Dead but with health lessons to impart
DALLAS — During her first year at medical school, Kacy Dotterer's life was changed because of what she saw in dead people.
Dotterer, a student in the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, repeatedly found herself studying the bodies of overweight people in her anatomy lessons. She expected to find fat. Just not so much.
"It was infested everywhere," Dotterer says. Layer after layer, clinging to every organ of the body.
Everyone had told her she'd gain weight in school because there'd be no time to exercise. But after what she saw, she began counting calories and avoided fast-food restaurants on her way to class. By the end of her first year, she'd lost 15 pounds.
Dotterer, now a third-year student, respects the donors for helping her learn and make healthier decisions with her life. "It's a really admirable thing they do," she says.
She's not the only one who has learned important health lessons from cadavers. Students, professors and professionals who work with dead bodies have made changes in their lives based on what they've seen post-mortem.
The lessons are not necessarily for the squeamish. But these doctors and doctors-to-be think you could learn from the dead, too.
Larry Petterborg likes to remind his students that the fat they eat at lunchtime will drip into their bloodstream.
Petterborg has worked with cadavers for about 30 years. He teaches anatomy for Texas Woman's University's physical therapy program. In the dissection room, he holds up a heart he's just removed from a woman's body and squeezes the arteries.
"This is calcified plaque," he says. "Feel right here. You hear that?"
It sounds like popcorn in a microwave. "That's what causes heart attacks," Petterborg says.
This woman probably didn't eat too healthily.
Her kidneys were different sizes. Her arteries were so full of plaque, they couldn't carry blood to her kidneys, he says. She had problems with blood pressure, too.
All that could have been avoided had she eaten better.
"There are lots of things we can't control but what we eat, we can," he says.
Extra weight affects the body in ways you wouldn't think. Linda Cunningham, a professor at the University of North Texas's Health Science Center, did autopsies for years at Parkland. She's been working on bodies for about 30 years.
Many people have knee and hip replacements because of the extra pounds they're carrying around. "The cartilage of the joints is not smooth like it should be," she says. "It has eroded away."
She recommends exercising to maintain a healthy weight. If you visualize the heart as a pipe and see it plugged up, you'll want to change your lifestyle.
TAKE YOUR MEDS
Cunningham calls hypertension the silent killer. If you have high blood pressure, your heart has to pump stronger to get the blood out. The heart pumps harder against resistance and enlarges, just like when you're exercising, she says.
Sometimes, the heart gets too big. "It's like making your lawn too big and your sprinkler system can't cover it and the heart muscles start to die," she says.
Often, people don't feel as if they have to take medication because their blood pressure isn't up. Take your medication as prescribed, Cunningham recommends.
"Chances are, your blood pressure is always up," she says. "And not only is this heart big, but it's flabby. It's flabby because you've killed some of the muscle cells."
DON'T DRINK SO MUCH
A normal liver looks smooth. An alcoholic's liver is scarred, like a face with acne.
Drinking affects more than your liver, Cunningham says. She autopsied drinkers whose stomachs were swollen. "Once you start blocking up the liver, fluid starts accumulating in the belly," she says. Because of a lack of protein, someone with chronic liver disease usually has thin arms, too.
At the Dallas County Medical Examiner's office, Dr. Jeffrey Barnard has seen his share of deaths associated with drinking. Of the 3,000 autopsies he oversees every year, he finds more alcohol in drug screenings than any other drug.
"People are impulsive, they're risk-taking and they do something that is just ridiculous," he says.
Barnard recommends that people who drink should do so at home, where it's safe.
Imagine healthy lungs as sponges with pin holes. A smoker's lungs are riddled with spots of black tar, and the sponge is torn in half with big, gaping holes. What is left is like "flimsy tissue paper," Cunningham says.
When Cunningham was younger, she was tempted to smoke to look more sophisticated. "Thinking about that lung was enough to convince me not to," she says.
Even if you're not inhaling smoke, foreign material from other drugs lingers in your lungs after death. When someone injects heroin into his system, for example, the drug enters the veins, the right sides of the heart and then particles invade the lungs, Barnard says.
"Whatever high they're getting doesn't offset the damage done," he says.
GO FOR CHECKUPS
The youngest cadaver in Dotterer's class was about 40 years old. She was a woman with advanced breast cancer, and her lymph nodes were the size of golf balls, she says.
"It was shocking," she says.
Dotterer doesn't know the woman's story. The recommended age to begin mammograms is 40, and the woman's cancer probably developed before that age. Cunningham says she has seen dozens of cadavers with breast and colon cancers, diseases that can be detected early with screenings.
"Don't ignore lesions on your body," she warns. "You can detect it before someone else."
Before it's too late.
As TWU student Nicole Bourdeau stared at her cadaver, she was surprised at how fragile the brain looked. Her 18-year-old brother likes to do crazy stunts with no protective gear. She warns him against it.
"When you actually see the brain and how fragile it is, to think about people rock climbing and riding bikes without helmets, it reinforces that that is not a good idea," she says.
Drawings of naked women and names etched in your skin often aren't attractive as you age, Barnard says. He has seen scores of arms with names scratched out.
Not only is it bad judgment, but it can lead to serious health issues. "There are more cases of hepatitis C than people tend to think about — be it from tattoos or IV drugs abuse," he says.
The best way to avoid this? Steer clear of the ink.