‘Death becomes her’
It takes hours—and respect—for UNR students to dissect a donated cadaver, like the body of world-renowned Reno swimmer Ivy Browne
Dozens of newspaper clippings and photographs arranged on poster boards in Reno’s First Congregational Church vestibule ran like a current through Ivy Browne’s life. The oldest was yellowed and brittle, the most recent from just two weeks before.
The clippings began: “Mermaid, 19, Makes Four Mile Pull in 2 Hrs. 6 Mins.” Five and three-quarter miles, actually, across tugging waters from San Francisco to Oakland. Browne was the first, and her record stood for 46 years. In one photo the incomplete San Francisco Bay Bridge loomed in the background. Browne’s picture appeared in Life magazine in 1934.
And ended: “Hip replacement, pacemaker fail to slow this 87-year-old.” The article reported that Browne, still recovering from pneumonia, had disregarded doctor’s orders by swimming in the Fina World Masters Championships in Christchurch, New Zealand.
She was also looking forward to masters games in Ohio but died four days after returning to the Northern Hemisphere.
More than 150 guests read the clippings. If they hadn’t learned about the May 2002 celebration-of-life ceremony from Browne’s family, they’d heard about it from local television news or radio.
A 65-pound jumble of medals, mostly gold on blue, red and white ribbons, smothered one table near the front door like thick confetti. The heap did not include the medals she had given to her Aquacize students at the European Health Spa in Reno and the Mexican kids on her yearly visits to Guadalajara. Her only son, Marvin Mendonca, 63, told guests they could take as many as they wanted. Mother would have been pleased.
One thing was missing amid this sum of Browne’s life: her body. It was at Walton’s Sierra Chapel, awaiting transport to the University of Nevada, Reno.
Browne would be a cadaver.
Down the hall past the specimen refrigerators is the wooden door with the tag reading “Do Not Prop Open.” It was cracked for ventilation. Beside the door hung a plaque: “Hic est locus ubi mors faudet succurso vitae.”
Translation: “This is the place where death rejoices to come to the aid of life.”
Inside the Human Anatomy Lab, hoisted by an arm poised over the edge of a table, a masculine hand was the first thing that caught attention. Yellowed fingernails seemed inconveniently long.
Wearing translucent mint-colored Nitril gloves covered with bits of gore, Bob Hamann, curator of the lab, extended his own hand in greeting, then smiled. The skin on his face was like parchment, dry as his humor.
Nevada’s Anatomical Donation Program has attracted 1,800 people living in the Truckee Meadows, most over 65, according to Hamann. Over the next few decades, 3 percent of the area’s older population will end up on stainless-steel tables in the Manville Building, room 20.
The donation program isn’t unique. All 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico have similar setups. Whether called an “anatomical gift” or a “willed body,” donors throughout the country are intended to remain anonymous to students. What makes Reno’s program unusual is that so many donors come from a limited radius. Anonymity is not a virtue of small towns.
“I’m a donor,” said Hamann, 57. “I mean, I will be.”
He said some donors come from other departments at UNR. Fine Arts. Journalism. You name it. In the late 1990s, an anatomy instructor at Truckee Meadows Community College donated his body to the department in which he worked.
Most are “ordinary citizens,” said Bonnie Coker, who signs up the philanthropists, the widows, the destitute, the ones who think science might benefit from preserving their peculiar ailments or deformities. Half of UNR’s donors sign from nursing homes or hospitals in their twilight days and usually find out about the program from physicians or attorneys; others have been in the program 20 years. A handful are under 20 years old; the youngest is 18.
To express appreciation to all its deceased participants, the donation program sponsors a farewell eulogy at the end of every school year at Mountain View Mortuary.
While the program averages about 30 cadavers per year, Coker said some weeks she gets 10 or 15 calls, other weeks none, with the occasional inquiry from as far away as Winnemucca.
In comparison, the New York Mortuary Service picks up cadavers-to-be as far north as Boston, as far south as Baltimore, said General Manager Tim O’Brien. From that overpopulated span, he retrieves only 500 corpses per year for Cornell, Mt. Sinai, New York University and other institutions.
