the death registered in that time. I then work closely with funeral directors who bring the donors in to us, and it’s over to my colleagues in in the Dissection Room (DR) and the Mortuary to start looking after our donors. A lot of donors say they want to give something back, and it's a real honour and a privilege when we can accept a donor.
We keep our donors anywhere from three months to three years. In that time, I maintain contact with the family or next of kin. We have started doing face to face teaching again in the DR, so we sometimes need to ask families if we can keep the donors a little longer. The family can choose whether they wish to know when we're going to release the donor for funeral, and we offer a simple cremation service that they can choose to attend, and they can choose to take possession of the ashes afterwards. Some choose not to, but because it's an emotive subject, I will always phone and double check in case they’ve changed their mind. I attend most of the services.
What do you most enjoy about your job?
Every time we can accept a donor, or I successfully find another medical school to accept, that is the highlight of my day. The last two years have been hard because we haven’t been able to accept any donors due to COVID, but we're looking at ways to overcome that and start accepting again. Other medical schools have been a godsend during this time because they have different facilities and criteria. Another good aspect of my job is when I get the family on the phone to say thank you for my help, be it for finding an alternative medical school or just for listening to them. I get many lovely emails and cards from families. In fact, I get emails from all around the world from people wanting to leave their bodies to Oxford because it is number one for teaching. I have lots of lovely anecdotes. For example, I had a 99-year-old man walk down from Headington to hand me his signed consent form because it was so important to him.
What are your biggest challenges?
The greatest difficulty is not having been able to accept any donors over the past two years. There have been potential donors who registered many years ago, and the families have been absolutely devastated to think they can’t be accepted. Another challenge is that we struggle to accept potential donors with dementia if they've not signed the consent form before it was too advanced for informed consent. Also talking to bereaved families can be devastating, but at the same time it’s an absolute honour to hear about their loved ones and what they’ve done in their lives. The families really want us to know about them – some of them were even scientists! Finally, we’re finding more and more young people getting in touch now (you have to be 18 to sign a consent form) who are looking ahead and requesting the forms. In some of these cases, I have to be mindful of a potential donor’s wellbeing when they first speak to me in case there are any concerning welfare issues.
What do you want people to understand about your work?
Medical professionals in particular need to be aware that we can't accept everybody. There is a criteria to get into Oxford! Many doctors recommend the body donation programme to their patients. Some may think that more complex medical conditions are more interesting for the students. However, unfortunately, this is not the case. We only use our donors for teaching, not for research, so the fewer complications the better. Potential donors also need to be aware that there’s no guarantee, so they should speak to their next of kin about alternative arrangements. It’s not an easy subject to talk about, but people need to talk about these things. I always advise a potential donor to have a conversation with their loved ones. There's nothing worse than not knowing what your loved one wants after death. It's heart-breaking when I get a phone call from a family member after they’ve gone through a loved one’s papers and found the consent form several weeks after they’ve passed away, and we can no longer accept.
People should also be aware that we don’t pay for our donations and that every medical school has its own catchment area. We accept donors from Reading, Swindon, and Oxford, but with the next of kin’s consent, we can accept from other areas.
What do you do outside of your job?
I love travelling and during the pandemic one of my colleagues in DPAG sold me a campervan, so we went travelling around the UK most weekends. While I’m at work, I tend to listen to music and people can often see me singing and dancing in my office! This can help manage the more stressful side to my job. If I’ve had a difficult phone call, I’ll often take myself out of the office for a walk in the park. Health and wellbeing is important to me, and I make a point of saying good morning to everybody at work, just so they know there is somebody if they need to talk, because I think sometimes I could be the only person who has spoken to that person. I’m one of DPAG’s Mental Health First Aiders and I want people to know that if they’re feeling overwhelmed, they can come and speak to me. I say good morning to everyone because I feel that, especially the younger researchers who are often so focused on what they’re doing, people don’t know what’s available, and it may be that one hello that gets through to them. When I'm in the office, I will make the time to listen to people and my door is always open. We’re not fixers, but we can support you, we can listen to you, we can guide you, we can signpost you, or we can just be there.
What are your hopes for this coming year?
I’m hoping this year that we can get back to accepting donors and doing what we do best and that's teaching our medical students face to face. I want to know that when our doctors are trained, we’ve done the very best we can for them. We also use our donors for external courses where trainee surgeons come in and practice surgical techniques, so I hope we can get these up and running again.