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Woman who allowed body to be chopped into 27,000 pieces for science is now a 'living cadaver'

A National Geographic profile details how a woman who wanted to donate her body to science is now a 'living cadaver' for medical students -- and will be for years to come.

For the last 14 years, National Geographic has followed Dr. Vic Spitzer, a professor at the University of Colorado Anschutz, and Susan Potter on her journey from life to becoming a "living cadaver."

“Susan, like a lot of donors, came to CU to donate her body,” Spitzer said. “She saw a newspaper article about the visible human and sectioning the body so she seemed to understand what it meant to slice her body up into many pieces.”

Credit: University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus

Spitzer is the director for Human Simulation for the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. He said the process is a way of seeing he body through a slice of a cadaver about as thick as a human hair.

“Seeing the slice through the body is one way to look at it that’s similar to CT and MRI, but now you can put all those slices back together again and take them apart many other ways,” Spitzer said.

Spitzer said Potter passed away three years ago at age 87 and had major health issues like breast cancer and diabetes. He said they were all-but forced to study the body of an older person.

“Generally we like to get young specimens to teach anatomy with,” Spitzer said.  “She had a total 26 surgeries and these other diseases.”

Spitzer said Potter's body was sliced into 27,000 pieces of cross sections about a millimeter thick so you can see every slice from head to foot.

Credit: Byron Reed

“You can remove one muscle at a time or isolate one artery or one nerve so that we can explain to the students not just the name of the nerve but where does it travel…what’s next to it,” Spitzer said.

Credit: University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus

He says it’s these relationships deep in our body that every physician needs to understand to get across information to a patient about what’s happening inside.

Credit: University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus

“She’s not only contributing to the education of CU medical students, but will in the future contribute to many others," Spitzer said. “Which means everybody in the world can see the insides and the outsides of her body and her life and she accepted that.”