That program, like Nevada’s, pays for embalming, cremation, transportation within 50 miles; cadavers’ families pay for nothing.
Like most donors from Reno, Browne was far from wealthy. She dabbled in real estate and had cleaned homes of the affluent in Tahoe since the 1960s, making enough money to stay independent. She “preferred hand-me-downs to new clothes,” Mendonca said, during an interview from his ranch-style home with a wind-swept view of Reno.
“She wouldn’t have a stove with a pilot light,” he said, “because it wasted pilot light fuel.”
Perhaps her frugality stemmed from the Great Depression, he said. Her one fear was that she wouldn’t have enough to eat, and she saw to it that others did. For 25 years, she volunteered weekly to hand out bread to shut-ins at the Gospel Mission.
“I also keep myself busy by volunteering at hospitals as a guinea pig,” she is quoted as saying in the 2000 book It’s Never Too Late!, by Gail Waesche Kislevitz. The book is about staying young through exercise.
Browne was the poster octogenarian for physical fitness. She probably swam far enough to have circled the globe. The world record for the 10K open-water swim still belongs to her. She held eight national records in the 1980s and adorned her mobile home’s entire living room wall with medals she won—nearly 500 in swimming and track-and-field.
Despite the achievements that won her national acclaim, Browne’s drive to contribute was typical of donors. By volunteering on surveys for cancer, rheumatism and rheumatoid arthritis, she said she gained “the knowledge that I’ve helped science help others.”
Seven groups of students were clustered around seven cadavers like the pupils in Rembrandt’s “Dr. Tulp’s Anatomy Lesson,” minus chiaroscuro. Each group was constructing a model of the nerves in the arm out of blue, red and green pipe cleaners, using their cadaver’s arm as a guide. The cadavers’ faces were covered with moist gauze. Which body used to be Browne’s?
Tim McAteer knew. A first-year med student and once a competitive swimmer at the University of California, San Diego, he had swum with Browne in the Sierra Nevada Masters.
“She was a great lady,” he said.
He and other students, wearing their white knee-length lab coats, had noticed Browne’s pacemaker. More than once, she had ripped the wires through the skin on her arm while swimming and finished a race one-armed. The students didn’t know whether the pacemaker’s failure had precipitated her death.
In some cadavers, they found hints of the causes of death: black lungs, clogged arteries, a kidney tumor the size of a bottle cap. But mostly they could only wonder.
Giselle Zagari, a pony-tailed second-year med student named after a French movie star but “100-percent Italian,” wondered about the absence created by her cadaver’s death. Did he have a wife, children, grandchildren? Having worked in hospitals where patients had died alone, she hoped this man had been more fortunate but didn’t find out until the school-sponsored memorial service in April 2002, when she met the man’s family.
Zagari and others tried to distance themselves from the cadavers, but sometimes humanity seeped through the stillness. The hands, the frigidis manus, reminded Zagari she was learning from a human body, she said, “because the hands are for touch.”
Her respect for her cadaver grew throughout the 2001-02 school year. She was mindful to keep the body covered and moist, diligent to clean any mold that formed on the valuable tissues. She tried to behave in such a way that “if [the cadavers] were watching, they would approve.”
However, it was difficult to see the cadavers as people, because they exuded no signs of life, Zagari said—no blood or secretions, skin colored like prosthetic limbs. “It was almost like looking at plastic models.”
Except for the smell.
“My eyes burn when I make a fresh cut,” said Heather Finney, a first-year. “It smells like chemicals, not flesh.”
Perfusion of Infutrace through a cadaver’s vessels dispels 95 percent of formaldehyde and phenol vapors, yet exposure remains a hazard. Students can work in the lab for only two hours per session. To meet Occupational Safety & Health Administration standards and increase the duration of acceptable exposure time to four hours, the medical school is installing a new ventilation system the “size of a boxcar” on the roof, Hamann said.
Beginning next fall, lab hours will double from 60 to 120 per year. That’s still only half of Hamann’s ideal. “It takes 250 hours to dissect a human body,” he said.
