Brave mum's public dissection on Channel 4 will benefit up to a million other patients

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A young mother’s dying wish to be dissected could benefit up to a million other patients and will be seen in a ground-breaking Channel 4 documentary next week. Toni Crews was so passionate about educating others that soon after she learned her rare eye cancer was terminal she decided to donate her body after her death so medical students could learn about how cancer spreads.

But Ms Crews, who died when she was 30, also took the extraordinary step of consenting to the dissection of her body being shown publicly, as well as her identity being known.

She is the first donor in the UK to do either.

Her consent meant that the dissection could be filmed and broadcast so the public will be able to see what happens in a documentary entitled My Dead Body, on Channel 4 next Monday.

In the programme the dissection of Ms Crews’s brain and body, led by Claire Smith, an anatomy professor at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, is set against a backdrop of home video and diary entries documenting her four‑year battle with cancer.

Ms Crews’s mother Jo told the Daily Mail that when her daughter first told her and her husband she had already signed the consent forms, she was initially appalled.

She said: “At the time, we had hopes that her cancer could be cured and I didn’t want to think about her dying.

“But Toni wanted us to know that she had completed all the paperwork, ticked the boxes agreeing for her body to be used to teach students, and for public display — and she had included these wishes in her will.”

Through the dissection Professor Smith was able to chart, as Ms Crews wanted, the path of the cancer around her body.

A thousand students have learned unique lessons from Ms Crews’s donation, and this could translate to informing the care of a million patients.

Ms Crews was diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 2016, after she started suffering from headaches and blurry vision, and had a ‘puffy’ right eye.

Her optician noticed a swelling towards the corner of her eyelid and suspected it could be a tumour in her lacrimal gland.

Toni Crews was 30 when she died

A thousand students have benefited from Toni Crews’s donation (Image: Mirror)

Toni Crews had a rare form of eye cancer

Toni Crews had a rare form of eye cancer (Image: Mirror)

She was referred to an ophthalmic surgeon at Charing Cross Hospital in London and a biopsy confirmed that it was cancer.

After being told her options were to lose her eye or die she had had surgery in November that year to remove her right eyeball and eyelid, as well as the skin and muscle around the tumour.

But a year after her surgery she was still getting headaches and so had an MRI scan in the spring of 2018.

The scan showed her cancer had returned and she needed further surgery to remove a tomato-sized tumour from her brain.

And in 2019, Toni discussed body donation with her oncologist in the event of her death and requested consent forms.

Under the Human Tissue Act 2004, written and witnessed consent for anatomical examination must be given prior to death.

But Daily Mail reports that unlike organ donation, where this is co-ordinated by the central organisation NHS Blood and Transplant, it operates under a postcode system.

This means that people who are interested in donating their bodies contact their nearest medical school directly.

Twenty-six medical schools accept donor bodies but it is not known how many people do this each year.

Professor Smith says that medical schools need one donor body for every 10 students.

Around the same time Ms Crews gave her consent, Brighton and Sussex Medical School had applied to the Human Tissue Authority for a public display licence.

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Jo Crews with her husband Jason

Jo and Jason Crews have spoken about their daughter’s dissection decision (Image: Objective Media)

Toni Crews

Toni Crews had been set to go to university to study forensic criminology (Image: Mirror)

This allows people outside the medical profession — such as psychologists, police, school science teachers and any members of the public who want to learn about the body — to view specimens.

Professor Smith said: “We wondered whether a donor would ever consent to a public display licence, and Toni was the first to do that.

“She wanted to educate as many people as possible, and we wanted to fulfil her wishes.”

Ms Crews was free from symptoms for nearly two years but after developing a cough and having little marks on her back she underwent tests.

X-rays revealed spots on her lungs and a biopsy confirmed these were multiple secondary tumours, or metastases.

The little marks that were appearing all over her body were found to be small tumours in the connective tissues.

And a PET scan (which determines whether a cancer has spread) revealed that Toni had ten small tumours in her brain and dozens more all over her body.

The brain tumours caused seizures, which meant she and her children had to move back in with her parents.

Her dad Jason said: “That was the only time we saw her really upset and angry.

“She was so stubborn and independent, she was determined to do everything for herself.

“She had one ‘why me?’ moment, but the rest of the time she was happy, smiley Toni.

“She was still preparing the kids’ breakfast and making their lunch three days before she passed away.”

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Toni Crews pictured when she was younger

Toni Crews pictured when she was younger (Image: Mirror)

Ms Crews had worked as a carer since leaving school and had finally been about to realise her own ambitions as she was due to start studying forensic criminology at university in September 2020.

Her dad said: “She passed away in the August and she didn’t get the chance. She wasn’t here long enough to fulfil her dreams.

“So she worked out a way of continuing to help share information about her cancer after her death.”

Ms Crews’s body was accepted by Brighton and Sussex Medical School.

After it was embalmed it was stored in the anatomy laboratory. There a series of 12 dissection workshops and further clinical training sessions were held between March and July this year. These were attended by more than 1,000 students.

Her parents have watched the documentary twice.

Mrs Crews said: “The bit where they removed her [remaining] eye, I wanted to hold her and give her a big kiss and say sorry to her.

“The other thing that made me feel emotional was seeing everyone’s reaction to her and how respectfully and nicely they treated her [in the anatomy lab]. It made me happy and proud — what she’s achieved is just massive.”

She added: “Toni was never going to go quietly.”

And Professor Smith said that as well as the thousand students who watched the dissections: “Over the next five years another 8,000 to 10,000 students will learn from the tissue and body parts we retained from Toni.

“We can also estimate that, based on a doctor or health professional looking after 20 patients a day, five days a week for 46 weeks a year, the lessons learnt from Toni may inform one million patients’ care.”



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