One of history's most inspiring yet heartbreaking tales is of a woman named Susan Potter and her friend Dr Vic Spitzer. Susan wanted to live on forever and help science - despite her morbid state. Yet, Dr Vic fulfiled her wish and made her immortal through science! This is the story of Susan Potter and how she changed the way we look at the concept of life and death.
Anyone who loves happy tragedies – get excited- because this is one bizarrely intriguing tale. However, this story isn’t exactly any Romeo-Juliet melodrama or just another impossible Shakespearean tragic plot. Instead, this particular story is one of the most inspiring and revolutionising stories you probably will ever encounter.
So, you are up for it, get yourself a cuppa tea or coffee, get a shawl (if it’s cold) or a cooling pool (if it’s hot) and read on ahead – it is a long story! P.S. if you’re a softy (like the author of this article), it is recommended to keep aside a box of tissues since tears are involved.
Now that you’re ready, be assured that this story is real. The protagonist patient of this story is immortal. But, from Dr Vic’s perspective, this journey wasn’t easy for her – the patient- since her severely ill body didn’t support her noble thoughts and aim.
She has become a modern hero, especially in medical sciences, where her body, every minute, tells a tale, from her healthy cells to her dying cells. Her dream was “to help young people become better doctors.”
She has changed science and our lives forever. She is Susan Potter!
Susan Potter- A woman riddled with many diseases yet a heart and determination like none other on this Planet!
Susan Potter was born on 25th December 1927 in Leipzig, in the then Weimar Republic and modern-day Germany. Although most of her early life has remained unknown, one thing was sure- she had been through a lot! Susan was someone who had been to hell and back, having battled breast cancer, melanoma, a car crash, an ulcer and diabetes in one lifetime.
Along with that, she had to go through various medical procedures to save herself, like double mastectomy, hip replacement and spine surgery.
None of these ailments ever dimmed Susan Potter's light and zeal
Visible Human Project - Resurrecting the Dead
As an activist, Susan tried the best to make the best out of her life. And one powerful project that could help humanity forever caught attract her attention. The more she learnt about it, the more she wanted to be in it. This project was known as the ‘Visible Human Project‘, a scientific ambition led by Dr Vic Spitzer and late collaborator Dr David Whitlock.
The Visible Human Project was perceived in 1987, but it was given wings in 1991 when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) got a $720,000 grant for it.
A body donated to Dr Vic will undergo multiple slicing and sections in a machine that simultaneously clicks photographs. Once done, doctors will put the images together to form a digital cadaver in which everything from the nerves to the skin will be visible.
Dr Spitzer began the project in 1993 when two healthy male and female individuals joined him.
The male subject was Joseph Paul Jernigan, a 39-year-old murderer from Texas. Oblivious to the project (this raised concerns for Jernigan’s ethical treatment), he agreed that he would donate his body for medical research and, hence, be executed with a lethal formalin injection before being executed.
The female cadaver is yet a mystery. It is said that a 59-year-old woman from Maryland passed on due to a heart attack. Her husband then requested to take her body for the project. Both of the individuals were healthy.
However, they had many to fill in the medical world.
The male corpse had one missing testicle, a missing appendix, tissue deterioration near the injection site. In contrast, the female one had fourteen missing body parts, and had evidence of cardiovascular disease and diverticulitis! But these were still medically healthy (as far as corpses were concerned) and could be used as cadavers.
"You’re not what we’re looking for" said Dr Spitzer to Susan Potter
In 2000, Dr Spitzer was surprised to see a 72-year-old-woman roll up into his office in a wheelchair and wanted to participate in the Visible Human Project. Hearing about her medical history of diseases – her body withstanding a total of 26 surgeries and her zeal for helping the field of medical science by donating her body – Dr Spitzer had nothing much but to say: “We try to teach anatomy with people who don’t have diseases. We’re not trying to teach disease or abnormality. We’re trying to reach normality. You’re not what we’re looking for.”
However, Potter bent the rules, for good!
Dr Spitzer, however, lit a fire inside Susan Potter, which could not be quenched. Potter never took his ‘no’ for an answer. From that day onwards, Potter demanded that she be made a part of the Visible Human Project. She kept persisting with Dr Spitzer to include her in this noble mission.
Dr Spitzer, on the other hand, sought out various excuses to let her off. One of them was to tell her that the project was already completed and there’s no use in participating now. But nothing stopped Potter. Eventually, Dr Spitzer realised how wrong he was. After all, medical science needs to consider everyone present on Earth.
Having Susan with her noble dream onboard helped Dr Spitzer build a Digital Bookshelf of many different humans. Just because Susan wasn’t healthy, that didn’t mean she couldn’t be of great help to medical science and anatomy. And Spitzer realised this.
And Behold! Potter was successful!
Potter thought that she would die within the year 2000, and Dr Spitzer agreed to her wishes to donate her body to the project upon ONE CONDITION: Potter would be followed her whole life till the day she passes on. Dr Spitzwer was oblivious that this would spark 15 years of unbreakable and heartbreaking friendships.
The 15 years of deep friendship between Dr Spitzer and Susan Potter
After she joined the project, Potter became a regular visitor to Spitzer’s office. She demanded to see all of the equipment they would use to transform her into a ‘digital cadaver’. She wanted to see the freezer in which she would be kept.
