Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Body Worlds 3: The Story of the Heart

Last night we finally went to Body Worlds 3 in Salt Lake City. It is an exhibit of plastinated real human bodies and body parts. I think it is best to start with the fact that the children cut their teeth on board books about anatomy and our home library has grown with books of advancing difficulty right along side them. As self-proclaimed anatomy buffs, we were so excited about Von Hagen's masterpiece coming to North America that we were willing to fly to see it if need be. Fortunately Salt Lake is only a half hour drive. We've scoured the internet for details and Tivoed all we could to get a glimpse of the wonders - we were ready!

We all entered the museum with great enthusiasm and were shocked when the gravity of what we were seeing hit us all very hard and in different ways. One of the first forms is a human leg bone that had been broken. I had expected soup pot bones, smooth, bleached and shiny. This one looked like it had been well-scraped by a meticulous scavenger. I felt panic rise, maybe I had gotten myself into a little more than I was ready for. I peeked around the corner, frankly ill at ease as to what was to come. Brayden grabbed a hold of my hand tight and said, " This is interesting but really disgusting."

I look over to Avery and saw huge, silent, brave tears flowing down his face. He was deeply distressed by the exhibit but stayed with us all the way through - mostly hiding in corners but he made it. His heart is so tender and whenever he'd read about the different pathologies we were viewing (cancer, arthritis, emphysema) he humanized the display to what the person must have gone through on their path into the glass case.

We all did much better with the full body exhibits than the bits and pieces. Trenton, never one to be interested in anatomy, flitted from exhibit to exhibit, returning to regale us with fascinating facts. He was intent on getting every ounce of information and his excitement was contagious.

About half way through Avery came around and started enjoying himself. I made dozens of jokes about what we were seeing and once he was laughing he could absorb it all much better.

Then we got to the babies. Technically they were embryos and fetuses but they looked like babies to me. Beautiful little things with lots of hair and eyelashes. I can never go in those displays and the kids know it completely wigs me out. But looking over at how strong Avery was being I didn't feel like I would be much of a parent if I gave into to my fears and fled. So I went in. When I saw the 28 week old I was overcome with memories of having pre-term labor with Avery. Being dilated to four centimeters, contracting and praying he'd stay inside a few more weeks. The 36 week old made me question why Avery was so healthy and this precious little one was not. I wondered what circumstances would bring grieving parents to donate their deceased child to science and if they ever came to the display. Did they touch the hair and the little feet and wonder why their baby died?

That was the hardest part and from there it was smooth sledding for all of us; we started enjoying the really cool exhibits and shook off our discomfort.

One of the highlights was the pace maker and stint section. We learned all about heart attacks and aneurisms and then looked at the pace makers and temporary defibrillators. I was explaining my Nana's pace maker experiences to the boys when the man next to us struck up a conversation and unbuttoned his shirt to show us the metal disc in his chest. He pushed on it and it moved around - impressing us all. My Nana could do that so I thought it was a trick all grandparents did. It was neat seeing it through new eyes.

Mortality was ever present as we looked at the different pathologies. Breast cancer left an impression on me and Chris seemed intrigued by the display of artificial hips, pinned knees, repaired rotator cuffs etc. He commented later that seeing all the worn out body parts was sobering. I hurt looking at the diseased spines and wondered where mine would fit in the flow of the display cases. The spine with scoliosis was especially difficult - I can't imagine what that man's body went through during his time on earth.

Down stairs was the grand finale portion where there was a camel and her baby, many full figures and several full body slices. We loved the skier and the gymnasts although the girl on the balance beams made me a little ill when I saw her hair pulled back with bobby pins just like you do in dance. It was so haphazard - like an athlete training and the imperfection of it got to me. Avery slid his hand in mine and said, " You don't like the ones with hair. Eyelashes, eyebrows - that. It bothers you. Me too."

The camel looked like something from Hoth in Star Wars and Avery and I thought the baby, even without his fur, was absolutely adorable. Brayden was completely freaked out and thought it "wrong" to display something so intimately with it's insides showing. I pointed out that we'd just spent two hours looking at humans with their insides showing but he holds that a cuddly animal is different.

The obesity exhibit held Chris and my attention more than any other. It is a 5 to 8 mm slice through the middle(ish) of a lady who weighed 300 pounds. At first it's hard to make much of this five foot long blob, then the brain becomes obvious and bit by bit you make sense of what you are seeing all the way down to her bruised, diabetic heel. I learned so much standing there. I was under the erroneous impression that you get fat on the outside, just under the skin, and it forces your body to work harder carrying you around. Not true. You get fat all over. Her abdomen was riddled with fat between all of her organs. That can't be good! If I wasn't already committed to a healthy lifestyle that would have done it. As a group we left with the strong desire to eat well, never smoke and take care of our parts.

