Premila Sathasivam

When her cellphone rings in the wee hours, Premila Sathasivam knows what to expect. It doesn’t happen often, although one month late last year brought eight nighttime calls, including six in two weeks. Those wakeups trigger a process that may lead to another human body donor providing what she calls “a precious gift” to the University of Guelph.

A long-time staffer in U of G’s Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences (HHNS), Sathasivam manages the human anatomy teaching program and body donation program. Among the traits she brings to that job is sympathy for others – a quality underpinning her varied volunteer activities on and off campus that earned her a U of G president’s award this past fall, her second one in seven years.

“I have an ingrained sense of compassion,” says Sathasivam, who traces her community service convictions to her upbringing in a philanthropically minded family in Sri Lanka. “It’s natural to help, to share your food, give clothing and money to the less fortunate. That carried over to Canada.”

After a tsunami washed away lives and livelihoods in her homeland and other South Asian countries in late 2004, Sathasivam joined other volunteers to collect relief donations. Her charitable work and her support of U of G teaching and research brought her a President’s Award for Exemplary Staff Service in 2005.

Since then, she’s hardly stopped.

This past fall, she appeared at the U of G community breakfast to receive her second president’s award, this time for community service.

Describing the Guelph staffer as the “ultimate volunteer,” president Alastair Summerlee cited her involvement with the U of G United Way campaign, charity runs, Haiti relief, Onward Willow, the Guelph Food Bank and support of new Canadians.

He also mentioned the University’s human body donation program, a growing initiative whose unusual demands call for Sathasivam to balance compassion for grieving families with business and administration savvy.

Under the human anatomy program run by HHNS, each year some 330 undergrads in human kinetics and biomedical science work with cadavers in third- and fourth-year courses. They do both dissections and prosections (watching dissections or examining dissected parts) in hands-on instruction of a kind normally offered only to graduate students in medical and professional schools elsewhere.

Referring to those undergrad students, Prof. Lawrence Spriet, HHNS chair, says, “The fact that the students are learning from actual human bodies and in most cases are doing so through actual dissection leaves a very powerful and positive impact on all those involved.”

The program is directed and taught by HHNS professor Lorraine Jadeski along with technicians and work-study students in the human anatomy lab located in the Ontario Veterinary College.

Besides U of G undergrads, about 65 kinesiology students from the University of Guelph-Humber visit the lab each semester. Through an active outreach program, another 3,000 students in high schools, community and career colleges, and professional institutions take part in custom anatomy workshops.

Without the Guelph program, those students might have to rely on texts and synthetic models en route to pursuing varied medical and health-care careers, says Sathasivam.

That’s a lot of learners – and the numbers are growing. That’s good news, but it also brings challenges.

Until recently, the program relied on bodies donated to nearby medical schools. With those schools needing resources for their own growing classes, it’s become more difficult for Guelph to obtain enough bodies.

In 2006, U of G began seeking direct donations of cadavers with help from the office of Ontario’s chief inspector of anatomy. Donations began to increase three years later, after a Portico magazine article was published about the program.

Fourteen bodies were donated in 2012 and two more in the first three days of 2013. The program requires 15 to 20 cadavers each year.

“We’re becoming self-sufficient, but we are still struggling in terms of cold storage and embalming facilities. It’s a very frightening way to live,” says Sathasivam. “We really want to help our alumni families and other donors fulfill their wishes to be body donors to U of G.”

It’s her job to spread the word and to work with donors and their families. She discusses plans with family members in phone conversations and personal visits, including completing paperwork required by provincial law.

Roughly half of the donors – what she calls the U of G “anatomy family” – are from Guelph and nearby. “I often cry with them but know that I must be strong for them,” she says.

“I like to give the family the best possible connection with the University. It’s a really difficult time: the families are sad and exhausted, their emotions are very fragile. Dealing with the family has to be done with a lot of care and sensitivity.”

She’s the one who receives the phone call about a donor’s death, even late at night. Sathasivam then works with family members and others to arrange ultimate delivery of embalmed bodies to Guelph.

Bodies are now embalmed at licensed facilities elsewhere. Spriet says a proposal is under way to develop an embalming and storage facility here to make the program entirely self-sufficient.

Following each year’s course, Sathasivam helps ensure ultimate cremation and burial within the U of G plot at Woodlawn Memorial Gardens in Guelph or return of ashes to families for private interment.

A key event each year is a celebration of life and learning organized each spring in War Memorial Hall. Organized by Jadeski and Sathasivam, that service involves students in each year’s class along with graduates, donor family members, U of G community members and others.

Says Spriet, “The first time I attended, I got choked up when listening to the stories from the donors’ families and also the stories about the impact of the course on our students and former students.”

Those stories often hit close to home. This past spring, one student at the service described how her mother had willed herself to the program.

One anatomy graduate – now a doctor – attended a ceremony one year with his mother. By then, his father had been sick for months and had discussed body donation several times with Sathasivam.

The couple had finally decided that the man would donate his body “based on the depth of care and respect we were offering.” He died just over a month after that service attended by his family.

Referring to face-to-face discussions with prospective donors, Sathasivam says, “When I’m actually with the person, I have a sense of peace that I’m fulfilling that person’s wishes. They have a deep sense of peace that they’re being looked after following their death.”

If she’d followed her original plan, she would have become a medical student and perhaps a doctor herself.

“I’ve always had a passion for the life sciences.”

She studied biochemistry at the University of Salford in the United Kingdom. She worked for three years at Northwick Park Hospital’s Clinical Research Centre in Harrow while her husband, Ravi, studied banking (they had met as teens in Sri Lanka).

In 1981, the couple returned to Colombo in Sri Lanka, where Ravi had accepted a job with a British bank. With research jobs scarce there, Premila found a position with Citibank. She spent three years learning not just about corporate banking but about other things – team-building, leadership, customer service, public relations – that she says have proven useful here at Guelph. “They taught me lifelong skills.”

In 1984, the couple followed Prem’s family to Guelph. Their son, now in his 20s and a Guelph grad, was born in Canada.

She found her way back to research at U of G, working first on immune system studies with biomedical sciences professor William Boyd – who established the human anatomy program at Guelph in the 1960s – and later on muscle metabolism research with former HHNS chair Terry Graham.

Working with several professors in the former human biology department, she also helped run human clinical trials – first in the Powell Building, then in the Animal Science and Nutrition Building after the former human health and nutritional sciences departments merged to form today’s department in 1995.

She still co-ordinates phlebotomy work for clinical trials in HHNS and in its Human Nutraceutical Research Unit. She also runs clinical trial safety training and general health and safety for HHNS.

Today most of her time is spent in managing human anatomy and body donation.

Reading her award citation at this fall’s community breakfast, Summerlee mentioned a late friend of Prem’s.

Shortly before her death this past summer, Dianna Koster had arranged with her husband to have her body donated to the human anatomy program. Koster had volunteered for nearly 40 different causes in and around the city. Calling her “an unsung hero,” Sathasivam says, “I never met anyone who volunteered so much in Guelph.”

When she learned this fall that she had earned a president’s award, she thought first of her friend. With permission from Koster’s husband, the Guelph staffer asked Summerlee to dedicate her new honour to Dianna. “That was important to me.”

Note: Nominations for the 2013 President’s Awards for Exemplary Staff Service are now being accepted.