“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 would 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 postmortem.
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 healthilfully.
Her kidneys were different sizes. Her arteries were so full of plaque, they couldn’t carry blood to the kidneys, Petterborg 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, the public hospital in Dallas County. She’s been working on bodies for about 30 years.
Many people have knee and hip replacements because of the extra pounds they carry 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.
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.