Funny/gross moments:

* When we saw our first meaty rib cage we all thought of Good Wood Barbecue and how much that display looked like what we're served minus a healthy slathering of sauce. We were shocked by how much a human is also a piece of meat. Everyone commented at some point that if we weren't already vegans, last night would have made us ones.

* Avery and I couldn't stop laughing at the girls behind us who viewed incredible, awe-inspiring display after display and could only comment," OMG! You can see his balls!"

* There is a circulatory system strung out overhead along the ceiling. It was so christmas-red that we couldn't shake the thought that it was a few ornaments shy of a holiday decoration.

In the end, we all came away from the museum with an incredible appreciation for life and the glorious, beautiful, frail tragedy of it. To quote the book of Psalms, " I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well."

A few years back, Mary Roach's book Stiff was a great pleasure of mine. I wrote a poem about it and thought it applies to this post:


When my soul has left me
and I’m merely a cadaver
where will this journey take my flesh
while I lounge in the hereafter?

Once I have left this shell
should they soak my meat in honey;
one hundred years - then sell the cures
and eat my mellified mummy?

Shall I choose traditional internment,
to slowly molder and decay
as bacteria eats through guts and lung
and chews my skin away?

If that quiet resting place
is not my ideal destination
I could try something flashy
like total body plastination.

In case you aren’t familiar
-and many of us are not,
they steep your parts in silicone
and rubberize the lot.

Maybe I’ll give my body to science
for medical research.
but the thought of the anatomy lab-
it makes my stomach lurch!

The Swedes, so eco-friendly,
wish to make you into soil,
a composting material,
in which to plant and toil.

How about cremation?
Or burial at sea?
I hear that crabs love human flesh
- No! that won’t appeal to me.

It’s not often that I indulge myself
in anguished thought and pondering
of where to leave my vacant bones
when I am done my wandering.

Just mortality encroaches
-death is always a reality
and I can’t help but wonder
what to do when I am done with me.

____________ Written By Nicole Maki


MaryC said...

I would not have made it through the first exhibit without puking. Seriously. I couldn't have done it. You are one brave chick.
Kudos to you and I am glad you had a 'good?' time.
Your poem is cute but thought provoking.

grrlpup said...

I found the whole corpses more disturbing than the parts. We happened to be standing near a doctor who explained that the "hurdler" was probably in his seventies and had been ill for awhile before he died. After that the postures seemed a little misleading, though I understand the impulse to make a varied and dramatic display.

I had not thought about the embryos and children's bodies being donated. It's so much harder imagining someone doing that than donating his or her own body or that of, say, a spouse who loved science or education.

My favorite was the display of nerves, absent other tissue, cascading down a glass plate in finer and finer gradations. Wow.

I still find the plastinator guy pretty creepy, and the exhibit fascinating tinged with creepy.

Angela said...

Wow! There is no way I could have done it. Especially when it got to the babies. You are much braver than I.

Sassy Pam said...

Sounds both fansinating & scary and that it was a great experience for your boys.

Barbara said...

There was a similar exhibit here in the Portland area this past year. Although I didn't get a chance to personally view it, I did develop photos that a customer had dropped off. We were informed in advanced and told to look thru them if we wanted. I am truly glad I did, because I was so awestruck at what I saw! Maybe I'm a bit wierd, but I was so fancinated at what we look like on the inside! It could be too, that I'm surrounded by a family of medical professionals and I can appreciate their passion for their work and this was as close to it as I'll ever get.

Jenna Bayley-Burke said...

We had Body Works here last year...but it wasn't as intense. Still, it was amazing intellectually, so hard to fathom emotionally. avery gets double hugs from this direction for sticking with it.

Elizabeth said...

We had to ease into it a bit, too, when we went. And it played with our brains throughout; I'd be fine for a bit, and then I'd see a detail that pointed at a life: that a woman was Asian, or a hallmark of a disease, or...

The difference between the elderly, much-wasted bodies and the athletic poses kinda tripped me, though. Hardly anyone had quads that looked capable of supporting their weight, much less the poses they were in.

Emilyt said...

Great post. I missed this exhibit when it was here in Detroit. I have always been interested in anatomy, health, etc. I should've been a dr./nurse. Why oh why didn't I go?!

amberhelga said...

i wanted to check this out my self and i love what you wrote .

The Richmond's said...

I missed out on going to this when it was here in Columbus, I knew that hubby would not want to go (he doesn't have a very strong stomach when it comes to that kind of stuff) and at one time a group of people at work wanted to get together and go but it never happened. Glad you made it through it, what an experience.

Maribel said...

Sounds fascinating. I don't think I would have made it through the whole thing.

Guin said...

Hi Nicki! I was on RateYourWriting.com back in the day and happened across your blog. I remember the poem you included here! Hope all is well in the Maki household. :)