October 26th, 2009
12:28 PM ET

Learning from death: the ultimate teaching tool

By Val Willingham
CNN Medical producer

As a medical producer I am often asked where I get my story ideas. Most of them come from contacts I know. Other times I read about certain events or people I think would make interesting TV stories. I've even pulled a couple of ideas off my gym's bulletin board. Who knew that women's rugby was becoming popular? If you keep your eyes and ears open, "good" story ideas always seem to materialize.

That's how I met Ronn Wade. A few years ago, when I was suffering from insomnia, I flipped on the National Geographic channel, only to catch a special on mummies. Most of it was shot in Cairo, some in Peru and other exotic locales. Then the story switched to Baltimore. The director of the anatomical services division of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Ronn Wade, along with Bob Brier, a professor of philosophy and Egyptology at Long Island University took a donor cadaver and decided to mummify it using the same techniques as the Egyptians. Removing the organs one by one and placing them in canopic jars, extracting the brain with a hooked instrument, wrapping the body in bandages treated with special oils, Wade and Brier took weeks to preserve the body. I was fascinated. I knew I had to interview Ronn Wade.

Since that time I have worked with Ronn twice. Although he deplores the title, most people refer to him as the “Mummy Man”. He not only was the co-creator of the modern mummy, now on display at the San Diego Museum of Man, he also oversees a collection of 200, 18th century medical mummies called the Burns Collection. His department is also responsible for providing donor cadavers for local hospitals and medical schools. But what's most intriguing about Ronn's research is his ongoing effort to find a better way to preserve bodies with a treatment called plastination. By immersing donor cadavers in a plastic-like substance, made up of polymers, Ronn can actually take the organs, skin, anything found in the human anatomy and cut it into sections, much like slices from an MRI, but you can hold them in your hands. By looking at these slices, doctors and medical students are able to learn how diseases develop, why they develop, and in many cases, how they can be treated.

With today's fascination with the Twilight saga, displays like "Body: The Exhibition”, and television shows such as True Blood, Ronn Wade could probably do his own reality show. But death is more than gore and corpses to him. To him it's a teaching tool and a way to learn more about life.

Why do you think we are fascinated with death? We'd like to hear your thoughts.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

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soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Kraig Rasool

    A touching subject indeed, but one worth commenting on if only
    to find out more information from those who know. I think death
    is so interesting to me as well as others is because not only do
    we all have to step through that door....it is also an unknown space
    behind that door. The unknown has and will always be a fascination
    beyond comprehension. There are those who say they would like
    to know the exact day and hour of death ( which I find totally absurd)...
    and then they are some who dont think about it at all. I make peace
    my main task while Im breathing so when its time for me to step
    to the next what I call frequency, my peace and happiness will hopefully pick up where i left off here on this planet. However
    curiousity still lingers a that top of my list.

    October 26, 2009 at 14:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Brigitte

    Why do you think we are fascinated with death? We'd like to hear your thoughts.

    In my case, I believe it's an attempt to tame the fear of what we know awaits us.

    October 26, 2009 at 22:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Scott A. Keeler

    Dear Dr. Gupta:

    I have a Traumatic Brain Injury. I've survived with my traumatic brain injury for over forty-seven years. My mother was killed instantly. My sister, father, and I were all injured by the same drunk driver who killed my mother. My frustration is constant. Sometimes I feel more valuable dead than alive. I earned my Bachelor of Science in Communication, and my Master of Social Work from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. I've worked in Community Mental Health in Kalamazoo, Kent, and Allegan Counties. My wife and I are members of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and I've found a purpose by speaking about what hapened to me and my family. I want people to know that Traumatic Brain Injury is not a new disorder. Because of my TBI, I have trouble talking, I am paralyzed on my left side of my body, and I have a complex partial seizure disorder. I have type 2 dysphasia, and I have trouble breathing at night. I recently had surgery on my left foot to correct a foot drop. I want you to know that I believe I'm a miracle, because I was not expected to live after the automobile crash in Davison, Michigan in 1962. I was ten years old, and I am now fifty-seven years old.

