Mortui Prosumus Vitae (“Even in death do we serve life”)

By Arne Vainio, M.D.
News From Indian Country

“My father is dying and I think he only has a day or two left. He’s getting really good care in hospice and my brother and I have been able to spend lots of time with him. There is something my brother and I have been thinking about and it’s something we really want to do, but we don’t know if it’s the right thing to do.”

“Tell me more.”

“He’s been a doctor and a teacher his entire life. He’s been a practical man and he doesn’t have any strong religious attachments to his body. We want to donate his body to the medical school so medical students can learn from him. I wanted to talk to you because my dad was a man of science and teaching and medicine was the essence of him. You are a man of science and I knew you would understand what this means.”

I understand exactly what this means. I have not thought back to my first year of medical school all those 23 years ago for a very long time. Medical school is grueling and the hours are long. Part of the curriculum is studying a human body in all its aspects in the anatomy lab. This means following every major nerve, every major blood vessel and every major organ system and studying them in detail.

There were four students working with the body we were studying and we didn’t know anything about him as a person. The medical school was very explicit that we were to carry ourselves with the utmost respect when we were in the lab with the body and we were to respect this gift that was given to us. This almost didn’t need to be said, but I’m glad it was. Very few people get the opportunity to study a body in detail and learn the anatomy as they learn the organ systems. There is no book, no video, no plastic model that can give the same experience. This is the way doctors have been learning medicine since the beginning.

I don’t know what the other medical students in my group did before we started, but I put asemaa out and I thanked the creator for putting me in a position where I would be able to honor this gift and learn from someone else’s passing.

We listened to lectures, then we read about the heart and the cardiovascular system and then we went into the anatomy lab. There we studied the heart and looked into each chamber, carefully cut away the heart muscle to expose the valves and the coronary arteries. These are the arteries that get blocked when someone has a heart attack and several of the bodies had clots in those vessels and the heart muscle was damaged and scarred beyond those clots.

This is the same heart muscle that beats in each of us. Twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year.

Assuming an average heart rate of 72 beats per minute, that works out to 4,320 per hour and 103,680 in a day, 725,760 in a week and 37,739,520 beats in a year. A heart beats somewhat less than 3 billion beats before it can beat no longer and there is no pump designed by man that can do better than that.

We listened to lectures and read about the lungs and respiratory system, then we studied them in the anatomy lab. The lungs are another miracle of nature and each of them has 300 million tiny air sacs called alveoli, 600 million total in both lungs. These tiny air sacs bring in oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide, again, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred sixty-five days a year. If you could open each of these tiny sacs and lay them out flat side by side, the surface area would be about the size of a tennis court.

We never have to think about our next breath and it happens automatically. There is a French folk tale called Ondine’s curse. Ondine was a water sprite and she fell in love with a mortal man and he promised to be faithful to her and “every waking breath will be a testimony of my love”. But he was unfaithful to her and she cursed him so he would never be able to breathe without thinking of his next breath.  He could never sleep and he could never do anything again except think about taking his next breath. He eventually fell asleep from exhaustion and died.

People with end stage emphysema from smoking sometimes spend their last days like that but for the most part we take this for granted. Several of the groups in the anatomy lab found lungs almost totally destroyed by smoking.

We listened to lectures on the digestive system and the liver and we read about them. Then we studied them in the anatomy lab. To hold a liver in your hands that was once an essential part of someone’s existence is a humbling experience. We cut sections through it to see how the ducts and lobules worked and filtered the molecules the intestines processed and sent to the liver. We studied the stomach and one of the groups found esophageal varices. These are veins that get huge when the liver becomes scarred with alcoholic (usually) cirrhosis and these can break and bleed. This bleeding is often fatal.

We spent a very long time listening to neuroanatomy lectures and we read about the brain and the spinal cord and the nervous system. In the anatomy lab, we were able to study the brain in detail and to see the convolutions on the surface. These ridges are there to make the gray matter of the brain have a larger surface area and still fit within the confines of the skull. To actually be able to feel the membranes that separate the brain into sections and to see and follow the blood vessels inside the brain itself locks this important anatomy into your own brain.

The brain is the seat of our consciousness, the source of our creativity, the well of our compassion and the birthplace of our ability to give and receive love.

We can understand the neural pathways of the brain and can find the nerve tracts that carry the impulses from one part of the nervous system to the next. We can see the huge optic nerves and see how much of the brain is dedicated to our sense of sight.

I am a man of science and I always worried that medical school and the amount of knowledge I would have to process would drown my spiritual side and make me see only facts.

The fact is medicine has made me more spiritual than ever. I see miracles every day and we all can if we only spend just a little bit of time looking.

Is giving this gift the right thing to do?

Dr. Blum was a teacher and his life was dedicated to science and medicine.

This could well be one of his greatest and most enduring lessons.

Arne Vainio, M.D. is and enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
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