Can someone donate blood after they die?
Blood is strongly associated with life, so I don’t think anyone’s first choice is a transfusion of stagnant blood from a corpse. But blood beggars can’t be blood choosers and donating blood after you die is safer and more effective than you’d think.
In 1928, Soviet surgeon V. N. Shamov decided to investigate whether blood from a dead body could be used to keep a living one from the same fate. He started his experiments with dogs. As with most animal testing, the design of the experiment sounds a lot like—how do I put this?—torture.
Shamov and his team removed 70 percent of a living dog’s circulating blood volume. In other words, they took out nearly three-quarters of all the blood in the dog’s body. Then the team washed out the depleted bloodstream with warm saline, to bring the total level of exsanguination (a cool word that means the draining of blood) to 90 percent, a lethal level.
But hope was not lost for this brave laboratory pupkins. Another dog had been killed just hours earlier. The dead dog’s blood was infused into the dying dog and, as if by magic, the dying dog came back to life. Further experiments demonstrated that so long as the dead dog’s blood was removed within six hours after death, the living recipients of the blood did just fine.
From here, blood donation gets a little less Saw and a little more Frankenstein. Two years later, the same Soviet team successfully tested cadaver blood donation on humans, and spent the better part of the next thirty years happily transfusing the life-giving fluid from the dead to the living. In 1961, Jack Kevorkian, who later earned the nickname “Dr. Death” for helping patients who wished for medical assistance in dying, became the first American doctor to attempt the practice.
These experiments help to prove that dying isn’t like switching off a light. Just because a person has died—they’ve stopped breathing, and their brain shows no electrical activity (as we discussed in the coma/brain death question)—does not mean that their body has suddenly become useless. As Dr. Shamov wrote, “The corpse should no longer be considered dead in the first hours after death.” A heart kept on ice can be transplanted up to four hours after death. A liver, ten. A particularly good kidney will last twenty-four hours, and sometimes as long as seventy-two if doctors use the right equipment after surgery. This is known as the “cold ischemic time.” Consider it the five-second rule, but for organs.
As long as the death was relatively sudden and the dead person was in otherwise good health, cadaver blood remains usable, as Dr. Shamov discovered, for up to six hours. In other words, donation is a go—though obviously it is better if the blood isn’t tainted with medication or communicable diseases. White blood cells have several days of activity left in them after the heart stops beating. If the blood is sterile and in good condition, cadaver blood donation is perfectly fine.
So if these transfusions are possible, why aren’t they popular? A few reasons. Cadaver blood donation, let’s be honest, is sort of a one-time thing. Doctors realized early on that living donors can give blood (and score free cookies) many times a year—as often as every eight weeks. While there are limited numbers of healthy, disease-free cadavers to exsanguinate, we can promote blood donation through blood drives; donation centers can welcome back repeat (living) customers for years on end.
Blood from living donors also avoids the ethical implications of giving someone corpse blood without their knowledge. If you get a pair of lungs from an organ donor, there is an obvious knowledge of their origins (psst, from a dead person). A patient in the midst of a crisis might need the blood too badly, and be too unconscious, to stop and have an informed chat about how their donor blood came gushing out of a dead man’s neck.
Speaking of gushing out of the neck, that is actually sort of what happens. Without a beating heart to pump the blood out, cadaveric blood donation requires gravity to do the work. If pathologists need to get blood out of a cadaver, the simple option is to open a large vein in the neck and then tip the head down. Embalmers at your local funeral home have a more sophisticated drainage system, so gravity is not required. As embalming fluid is pushed into the body, blood is pushed out, rolling down the table and into the sewer system. When I get the call from my local blood center asking for donations, I think of all the blood from embalming procedures just pouring down the drain.
The most striking reason cadaver blood donation is not done is the stigma of blood from a corpse. Strange, since corpse parts are used in medicine all the time. I found out that one of my friends has tissue from a cadaver butt in her mouth. Turns out quite a few people do. When gums are receding, due to teeth grinding or health issues, they can be rebuilt by implanting cells from the butt of a human cadaver. So, cadaver butt is in, but cadaver blood is out.
I reached out to the Red Cross to get their official policy on cadaver blood donation but, as of this writing, they have yet to respond.