Denver resident Susan Potter made specific plans for the fate of her remains after death, 15 years before she died in 2015 at age 87. She had already decided to donate her body to science, specifically to medical education. The National Library of Medicine’s Visible Human Project, begun in 1991, seeks to digitize the structures of the human body for anatomy education. The process involves milling a frozen human cadaver in increments of only microns and imaging each slice to create a 3D model that can be studied as a whole or piece by piece. Potter met Vic Spitzer, director of the Center for Human Simulation, and volunteered to be one of those cadavers when the time came.
Spitzer wanted to videotape her while she was living and record her talking about her life, her health, her medical history. Your pathology isn’t that interesting to the project, Spitzer told Potter. But if I could capture you talking to medical students, when they’re looking at slices of your body, you could tell them about your spine—why you didn’t want the surgery, what kind of pain the surgery caused, and what kind of life you led after the surgery. That would be fascinating.
“They’ll see her body while they’re hearing her stories,” he explained, adding that video and audio of her would make her more real and introduce the element of emotion to students. Instead of an anonymous cadaver, this “visible human” would be capable of delivering a medical narrative suffused with the recollection of frustration, pain, and disappointment. The images of Potter, like those of the Visible Humans, would be on the internet, available anywhere, anytime.
Potter took the idea very seriously, and was in constant contact with Spitzer for all those years before her death. She even demanded to see the laboratory where her body would be processed.
The bargain Potter made with the man who would cut her into 27,000 slices undoubtedly added meaning to her last years. In fact, it probably added years to her life. I was led to believe she was going to die within a year because of her multiple health problems. She lived for another decade.