Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Book Review: Stiff:The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers- Mary Roach

This was the only book that Mary Roach had written that I hadn't read yet.  I kind of read her books in the wrong order.  I stumbled across Bonk at some point and listened to it and was amazed at the quality of the research and the interesting stories.  Shortly thereafter Packing for Mars came out and at the time I didn't realize it was by her, it was just another space science book to listen to.  Packing for Mars made me fall in love with her writing, because despite knowing a lot about the space program and its history, I still learned a lot from her book.  From there I set out the exhaust her other books which included Spook and later Gulp came out.  It was difficult to find an old copy of Stiff on audio.  Eventually I did and it was every bit as enjoyable as her other books.
Stiff explores the uses for and history of cadavers in medical, and other, research.  Mary Roach always has her eye on the odd and interesting.  Also, in the beginning of this book, she explained why she loved to pursue odd topics and I saw hints of every book yet to come within this one.  Being essentially a free-lance science writer for magazines and newspapers she travelled the world looking at current research in science.  Unfortunately, that can get expensive so she started looking for science stories closer to home- topics that were universal, but could be more easily researched and satisfy her curious nature.  That insight was great and makes me regret it not being repeated in other books by her, or saving this one until the end, rather than listening to it sooner.
None-the-less the research was engaging as always.  Most of her books have focused on biology, which not only is not my speciality, but also the science subject I tend to enjoy the least.  She always helps me to enjoy the biology that is there and I laughed more often than you would think for a book about science and cadavers, but this book also made me more uncomfortable than any of her others.  I can get pretty squeamish and I described this to several people while I was listening to the book as follows: I'm not a fan of biology, but I can do it.  I don't like things like dissections, but I've always been able to psych myself up to doing them and then power on through them.  But the next time I need to do it I have to psych myself up again and steel myself against the things that disgust me.  If I get distracted I have to do it all over again.
That's how it was with this book.  There were times where I was repulsed, but curious; it's like a train wreck- you don't want to stare, but you can't look away.  The downside of listening to it on audio, is that if someone distracted me while I was listening that shield just dropped and the disgust or repulsion would wash in, very quickly.  This was also the first time that I listened to a Mary Roach book and wasn't left wanting more when it ended.  Her books always seem to be too short and end too soon, but this one I was OK with letting go.
Of course, I learned a lot from listening to the book and thoroughly enjoyed it, but the part that had the biggest impact on me was the end.  The last chapter was titled "Will She or Won't She" and referred to whether she would donate her body to science when she passed away.  She said organ donation was a no-brainer and she told her husband that she wanted him to not over-rule her wishes on that matter.  Beyond that she explored different donation programs and mentioned the one that I want to do.  I had a teacher whose classroom skeleton wasn't a model, but instead was the real thing.  Came with a note about who the person was and everything.  It was awesome, and even though we were sometimes disrespectful to the skeleton [the number of times it grabbed itself in its privates, flipped the bird, or picked its nose is probably uncountable], I have always thought that I'd love my organs to be harvested and then the skeleton to end up in a classroom.  After all, what better way to keep teaching for a long time beyond the grave than to be a biological model for students to learn from?  Alas, Mary Roach shattered this dream because there is no place in the US [she mentioned that somewhere in German does it still] that prepares bodies in this manner.  She also pointed out that with rare exceptions, donation programs usually don't let you specify what you want to do, but rather specify what you don't want done and the rest is up to the researchers.  Furthermore, she felt that it was the rights of the remaining family and not the individual to determine what happens to the remains.  I understand the family needing closure, but if they are OK with it, or if I pass away last, then I do feel that I should get a say and a specific say in what happens to me.  Although I don't want to give up on the dream of being a skeleton in a classroom and although these two are not mutually exclusive, she did point out a way to teach more than once from beyond the grave and that is plastination.
A few years ago the BodyWorks exhibit was at COSI and my family and I went to go see it with some friends.  Although there were parts I really enjoyed, like learning organ systems and looking at diseased versus healthy organs, there were plenty of displays that were "artistic" and not respectful, but rather disturbing.  None-the-less, because the patent ran out, and/or because an alternative process was discovered by Dow Chemical the plastination process is now much cheaper, quicker, and safer for the workers.  Dow has partnered with a University in Michigan to preserve specimens and they primarily focus on organs.  From there they have both a lending library of organs, which is better than anatomical models because it is the real thing, potentially cheaper, and it more long lasting than a cadaver.  I do like the idea of non-donated organs being preserved instead of going to waste and also the idea of my organs helping more than one classroom through a lending program, so if possible this is the route I would like to pursue, like she said she hoped to do as well.

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