Health

Inside the Morbid World of Organ Harvesters

Published On 10/26/2015 Published On 10/26/2015
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There’s a naked dead person on the other side of the door. And you're about to cut him open.

Never mind that three hours ago, you didn't know his name. Never mind that you have a degree in Mass Communication and struggle to properly carve a Thanksgiving turkey. You just raced 150 miles across the state and are about to grab the warm heart right out of his body. And somewhere in the region, a very sick person is depending on you.

You’re an organ and tissue removal specialist, and while you might not save lives like an EMT or an ER doc or a surgeon, you’re still one of the most critical parts of the organ donation process.

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Contrary to popular belief, all organs and tissues aren't actually removed by highly trained surgeons with Ivy League/Caribbean medical-school degrees. Sure, when it comes to living people who are donating organs to friends, relatives, Bob from accounting, surgeons preform the operation. But of the 29,532 organs donated in the United States in 2014, 23,715 were taken from deceased donors. And nearly all of their organs were removed not by a doctor, but by a trained specialist.

Part Dr. McDreamy, part Patrick Bateman, these hard working men and women are the ones who get called in to harvest viable organs after people die. They exist largely in part so that doctors can spend their time keeping other people alive.

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And what kind of qualifications does one need to remove warm body parts from dead people? In some cases, a simple trade certification. In others, an associate’s degree. But, by in large, all you really need is what their clients don't have... a pulse!

While organizations like the American Association of Tissue Banks do offer certifications in tissue removal, most jobs are filled by people with flexible schedules and a willingness to learn. And almost all of the training is done on-the-job.

“I’m not good at science,” says Bert Lubbock*, whose first job out of college was as an organ and tissue removal specialist. “I told them that and they said ‘Oh no, we’ll train you. Just give us your schedule.’” A few weeks later, he was standing over a corpse in Rapid City, SD, learning how to remove a femur for bone marrow. After a few nights of watching a senior specialist in action, it was his turn to be the bone collector.

“I wasn’t nervous the whole drive,” Lubbock says. “But when we got there, they wheeled the body out from the freezer, and I’m like ‘Whoa, I’m about to cut that guy open.’"

But let's be clear, newbies like Lubbock don’t remove vital organs like hearts and brains. Those extractions are reserved for team leaders, typically technicians with more experience or AATB certifications.

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But how much do they make? It's gotta be a lot right -- they're cutting people open! Again... not exactly. In fact, according to Payscale.com, the average salary for the job is $36,540. But most specialists are pooled, so they're actually only paid for time spent on the road and removing organs. If they’re on call for four nights and nobody dies, then you’re not getting paid. “I don’t think it could be anyone’s full-time job,” says Lubbock. “You get $25-an-hour plus expenses, which is sweet if you’re poor, but it’s not enough to keep up.”

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That said, the job pays spades in stories and life lessons. And/or haunting nightmares.

Occasionally, the corpses are still wearing shoes and you get the unsettling realization that the person whose leg bone you just removed tied them that morning. And while, statistically, most donors are over 60, operating on children isn’t at all uncommon (about 1,400 donors in 2014 were kids). Specialists note that those images stay with them forever. 

“It makes you think about consequences of your [daily] actions when you go and operate on someone who was alive 24 hours ago,” Lubbock says. “It gives you a sense of mortality and makes you grow up a little bit.”

After a while, though, like everything else -- it becomes just a job. “I’m sure it'd be different if I walked in on someone I knew,” says Lubbock, “But there were a lot of nights you’d just find yourself cutting people open and watching Seinfeld.

*-Names have been changed to protect those who had really gross first jobs

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Matt Meltzer is a staff writer for Thrillist. Follow him @mmeltrez.

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