    October 27, 2009 at 15:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Cheryl Wood

    Fourteen years ago, on the day my son was born, my body collapsed, or reacted to something injected into me to relax the uterus in order to turn a baby in breech position. What I remember, vividly, would be my arms, first, flapping out uncontrollably as my body sensations 'sank' much like in an elevator as if freefalling from the top floor down, down and still down. I recall the numbers urgently stated by the two nurses engaged in holding me. 60 over 40. Blood pressure. I did not want to be present, and in that instant saw them lead me over to the bed. But I was still present in my former position near the other wall, now above the room. Not dying, for they had my body and placed it in the bed and it was very much alive. I felt confused that they could not see I was still where I had collapsed. Then I returned, into my body, when I heard that my baby's numbers, as evidenced after they hooked up a belt to the large woman's belly, indicated danger. Actually, they could not get a heart beat there in my child. I did not die-but I believe some part inside me protected me from my fear of dying by pulling me out, to the side. Once out, I had really preferred that location until I realized I needed to fight for my baby.

    Oddly enough, my son would be the 33rd child, in the world, diagnosed with a rare chromosome condition: a deletion called 22q13.3. There are 400 to date in the world like my son and he number is growing.

    October 27, 2009 at 20:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Mike

    Perhaps some would just like to have everyone recognize a clear and factual indicator of death, like the complete and irreversible cessation of all brain and brain stem activity?

    October 28, 2009 at 13:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Lori

    I believe we are fascinated by death because there are so many unknowns and we fear the unknown. We want to know what will happen to us and is death truly the end. We want to know if we will be reunited with loved ones who have passed on before us. We want to know if we will come back in another life. We humans are just curious by nature and so we are driven to find answers. I also personally believe that the reason we do not know FOR CERTAIN that Heaven exists is because we would all want to shorten our life here in this less than perfect life on earth and go to Heaven....why with all of the pain and suffering here on earth would we want to stay if we knew FOR CERTAIN a much better place existed?

    October 28, 2009 at 15:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. DrD11

    The concept of Death is so difficult to describe in Physical Terms that
    only Alternative Medicine deals with this issue.It is called:Spiritualism.
    Hinduism,Mysticism,Chritianity,Judaism,Islam,Kabalah etc,are some
    of this complex of misticism that individuals believe in it.
    In the past,it was quite difficult for the individual to describe how is it?
    in the "Next World":Heaven?.Nowaday with developing of technology,
    where more individual are resuscitated successfully,more people can describe their "After Death" experience.This also the experience that used to be under Eather anaesthsia.(Not the modern anaesthsia.) .
    Here,I would like to describe a case report of :"After death" experience.
    One day,as I was "Googling" my name,I came across an entry of my name,written.followed by a commar,then came the word:"Deceased"
    I could not believe it.I called the alumni group that I belong to,and said:
    How come you made this mistake,declaring me dead?.The secretary
    that answered my phone called,thought that I am "nut" and said:"What
    are you talking about?"."Ms."I said"see for yourself".As she looked up,she said:"You Know,you are dead!'."Thank you",I said"Now please
    correct this mistake,bring me back to life"."I will do my best"said she.
    I even called Google,to correct my mistake.I did not want to have problems with Social Security etc.
    Well,I looked around,wondering how does it feel in the "Other world"
    It was not different from the world I "Knew".same people going to work.Same people,happy,sad or mad.
    Well,it took ~4 month for the word:Deceased,to be erased from Google.One day this word was gone,and I was back to this world,
    continuing to enjoy everthing.
    Do I believe in the "Other world',the eternal one?Yes I do.
    Being a good,honest person,nice to yourself and others is essential.

    October 29, 2009 at 00:51 | Report abuse | Reply

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.