Tuesday, February 6, 2018

In Other Words: Heroic Lab Rats Save the Day

Photo courtesy of Chuck Keller
We hear about karma and how things come full circle. Maybe this is one of those. Maybe not. I may never know.

I was ten years old and the nurse who lived across the street worked in the cancer research lab at an area hospital. She approached me one day with a business deal. They needed white mice for use in the lab and she thought that an industrious ten year old needed a job. If I raised the mice, the lab would buy them. She would even provide a “starter kit,” a mating pair and a cage. I had to provide everything else. So I agreed. I had no idea what they did with the mice, all I know is that I got comic book money.

Let me tell you, those mice were prolific! I added another cage and then another and another. And I had to have an isolation cage for the male because he ate the babies. I learned about gestation periods, growth time to maturity, feeding, and maintenance. I also had fun playing with the little guys. After all, I was ten years old.

The lab bought them all. I have no idea what happened to them. I never asked and my neighbor never said. I just knew that cancer was a bad thing and these little guys were going to help find causes and cures or something that I did not understand.



Flash forward many decades and the memory of those mice return in an unexpected way. I was recently diagnosed with lymphoma so I hoped that those mice revealed enough curative secrets in the early chain of medical discoveries to help me. I now view those little guys quite differently. I see them as being rather heroic.

Now here’s the uncomfortable part so if you want to skip to something else, I understand. I am donating my body to science. Similar to my lab mice, I plan to be a lab human. Well, after I die, of course. Not any time soon.  Let medical science examine, dissect, test, and learn. I have made the arrangements with the University of Cincinnati. And it turns out that a number of people have as well.

Kenzie McDermott, 39, has a congenital heart valve problem. He had his first heart valve replaced when he was 19 years old. I asked him if he had the pig or mechanical valve and he surprised me when he said, “Human cadaver. Both times!”  He says that he has to “have it replaced every 12 to 15 years.”  I don’t know why that using a human cadaver part never entered my mind as a possibility.
Photo courtesy of Kenzie McDermott

There are some medical things that Kenzie can’t do like donate blood. He says, “I’m unfortunately unable to give blood because of the surgeries and I’m pretty sure the same goes for tissue and organ donation so any way I can donate is good by me.”  He has benefitted from organ donors so he plans to donate his body to science so they can learn ways to improve ways to help others. That’s noble. But organ donations and whole body donation are two different things.

Then there is Jim Nedderman who approaches body donation with a practical yet humorous manner. He says, “There are two people that influenced my decision, John Campbell and Abraham Lincoln. John was a man that lived in the small town where I grew up. When he died a few years ago his daughter shared that he had donated his body to UC and there would be no funeral. This was a pretty radical thing in that conservative community. It got me thinking about Lincoln. Like Lincoln, I do not believe in an after life. I believe I can only live in eternity by making a difference in this life. Donating my body to scientific research is certainly not on par with the Emancipation Proclamation, but I like to believe that my decision will have a positive impact on someone in this world.”

But Nedderman voices a practical issue, “Yes, I guess you could say I’m altruistic. I also like to think that I am relieving my family of some of the financial and organizational burden should I pass unexpectedly. I was also comforted by UC's tradition of an annual memorial service” that they hold in Spring Grove Cemetery.

There is this humorous streak in everyone I talked to who has donated their body. Nedderman says, “One final note. I enjoy telling people that, at age 57, I was accepted into UC's College of Medicine.” What a great attitude!
Photo courtesy of Jim Nedderman

I always wanted to change or influence the future. That is one reason why I became a teacher. And that is one reason why I write. I want to make things happen and I want to be with people who make things happen. If we are going to advance then we must learn from the past - and that goes for our bodies as well. I will not live forever, but I live with the hope that something I did may ripple forward in the river of time to help another.

I am living in a textbook that can only be read when I die. If what my text reveals will help one person somewhere sometime then my life would not have been in vain. In fact, it would be purposeful.

Now about all of those doofus mistakes I made along the way, Well, that’s part of the textbook as well. It is all part of the permanent record that cannot be denied. But each mistake moves us forward to something better. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” So here’s to all of the lab mice and lab humans, the unsung heroes of medical research. Wishing you good karma.

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