Over My Dead Body

January 29, 2009

My daughter and I each took a deep breath yesterday evening and ventured into BODIES, the controversial exhibition which is currently showcasing in Dublin. Real human bodies are on display, all of which have been dissected to feature every organ in the body. The specimens have been preserved permanently by a process called ‘polymer preservation’ so that they will not decay. This exhibition is highly educational but it’s also raises something of an ethical dilemma.

bodiesThe origins of the bodies used in this exhibition continue to create controversy, prompting an allegation, denied by the exhibitors, that some of the bodies are those of executed Chinese prisoners.The exhibitors claim that all the people whose bodies are being exhibited, died of natural causes. The ethical dilemma raised here is the fact that the exhibitors are profiting from displaying the remains of individuals who have not consented to their remains being used in this manner.

A sign on entry to the exhibition states that “the specimens  have been treated with the dignity and respect they so richly deserve.” I’ve no problem admitting that I found the exhibition far more interesting than disturbing. Having once studied anatomy and physiology using bodies donated for research, I loved having another opportunity to look inside the body and marvel at it’s sophistication. Our bodies are amazing things really when you consider how they function without us even thinking about it. My daughter has just completed a college semester in the dissecting room and she felt the exhibits helped her to put her recent learning into context. One curtained off part of the exhibition contains foetal and embryonic specimens but visitors are given the option to skip this section due to the sensitive nature of it’s display. A sign outside states that “all specimens perished in utero from complications during pregnancy.” While sad to look at, my daughter and I marvelled at  the various stages of development in utero and we were able to relate what we saw to my own experiences of pregnancy loss. This is not for everyone but it does form a useful learning experience and if nothing else, it makes you stop and think about how precious life is.

We left the exhibition feeling that we’d witnessed something very special. Some might argue that this exhibition teaches that there is nothing wrong with exploiting the dead in order to make a profit, as long as it is in the name of science or education or art. I believe that it offers a unique insight into the wonders of the human body and allows access to sights and knowledge normally reserved only for medical professionals. By understanding how the body works, you are in a better position care for your own body and keep it healthy. Having said all that, I’m happy to keep my body to myself.

Another article on the exhibition can be found here in the Irish Times.


Skin Deep

September 12, 2007

I’m pretty choosy about the television programmes I’ll watch these days but when I see something produced by Mint Productions, I never fail to be disappointed. Last night saw the screening of another programme in the RTE series ‘True Lives‘. It was called ‘Skin Deep‘ and covered the topic of living with a severe facial deformity. The message conferred by the programme was clear-cut – it’s no fun being facially different. Lives are changed forever by a facial deformity. It can have a devastating effect on people who have to cope with being ‘different’ in a world that’s obsessed with image and appearance.

Mr. Michael Early, Consultant Plastic Surgeon, explained how the anatomy of our faces and our facial expressions affect communication. He talked about the ‘triangle of communication’ – the area of the face between the eyes, the nose and the upper mouth. The programme featured five people with a variety of severe facial deformities which had been caused by genetics, or by an accident or as a result of cancer. These remarkably courageous individuals all possessed huge insight into how they are perceived by ‘normal’ people. Some people give them a ‘funny’ look, others look ‘curious’, while some take a ‘serious’ look and then ‘look away’ ashamed to have been caught staring. People who have a facial deformity lose their anonymity and become ‘different’. Their faces look unfamiliar and don’t conform to what ‘normal’ people look like. Society can be very cruel at times.

This programme has certainly helped me to keep my situation in context. I was pleased to learn last night that I’ve already taken the first step towards acceptance of my new look following recent surgery – I’ve got used to seeing my new face reflected in a mirror and no longer search for the ‘old me’. I know that true beauty comes from within. People need to look past the face which is after all, only skin deep – it’s what’s in the heart that really matters.


That’s Life!

August 30, 2007

I heard an item on the radio this morning concerning an article written by the journalist Kevin Myers, in today’s Irish Independent. In this piece he refers to the perfect contours of the late Princess Diana’s nose which, when combined with her appealing eyes, made her into a real photogenic beauty. It started me thinking about the contours of my own nose and forehead which have been altered by recent surgery. My medical history is complex – I’ve had a lot of surgery, in various specialities and have the surgical scars to show for it – but none of these compare to living with a slight facial disfigurement.

