Monthly Archives: September 2011

One Man’s Dead Body is Another Man’s Treasure. Or Teaching Tool.

The smell of formaldehyde overwhelmed the tiny, sterile room with two stainless steel tables. His body lay lifeless and naked, except for a tiny towel covering his groin, upon the table closest to the door. A pair of scissors stuck into his neck all the way up to the finger holes, strategically placed to help the fluids drain from his stiff body. A small but steady stream of reddish-brown fluid drained out of his mouth, down the side of his face, and onto the table underneath his neck.

A moment later a stream of the same fluid spurted into the air in a small arch from his mouth. Jared Alvarado, who runs the morgue at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, threw a clean, white towel over his face to stop the squirting. In a few short moments, reddish-brown stains appeared all over it. A slow gurgling noise emerged from his mouth as the fluid drained. It will take a day or two for all of the fluid to leave his body, then it will be wrapped in thick, clear plastic and stored in the morgue’s cooler, which can hold up to 60 bodies, for about a month while it cures.

After that, the body will become an educational resource at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. Since 1967, the College of Medicine has run the Willed Body Program, where people can voluntarily donate their bodies for educational purposes to the College. Bodies are used for educational purposes for anywhere from 1 to 24 months before the cremated remains are returned to the families. However, if a body is permanently donated, parts of it may be transformed into semi-permanent teaching tools at the University of Arizona College of Medicine’s Plastination Science Laboratory.

Plastination was developed by Dr. Gunther von Hagens. According to his website, Bodyworlds, “Plastination makes it possible to preserve individual tissues and organs that have been removed from the body of the deceased as well as the entire body itself.” The process essentially sucks water and fats out of the tissue, replacing them with polymers. The result is a durable, non-toxic and perfectly safe specimen suitable for use in classroom environments.

Joshua Lopez, who runs the Plastination Lab, has a background in biology and mortuary science, and says the Willed Body Program at the University of Arizona receives about 130 donated bodies annually. The permanent donations are dissected, and various body parts and organs are then turned into plasticized specimens . Lopez says the primary benefit of working with plastinates is that they last much longer than wet cadavers, up to 10 years.

He then grabs two plasticized stomachs from a shelf in his office. One is flat, cream-colored, and split down the side, revealing the thick wrinkles of the inner lining of the stomach. The other is fully intact and inflated, reddish-pink in color. When squeezed, air poofs out from the top, sort of like a dog toy.

“It’s trial and error,” Lopez says, helping to explain the difference between the flat and inflated stomachs. But that’s what makes it fun, he suggests.

“There’s a lot of room to sort of play because there is no how-to course,” he says.”There is a lot of freedom just to explore, to be creative, to learn new things,” he adds. Lopez says there is no formal training program for plastination.

Indeed, Lopez experiments a lot in his lab, and seems to enjoy it. Yet he doesn’t seem totally content with the lab space, which he shares a part of with medical students.

“The lab is a disaster,” he says. He’s mostly referring to the fact that the lab has no sprinkler system, a seeming hazard given that the plastination process requires copious amounts of acetone, which is stored in three bright yellow cabinets marked “flammable.” Should anything happen, Lopez says it would take about $200,000 to replace the equipment in the modest and unassuming lab.

Consisting of only three rooms, the lab is littered with beakers, refrigerators, coolers, strange machines with tubes, and buckets of human organs. One might be surprised to learn that the lab is capable of plasticizing half a body.

Tucked away in a far corner of the lab on a gray cart wrapped in a white plastic cloth, Lopez exposes a torso in the final phase of the plastination process. The man’s head is split down the middle and the eyes and brain have been removed, but interestingly his graying nose hair and eyebrows remain intact, the last lingering evidence of the life that once inhabited his body.

Lopez then displays a tray full of plasticized kidneys and a brain, along with the interior of a human lung, which looks more like part of a coral reef than part of a human body. It is quite stunning, even awe-inspiring.

Lopez says one of his favorite aspects of his job is the “wow moment” that people experience when the product is finished and in their hands.

The process of plastination makes human anatomy much more accessible, not only to medical students, but also to the general public. Though controversy swirls around the origin of some of its specimens, the “Bodies: the Exhibition” show has helped bring anatomy to life for millions of people worldwide through its exhibit of plastinated organs, body parts, and entire bodies.  Lopez hopes the Plastination Science Laboratory at the University of Arizona will expand in the future.

“The hope of the department is to be able to do full body specimens,” he said.


The Troubles With Writing and How Fes Changed Me

I identify myself as a writer, only there’s one slight problem. Actually, there may be more than one slight problem. Like many writers, I sometimes get overwhelmed with the task itself. I’m realizing, thanks to a book I’m reading entitled “A Writer’s Coach: the Complete Guide to Writing Strategies That Work” by Jack Hart, that I don’t necessarily have a writing process. The other problem I’ve recently encountered is that I feel as though I’ve lost the ability to write with passion, that my voice has been stifled by academia. Fortunately, I’ve been given permission this semester to write with my heart, and rediscover my own unique writing voice. I have also been given permission to find human stories – stories that matter and stories that people might care about. I am extremely grateful for this, and consider myself a very blessed woman because of it.

