Darrell Wilkins, Deeded Body Program
Born and raised in Tabor, a small town in southwest Iowa, Darrell Wilkins is a seasoned traveler who has visited all corners of the country and the world both for pleasure and in the course of his work. His love of traveling goes hand-in-hand with a lifelong enthusiasm for all modes of transportation, including planes, trains, and even 18-wheelers. With this background, following his father into the auto dealership business might have seemed a natural career choice, but attending a funeral as a young child struck a deep chord for Wilkins and led to 20 years in funeral service. Ultimately, it brought him to The University of Iowa as program coordinator for the deeded body program in the UI Carver College of Medicine.
Can you tell us a little about the University’s deeded body program?
The formal program was started in 1965. I became program coordinator in 1996. We procure donors for the UI professional programs that use human specimens, including the dental and medical schools and physical therapy program. We also serve some individual researchers. Donors have to be enrolled in our program prior to their death, and they must have a deed of disposition on record.
What is your day-to-day job?
I take care of the overall operation of the program. I respond to requests for information, and when paperwork comes back, I review the information to see if potential donors meet the program's criteria. If they do, I send an identification card enrolling them. Also, I oversee the gross anatomy lab's day-to-day operations. In the course of the year, around 800 people, from students to doctors, will use the lab.
Do donors know exactly how their body will be used?
No, I make that assignment. Not all donors are suited for all programs. Also, we don't use a specimen for study purposes for a minimum of six months because it takes that long to become fully preserved. The time of the year a donor passes away determines when and how the body can be used.
Can you describe your interactions with donors and their families?
Families must go through a funeral home to make arrangements for any memorial services they might want and to have the loved one brought here. The only time we do not use a funeral home to transport the body to the University is when a donor passes away at UI Hospitals and Clinics.
I think we have one of the better deeded body programs. I think we are distinguished by the care we show not only to the donors themselves but also the family contacts. We try to keep them informed and we try to meet the families' requests whenever possible. We want people to be comfortable. We also have an annual memorial service for donors. Families of those who will be interred [after the body is used at the University] are invited, and we generally have around 400 people attend every year.
How did you come to be program coordinator?
That's a long story. After 20 years in funeral service, I sold my funeral homes. I was more or less burned out. Funeral directing is essentially a 24/7 job. After about 10 months traveling around, I decided I needed something to do, so I drove an 18-wheeler out of Cedar Rapids for about 18 months. I enjoyed the job; I had an office with a view and it always changed. I was working as a truck driver when applied for the position of anatomy mortician with the Department of Anatomy [in the UI Carver College of Medicine] in 1993. I put in a résumé on the way between the east and west coast, one thing led to another, and, as they say, the rest is history. I assumed the coordinator position for the University’s deeded body program in 1996 after the previous coordinator retired.
What is the best thing about your job?
The challenge of keeping it all going and always trying to make the program better. For example, we have established a plastination lab. The plastination process takes several months and involves completely dehydrating an embalmed anatomical specimen, say a heart, and then impregnating the tissue with a silicone-based polymer to turn it into a plastic specimen. Plastinated specimens are great for teaching, school tours, and talks because they can be stored in open air and be safely handled. It also allows us to do a dissection once and preserve the specimens so we don't have to do the same dissection every year to show the same thing.
You are also a member of the National Medical Disaster System. What is that?
It's called DMORT, which stands for Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team. I am one of the original members of the national system established in 1991. Our primary responsibility is any mass fatality disaster that happens in our region, but we are also subject to calls to other regions and overseas. Our primary goal is to recover and identify remains and get them returned to the families.
Our team was the first ever to be deployed to a national disaster—Harden, Mo., when the Missouri River flooded in October 1993 and washed out the cemetery, displacing 799 graves. I was in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and was sent to Guam when Korean Airlines Flight 801 crashed in 1997. I was in Kirksville, Mo., in 2004 when a commuter airplane crashed there, and I also worked in the temporary morgue set up at Ground Zero in New York City after Sept. 11, 2001.
Tell us a little about yourself and your family.
For the most part, I have always lived in Iowa. I was born and raised in Tabor, Iowa, where my parents still live. I now live in Mount Pleasant with my wife. We have a daughter who lives in Guam with our two grandchildren and another daughter in Orlando. I also have a brother in Des Moines.
When you were growing up, what did you want to do?
I wanted to make a career out of the Marine Corps, but an injury short-circuited that idea. I also wanted to stay in the car business, but my parents wanted me to go to college. I attended Sioux Falls College in South Dakota, but I didn't really like college and I ended up in funeral service. I can't quite say exactly how that happened, but when I was little, my mom took me to a funeral, and I can remember to this day just exactly where I sat in the funeral home. I guess it was something ingrained in me early on.
Where are we most likely to find you on your days off?
I like to go motorcycle riding, and I have a convertible that I like to drive about. I sold my airplane so I can't do that anymore, but I am the head conductor on Midwest Central Railroad, a narrow gauge steam railroad out of Mount Pleasant. I also love to do woodwork and carpentry.
What would your coworkers be surprised to learn about you?
That I applied to smoke-jumping school out of high school. But at over six feet tall, I was too big.
What are some of your favorites?
Food: Rib eye steak from Bonaparte's Retreat in Bonaparte, Iowa. Books: Military history, particularly Marine Corps history and WWII South Pacific. Iwo Jima is a special interest. Movies: Dr. Zhivago and Midway. Television show: Coach. Sports team: Green Bay Packers and the Iowa Hawkeyes.
by Jennifer Brown