I was admitted to an NHS hospital in northern England earlier this year to undergo a complex operation at a specialist Head & Neck surgical unit. This surgery is unavailable in Ireland unfortunately. I have a long history of serious sinus infection which has necessitated regular surgical intervention and intensive antibiotic treatment over the years. As a result of this, I now also (surprise, surprise) have a history of recurrent MRSA infection. The MRSA presented itself as orbital cellulitis following my last episode of frontal sinus surgery and this infection manifested into chronic osteomyelitis in the frontal bone of my skull. All surgical efforts to establish drainage from the frontal sinus had failed and despite intensive antibiotic treatment, I continued to develop abscesses in the bone close to the base of my brain. As this had an associated risk of developing into a brain abscess/septic meningitis, I was referred to the UK for assessment. Here I was advised that the most effective way to stamp out chronic osteomyelitis would be to have all the infected/dead bone removed, and an operation called the ‘Riedel procedure’ was recommended. I was fully informed that there would be a cosmetic disfigurement post-operatively and having considered my predicament very carefully, I finally agreed to proceed.

My little friend, the superbug, is thankfully still responsive to a tetracycline antibiotic, Vibramycin (Doxycycline), and this enabled me to obtain the requisite ‘all-clear’ from MRSA screening prior to the surgery. The operation itself went very well and was completed in just under four hours. My head was opened from ear to ear (zig-zag coronal incision), my ‘face’ was peeled back to the bridge of my nose and the anterior and inferior walls (bone) of both frontal sinuses were removed completely leaving a large hollow in my forehead. The margins of the frontal sinus along with the supraorbital rims were then ‘chamfered’ (planed) to make a gentle curve rather than a sharp step out of this hollow. This allows the soft tissue of the face to fall in and line the vacated frontal sinus area and improves the cosmetic defect which results from the procedure. My ‘face’ was then put back where it belongs and the coronal incision was stapled together before a pressure bandage was applied with a drain in situ to minimise haematoma formation. I had no post-operative complications other than vomiting copious amounts of blood when in the recovery room – this had drained into my stomach during the surgery. Ten days later when I had the staples (59 of them) removed from my scalp, the incision was healing beautifully and I was well on the way to making a good recovery.

That all happened five months ago and I remain free of infection. The post-operative numbness of my scalp has almost resolved though it has left behind an unpleasant neuralgia which requires medication. The surgery has left a definite legacy – a facial cosmetic defect. The bridge of my nose ends abruptly where the large hollow begins in my forehead. I’ve got used to seeing my new ‘look’ in the mirror although photographs still tend to take me aback. I’ve also had to get used to having conversations with people, usually strangers whose eyes are firmly fixed on my forehead while they try to work out what’s happened to the contours of my face. I’ve had a few tactless comments but nothing that humour can’t handle. You have to keep things in perspective – I’ve been given a second chance at life – not everyone gets that chance. My surgeon has offered re-constructive surgery (a split calvarial bone graft/titanium plate) in the future but for the moment anyhow I’ve no wish to go there and certainly no wish to invite further trouble. And anyway, I’m proud of my war wound – my husband refers to it as the ‘bomb crater’- it was a hard fought battle and I’ve come through it still smiling 😀

I’ve just gotta face it – I’ll never be a Princess Di. But then, that’s life!


Anatomy of a True Friend

June 20, 2007

Okay, so I want you to imagine that your friend is stuck in hospital following surgery/having treatment. It’s more than likely that they are ‘bored out of their brains’ and missing family and friends, and the normal routine of life. They’re also probably ‘tired out of their brains’ having tossed and turned in bed all night (that is, if they’ve been lucky enough to get allocated a bed) while everyone else in the ward snored the night away. What do they have to look forward to in the day? The next meal? – I don’t think so. The next session of doctor’s rounds? – definitely not. Maybe some horrible procedure? – no thank you. Let’s face it, it’s a pretty awful experience being in hospital and the days can be interminably long.

So what’s the best thing you can do to brighten up your friend’s life? They may not be well enough to want to receive visitors. But I can bet your bottom dollar that they’d like to receive some text messages from you. For less than €1 a day you can make a huge difference to someone’s day.

When I was in hospital being barrier nursed in isolation because of an MRSA infection, I nearly went out of my mind with boredom. I had a wonderful friend who supported me through those lonely days by sending regular text messages. My friend was on holiday beside the sea at the time. Instead of quizzing me in her texts about my state of health, she sent lovely descriptions of the wildlife she could see in the early mornings, or maybe even some detail of food she’d found in a market or perhaps news of people she’d met on her travels. It was fantastic to have this distraction from my monotonous existence in hospital. It was a vital link with the outside world. If I was feeling too ill/tired to receive a call I’d turn my phone onto ‘silent’ and then it was always a lovely surprise to find a message waiting when things looked up again. I was a friend ‘in need’ and she was a friend ‘indeed’!

So, the next time you hear that a friend/loved one has been hospitalised, don’t get stunned into silence. Go on! Be a true friend and brighten up their day with a text message. It could turn out to be a lifeline.