As I read through Hart’s book this morning, I encountered a number of different strategies and ideas to help with the writing process. The gist of the book, from what I can tell so far, is that the best way to write and generate ideas is to write. Yup. No kidding. Who knew? As it turns out, I have a wonderful outlet to help me write regularly – this blog. And wouldn’t you know, something I read just about 30 minutes or so ago inspired me to write. Hart wrote, “Travel brochures slather glossy paper with empty adjectives but never tell potential travelers how a visit to a new place might affect their emotions or change the way they see the world.” I realized as I read this that I have a lot to say about how my two-month stay in Fes, Morocco this summer changed the way I see the world. Let me explain.

I have spent significant time in Muslim countries before. Yet my time in Fes this summer brought me closer than I’ve ever been to Islam. Perhaps that’s because I lived with a Muslim family, and the majority of my teachers and tutors were Muslim. I’ve long held an interest in Islam, piqued initially by an Islamic philosophy class I took as an undergraduate at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. My imagination was captivated then by the works of Islamic philosophers Ibn Bajja, Ibn Rushd and Ibn Tufayl, particularly the latter’s work, Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, whose main character undergoes a mystical process of self-discovery and soul-awakening. We also examined many examples of Islamic art and architecture from Andalusia; the cosmic beauty  I discovered then came to life for me in 3D this summer in Fes.

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I almost can’t adequately describe the beauty of the architecture in Morocco. The intricate patterns and designs found in the interiors and exteriors of most buildings in the tile and woodwork stir the soul. To experience Islamic art and architecture is indeed to have an awakening of sorts, for it seems that it must be divinely inspired. During my trip this summer, I began to open myself to understanding the beauty of Islam. This happened as a result of the magnificence of Moroccan art and architecture, but largely through the beautiful people I met. The pinnacle of this experience occurred during Ramadan.

While in Morocco, I spoke with many Moroccans about Ramadan, and of course we devoted much time covering this topic in my Arabic classes. What I discovered as a result of hearing from Moroccans themselves is that many of them love Ramadan, and cherish it as their favorite time of year. How could this be, I wondered. Isn’t it extremely difficult and painful to fast? I have known about the spiritual aspects of Ramadan for quite some time, that it is a time to open your heart, develop greater compassion and get closer to God. Yet it is one thing to learn about Ramadan in a classroom. It is quite another to experience it in a Muslim country, and to take part in it yourself. I will admit, I only fasted for one day while in Fes. But the experience forever changed me.

I thought about what it actually means to have greater compassion and why it might be necessary to take action to stimulate that process. How else can we develop greater compassion for those who suffer without access to adequate food and water unless we ourselves experience that feeling directly? To go without food and water during daylight hours gives us a glimpse into the lives of those who go hungry and thirsty on a daily basis. How, I wondered, might our own society be changed if we engaged in activities that build compassion rather than desensitize us to the plight of those suffering throughout the world, regardless of their ethnic or religious background?

Muslims are required to give alms (zakat) as one of the five pillars of Islam, and it certainly seems to me that the spirit of Ramadan encourages a greater giving of alms. One could argue that compassion and caring for others is built into the very structure of the religion itself. Again I wondered, how might our own society be changed if we were compelled to care for those without the privilege of having the same access to basic human needs that we enjoy? This is a timely question, particularly as we face a Republican party increasingly obsessed with the cutting of social services.

I also marveled at the ways in which life slowed down in Fes during Ramadan, a stark contrast to the non-stop hustle and bustle of life in the United States, which tends to come to halt only two days per year – Christmas and Thanksgiving. From this I considered what it means to take the time to devote to spiritual matters, to detach ourselves from material pursuits and put much of our energy toward developing our characters and nourishing our souls. It seems to me that American society as a whole could benefit from such pursuits.

Like all religions, there’s plenty to critique about Islam. There are also undoubtedly many aspects of Ramadan and the way its practiced, including its commercialization, to critique. Yet I’ve come to believe that we give value to our lives largely through the way we perceive things and what we choose to focus on. I could have focused on the negative things while in Fes, and to be sure there were times I did, to my own detriment and perhaps to the detriment of others. But in the end, I chose to overcome the temptation to indulge in negativity and open myself to the beauty and lessons Fes had to teach me. And as I anxiously awaited, with dry mouth and intense hunger pains, for the sound of the cannon to indicate it was time to eat that day I fasted, I felt an immense sense of gratitude for the ability to open myself to understanding, and even appreciating, the beauty of others who are different from me.