Death Stories: Slice, Part 3

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Victor Spitzer tossed something heavy and solid onto the table in front of me.  “You can see it just looks like round steak,” he said.  It was a cross-section of a human thorax embedded in plastic.  His description seemed right at first glance, but then he himself pointed out its limits.  “This is what I was telling you about cadavers,” he said.  “Look at the color.  Just uniformly tan.”  An effect of the formaldehyde, he added.  He pointed out the lungs, which looked like shriveled bits of shiitake.  They didn’t fill their space.  There were gaps.

I sat in a fifth-floor room at the Center for Human Simulation at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.  The room felt geometric and grad-schoolish: white cinderblock walls, long wooden tables, a film screen, venetian blinds segmenting the tall windows.  Now that Spitzer had brought them to my attention, I noticed a number of those transparent rectangles encasing human round-steaks strewn about the tables.  He returned to the video he’d been running for me.  It explained the Visible Human Project.

Spitzer -- 6 foot 4, age fifty, his blonde hair going gray -- wore sandals and khakis and a long-sleeved button-down.  His manner was frank and friendly.  He told me he had been in radiology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center thirteen years before the anatomy department approached him with an idea about digitizing images of dead tissue.  In the project that eventually developed, Spitzer, together with his partner David Whitlock and their team, sliced a human knee (and later a pelvis) thin and photographed the slices.  These images, manipulated with computer technology developed for the Star Wars films and some Disney projects, became a new kind of anatomical information--more detailed, more realistic, than traditional anatomy texts and models.  More true, because they hadn’t descended from abstract ideas of human form.  They were the thing itself captured in a camera.  Spitzer liked photography for that reason: if the purpose of anatomy is to show what the body looks like inside, photography is a purveyor of exact truth.

Similar work was going on at medical schools across the country in the late 1980s.  Scientists were sectioning hearts, skulls, and other popular body parts and digitizing their data in various ways.  In 1989, the National Library of Medicine (NLM) got involved.

The NLM, which bills itself as the equivalent of the Library of Congress for medicine, launched the Visible Human Project.  The plan was to develop the most complete set of anatomical data possible for two entire human bodies--one male, one female.  The bodies of two volunteers would be turned into virtual cadavers, their bodies mapped into computers with a level of precision unprecedented.  These computer models would then be available to anyone for almost any purpose.  For example, the NLM anticipated that medical students would one day learn anatomy from the infinitely renewable electronic cadavers.

Spitzer and Whitlock competed for and won the NLM’s contract.  They began looking for a suitable male body.  It had to be complete and relatively normal, a standard that eliminated most victims of accident and disease.  It also had to be fresh.  State anatomical boards in Maryland, Colorado, and Texas made bodies available for the project.  Most of these donations were too old or too damaged to be useful.  But one day the Texas board told Spitzer and his colleagues that a man on death row was nearly finished with his body and wanted it to go to science.  Because he was to be executed by lethal injection, his organs couldn’t be used for transplant.  And because executions run on a schedule, the scientists could act within hours of his death, securing an unusually fresh body.  Like several other promising corpses that turned up at about the same time, Jernigan’s was air-freighted to Denver, where Spitzer’s group put it through MRI and CT scans as if it were a live patient.  In Jernigan's case, the body had to be "lightly embalmed" before its trip--infused with formaldehyde to counter the corrosive effects of the cocktail that killed him. Doctors at the NLM examined the images of three promising candidates. A suitable corpse needed to be “average,” a term the NLM defined as aged twenty to sixty, under six feet tall, not obese, and free of serious injury or disease. (The problem, of course, was that people of that description are rarely dead.)  In the end, Jernigan was judged most suitable, despite his missing appendix, tooth, and testicle.

Spitzer’s group froze Jernigan’s corpse in a block of blue gelatine and sawed it into four manageable chunks.  The freezing was necessary because it makes even the most delicate tissues firm enough for sawing.  Otherwise, some of them would become too messy to handle.  “For example, the brain is not as tough as a tomato,” Spitzer said.  The quartering was necessary simply to fit the body into the equipment.

Next, using a rotary head suspended from the ceiling, they milled Jernigan’s body, taking a thin slice from the bottom of his feet, then another a millimeter deeper, and so on.  They cut him 1877 times.  The body was photographed in cross-section after every cut.  It had to be re-frozen at least every eight hours to maintain its solidity, so the process took months.

When it was over, the flesh-and-blood body of Jernigan had been reduced to ice shavings and ooze.  Spitzer and Whitlock constructed a virtual body by collating the photographic images with the CT scans made earlier.  Even though the actual body was photographed only in cross-section, the collated data can be “stacked” to show slices of the body in three dimensions.  Almost any bodily structure can be examined on the virtual cadaver, provided you know where to look.  Work now underway will label the parts, eliminating even that limitation.

Within three years, a refined version of this process had produced a virtual woman based on an anonymous 59-year-old donor who died of a heart attack.  Both Visible Humans are available via the internet, though the enormous quantity of data (around 15 gigabytes) is too much for most home computers.  But stills, snippets, animations, and simulations using the data are available at dozens of websites.  The NLM and the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center both provide startling Web displays.

The video Spitzer showed me contained images like the ones I’d seen in my local university library, but larger and better: vivid, blood-glistening sections of flesh.  Jernigan’s entire body seemed to approach and pass through the plane of the screen, so I could see him progressively sectioned front to back.  He was like a ghost vanishing through a wall.  When I chose another angle, I could move from head to foot, the image kaleidoscoping—a blossoming of brain, a constriction of neck, a widening into the trunk packed with organs, a sudden bifurcation at the pelvis, and on down to the surprisingly dainty toes.  Spitzer had made his point: the digital flesh came closer to life than actual embalmed flesh did.  I ran my hand over the round steak in front of me, but felt only the smooth plastic casing.



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