However, Dr Spitzer was hesitant to show it. But Potter was powerful in conviction, and a dainty, five-foot woman made a six-feet-four-inch man cave in. Dr Spitzer then went ahead to show her the freezer, the saw and other equipment which would be used to transform her body into a digital cadaver.
To keep track of her, Dr Spitzer had approached National Geographic to cover her story in the last year of her life, and National Geographic agreed. Dr Spitzer did this because he wanted Potter to speak about her life, pains, and journey. He wanted all of her visions and life in the form of audio notes or videos to show his students why Potter led herself to take this brave decision.
Dr Spitzer wanted Potter to be known for herself
Dr Spitzer explained further, “For her to talk to you about her body and how she felt, her disabilities, which bothered her a lot; that’s a different dynamic. That’s not learning about her anatomy and physiology. It’s learning about her humanity.”
Dr Spitzer had honestly told Potter, “Your pathology isn’t that interesting to the project. But if I could apprehend you talking to medical students, when they’re studying the parts of your body, you could inform them about your spine; why you didn’t want the surgery, what kind of pain the operation caused, and what sort of life you led following the surgery. That would be fascinating.”
In turn, for the first time, Potter agreed to follow Dr Spitzer’s words. And NGC filmed the most extended documentary they ever filmed as Potter went on to live for 15 more years!
The Bond between Dr Spitzer and Potter deepened, only for it to snap with Potter saying goodbye.
Potter found her purpose. As a regular mentor at the University of Colorado medical school, Potter mentored and guided several medical students in the institute. She primarily taught students from their first year to graduation. She was loved by teachers and students alike. She even ‘adopted’ six of the students, and together they were known as ‘Team Susan’.
From accompanying her to the labs with students and examining cadavers to taking her for medical check-ups, and even comforting her during her medical tests like the C.T. scans, Spitzer and Potter were more than just a subject and a mentor of a study.
Everything was going well, from documenting Potter’s life to her attending her adopted children’s graduation in the year 2009 and both Dr Spitzer and Potter finding comfort and peace within their unique and deep friendship.
In one instance, Dr Spitzer asked Potter: “Tell me your favourite opera.” Since Potter spent her initial years in Nazi Germany and Europe, she replied, “Faust.” Potter hated her mother, which could be due to her terrible childhood in nazi Germany during World War II. She had two daughters, out of which only the younger one was in contact with her.
But she asked Dr Spitzer never to invite both of her daughters to her memorial service. It seemed as if Potter never had a good relationship with her daughters. However, her teddy bear was her beloved.
She even asked Dr Spitzer to play her favourite Opera song and decorate the sawing room with red roses as they cut her up. She requested to slice her teddy bear up along with her too!
“Forget it!”, Spitzer said jokingly yet firmly.
No matter what anyone said, it was inevitable that Potter was indeed a rare gem to this world!
Potter, on 16th February 2015, bid goodbye to the world as she passed on from pneumonia. All hell had broken loose as the entire university, the people documenting her life, and everyone who knew her mourned her demise. A memorial service was conducted in March 2015 for everyone to remember Potter and her life one last time until she was resurrected.
Dr Spitzer, heartbroken, kept his word for his dear friend Susan Potter.
Dr Spitzer got to interact with Potter in the morgue attached to his laboratory, except she would not respond to him this time. Just like any other human, Dr Spitzer was pained and shocked to the core to see Potter lie on the morgue table with her face pale and lifeless and her eyes peacefully resting.
Remembering what Dr Spitzer had to do to Potter, he suddenly felt repugnant. “I didn’t want to become her friend; I wasn’t pleased about imaging and sectioning my friend,” he expressed. But Potter was noble, and she mustn’t be let down. Dr Spitzer painfully had to carry her body and prepare it for a painful process.
Dr Spitzer further said,”It’s tough getting to know someone and having to deal with them after death.”
“Will you regret personal contact?”
“I’ll never regret it as long as I think about it logically.” he painfully said.
The Life After Death - Visible Human Project Began
Dr Spitzer and his team covered Potter’s body in polyvinyl alcohol to prevent it from freezer burns. The coating served as an essential contrast between her tissues and the surrounding material. She was then frozen for two years at −26 °C, and in January 2017, the process began.
With Faust playing in a room decorated with painted red roses, Dr Spitzer and his team, together in March 2017, sawed Potter’s body into four sections to prepare for the slicing process.
Tirelessly and painfully, everyone witnessed the machine saw Susan Potter’s body in 27,000 slices of 63 microns thick (that’s even thinner than a human hair.) Researchers took thousands of photographs with every portion of Potter’s sliced body. She was wholly sawed off in 60 days.
Susan Potter is Immortal
“What did you think when you began to cut her?”
“I was thinking that I was doing what she had asked me to,” said Dr Spitzer.
Susan Potter’s remains were then cremated. In December 2018, her resurrection began. Dr Spitzer and his team put together 6900 slices and photographs to display Potter’s detailed head to Torso, which ended till her ribs. Dr Spitzer continues to resurrect Potter by putting together images of various parts of her body.
Dubious about how far digital resurrection progress, a student asked Dr Spitzer: “When will you stop?”. Dr Spitzer confidently replied, “Never. When the body gets up and walks away, then we’ll be almost done.”
It has been six years since Potter passed on from the physical world to a possible unknown realm. But what is certain is that Potter will, one day, resurrect and interact with people once again to speak about her life. Spitzer’s dear friend will come back to him soon.