Sunday, April 30, 2006

I saw dead people.

Yesterday was the day. Hulk's parents came down from Up North and we all went to see the Body Worlds 2 exhibit at the natural history museum here in Denver.

I think the best word to describe the exhibit is "Wow."

Just wow. I really didn't know what to expect, other than to see the soccer player guy like they show in all the promotional advertisements, and hoo boy, were my expectations blown out of the water. It was simply amazing. And not only did we get to see the dead people, we got to see cross sections of brains, organs, and body cavities (the grossest one was a cross section of a woman with severe constipation. Ew!). One of the interesting things was that they showed organs and organ systems in various states of disease and dysfunction. We saw normal lungs, smokers lungs (ugh), and coal miners' lungs (double ugh). We saw normal kidneys and a kidney with polycystic disease (ugh!). And we saw all kinds of cross sections with various kinds of tumors. I got a little sad when I saw the cross section of metastic melanoma (a friend died of metastic melanoma a couple of years ago, only a few weeks after being diagnosed).

The best parts were the bodies in various stages of dissection, most of which were named and put into interesting positions (soccer player, baseball player, ice skaters, ballet dancer, skateboarder, diver, gymnast). Each of these was in a different state of dissection, showing different muscles, nerves, organs, and other parts, depending on the position. Seeing the ballet dancer in an arabesque en pointe was just phenomenal. I don't have to wonder what a ballet dancer looks like on the inside anymore, or what the muscles look like as they expand and contract to hold a dancer in position. The posed bodies in different ranges of motion weren't just cool to look at. It was obvious someone had taken ages to position them just right - and they looked like works of art. They were beautiful and graceful and just amazing.

There were a couple of disturbing aspects as well. Most of the bodies had the belly buttons still attached, and the skin with eyebrows, and breasts with nipples and penises and testicles. It's one thing to look at a body with no skin and no hair that's separated somewhat into its component parts. It's another to see the parts that make us look really HUMAN still attached. Each of these bodies, each of the cross sections, each of the disembodied organs, was once a person. A breathing, thinking, feeling person who lived and loved and laughed and felt pain and cried. My brain kept doing this thing where it would switch between seeing the bodies as muscles, sinews, ligaments, bones, organs - and seeing them as once-living people. I couldn't do both at once.

The most disturbing thing to me showed a cross section of a very thin man (120 pounds at death) and an obese man (300 pounds at death, though they didn't say how tall he had been) side by side. The fat layer on the obese man was just thoroughly disgusting, especially the second cross section that was just taken from his side, that showed belly fat, a tiny bit of hip bone, a tiny bit of leg muscle, and more fat. Fat, fat fat. Ugh. I wonder how many people walked by that display with an increased desire to exercise, eat well, and not end up like that man. Because I sure did.

There was a sectioned-off area with fetuses in various states of development (all, we were assured by the signs, having died of natural causes etc. (no aborted fetuses, no sir!)) and a woman who was 5 months pregnant at death. This was both interesting and weird, especially since the woman had "smokers lungs" and had died of lung cancer (willing her body to science before she died, knowing she would die before the fetus came to term). It was definitely cool to see the difference between an 8-week embryo and a 24-week fetus - and it was kind of scary to know that there are babies born extremely prematurely that are living now at 23 and 24 weeks. How can it even be possible? They are soooo tiny and look soooo underdeveloped.

Perhaps the most amazing body was called "Exploded man." Every component part (except bones) of Exploded man was there, suspended from a wire, in the place it would be in the body - but separated from the other parts so one could see all the parts individually and how they related to the other parts. I know I'm not explaning this very well - but there were hundreds of parts, all suspended from wires, and the whole looked very much like an exploded man. There was also "drawer man" - who had various parts kind of cut and pulled out as though a drawer to allow you to see what was underneath/inside. The Hulk, his mom, and I all inspected the "orthopedic man" with all the different replacement parts - a pacemaker, artificial hip, artificial vertebrae, a metal jaw, metal pins in the legs and arms, and a titanium knee - because Hulk's dad has a titanium knee. It was really cool to see what his knee looks like on the inside.

I was very pleased to see that everyone was respectful and interested in the exhibit. Kids of all ages were in attendance and could have made lots of crude jokes and been disrespectful - but none of them were. I saw teenagers taking keen interests in the diseased organs and admiring the grace and beauty of the variously posed bodies. It was obvious that there were people who were bothered by the exhibit, or at least some of it, because they were sitting along the sides of the room, away from all the bodies and organs and cross sections, patiently waiting for their people to finish so they could leave. I understood their feelings. In a way, it was deeply disturbing to be in a room full of people flayed open for inspection, as respectful as the exhibit was.

After we finished, we went to lunch and we all ate way more than we should. And then we went for ice cream, which I almost never eat - but somehow, I wanted to. And I wanted to stand and move and feel myself alive. Later on I thought about it and realized that my feelings were probably similar to those of people who leave a funeral and then have a lot of sex - to prove life. We are alive and we move and we have all of those component parts that we saw on all those people in Body Worlds 2 - but they are all working, functioning, and living bodies with skin and hair and moles and wrinkles and stretch marks are all still more beautiful than the dead people we saw yesterday. Because we're alive, and are not in stasis for all time, kicking a soccer ball or balancing on a toe, with our bodies flayed for the world to see. The exhibit was amazingly cool, and I'd highly recommend it to anyone interested - but it left me with the feeling of wanting to move and live and eat and have sex and all those other things that those people whose bodies we so admired can never do again.


Oberon said...

.......what is the most important thing?

Monkey McWearingChaps said...

You are a braver person than me. My sister has to hide her med school textbooks when I come over because I dry heave just looking at them.

Anonymous said...

Well written, as usual. I didn't make it to the exhibit when it was in town, but just thinking about it lead me down some of the same mental and emotional paths.