Susan Potter lives.
Yes, she died in 2015, but Susan Potter continues to make a difference to this day.
She is a “virtual cadaver” at the Center for Human Simulation at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
National Geographichas followed her journey for 16 years; Susan knew that she wanted her body to serve science. In fact, Susan knew the man, Dr. Victor M. Spitzer, who would transform her body into 27,000 (yes, twenty-seven thousand) individual sections/slices.
Each of those cross-section slices is now an individual image under the work of the Visible Human Project. The work took sixty days. Next comes the process of outlining all the structures—tissue, organ, vessels, everything—on each digital image. This work will take years.
Susan Potter knew precisely what she was getting into. She also knew many of Spitzer’s students and she attended his classes, often talking with Dr. Spitzer’s students about the importance of compassion in the medical practice.
Susan’s body is the third analyzed under the Visible Human Project. The first was a 38-year-old man who was executed for murder in Texas (and there is controversy over whether he knew exactly what would happen to his body after death). The second woman was a 59-year-old from Maryland; she remains anonymous.
Susan was different because she was a cancer survivor and she had other medical issues as well. Susan had 26 surgeries in her lifetime. She endured melanoma, breast cancer and diabetes. It was once thought only bodies in good physical condition should be used for this virtual imaging project. It later occurred to scientists that studying a diseased body held as much value as studying a healthy one.
Our experience suggests this is correct. When the non-profit Anatomy in Clay® Centers in Denver hosts collaborative sessions with the Colorado Learning Center for Human Anatomy, students compare their clay construction of anatomy to the anatomical structures on a cadaver. They find it fascinating and, of course, informative to know the life story and overall health of the person who donated his or her body for study.
Our hats are off to Susan and all the others who donate their bodies for the benefit of medical science. This is a true gift. Better training for doctors leads, of course, to better outcomes for patients. Cadavers are also used in research, too, such as for testing new medical procedures and devices. Who knows what critical discoveries are just around the corner thanks to this research?
More and more bodies are being donated to science. That is an encouraging trend for sure.
But while 120 million Americans (by some estimates) are believed to registered as organ donors, the numbers of those who have agreed to have their “whole body” donated is much lower.
Why? Probably for many reasons. However, the stigma around “whole body” donations appears to be diminishing. Here is one additional advantage: no funeral or even cremation costs. None. (That’s a gift to those who survive you, right?)
If you’re interested, a website called Healthline has some excellent tips on starting this process. It’s never too early to start the conversation, preferably with an organization that is certified by the American Association of Tissue Banks (AATB) Non-Transplant Anatomical Donation Committee. Some universities may have legitimate programs that are not associated with AATB. You may even, in some cases, choose to opt out of certain kinds of research.
You don’t need to develop the kind of relationship Susan Potter did with Dr. Spitzer. It is not that complicated or involved. And you’ll be doing a good thing—any way you slice it.