To accommodate the new lab schedule, the school is purchasing five new peripheral venting tables at $5,500 each, putting the total at 13. The additions will allow first-years to share the lab as a single class, instead of dividing in two as they have in previous years. As of late June, the lab has been gutted in preparation, the walls stripped of charts and posters, including the one reminding students that removing any body parts from the room is a felony.
The ventilation system and tables are part of a larger expansion project originally budgeted for $200,000, now between $400,000 and $500,000, said John Walsh, project coordinator.
The school is expanding amid university-wide budget cuts. Other departments are unhappy that their own revamping plans have been relegated to the waiting list, but no one has complained that the anatomy lab project is exorbitant.
Cadavers are cheap by comparison. Walton’s Sierra Chapel charges less than $1,000 to embalm and cremate bodies and transport them to and from the medical school morgue in unmarked white vans.
The morgue is adjacent to the lab. Its 30 cadaver trays have never reached capacity. Ten trays now nest black body bags tagged blue or pink, stacked three high. Light bodies go on top, middleweights on bottom, heavies in the middle—so they can be rolled onto a gurney to save the backs of the living who carry them.
The Anatomical Donation Program provides cadavers for Washoe Medical Center, Truckee Meadows Community College, Western Nevada Community College, the UNR Biology Department and the dental school in Las Vegas.
“We need more by August,” Hamann said. A few for the colleges, a couple for the Biology Department. Medflight nurses used three in March for recertification training. “We aren’t turning away any bodies now.”
For the interested, before you give the ferryman a copper, give Bonnie Coker a call at 784-6908. Once you’re signed up, she’ll mail you a card to stick in your wallet. The card instructs your body’s delivery to Walton’s Sierra Chapel as soon as possible after your death. It contains Tom Hughes’ 24-hour contact information. Hughes will embalm your body, and it will become the legal property of UNR’s School of Medicine.
Similar programs are buried within university administrations throughout the country. University of the Pacific, where Hamann used to work, salvages the unclaimed dead from the city morgue—the homeless and such. He said UNR technically could accept unclaimed bodies and even prisoners, but volunteers have never been in short supply.
West or east, Stanford or Columbia, most programs have a lesser version of the memorial service. They don’t invite the families.
The University of Florida spreads cadavers’ ashes over the Gulf of Mexico, which would have been a poetic end for Browne, who swam in Santa Cruz, Mexico.
Browne’s mobile home was plain other than the wall of 500 medals. Nothing else could have rivaled the Mendoncas’ distinctive flair when they paid a visit.
Marvin and his wife, Betty, met as a competitive roller skating duet and then modeled professionally. His straight gray hair was precisely parted on one side; hers remains the same shade of blond as when they met. Before they retired to Reno five years ago, Marvin worked as a medical and defense components manufacturer in the Bay Area. He’d also been a belly dancer.
Plus he could swim.
As a child, he said, when he and Ivy lived together at Tahoe, he beat his mom in a race. Then a rematch. “She never raced me again,” he said with glee.
“She was a redhead when she was younger,” he continued, “and she had a fiery temper.”
It was on a dare that she swam San Francisco Bay in 1934. In the 55-degree water, she removed her wool swimming top to prevent chafing and tossed it to her coach, who was following in a rowboat. The water was too frigid for her male opponents, who dropped out within 15 minutes, but the typhoid incubating in Browne’s body kept her warm.
After the swim, while the typhoid thrived, it diminished her fire; it discouraged her swimming for 48 years. But it hadn’t extinguished her. It wasn’t the pneumonia in her final month. The pacemaker, either.
Browne was diagnosed with acute leukemia upon returning from New Zealand. She was given six weeks to live. Her death less than a week later was reported on CBS Sportsline and through the Associated Press. As her donor card requested, her body was at Walton’s Sierra Chapel as soon as possible.
“She denied any treatment that could have prolonged her life,” Marvin said.
“She wanted to go the way she lived,” Betty said. “Fast.”
“Her [Aquacize] students didn’t even know she was sick,” Marvin said. “She was teaching up to the end.”
The Mendoncas knew nothing about the Anatomical Donation Program until a few months before Browne died. Sitting in the mobile home at Kietzke and Gentry, baroquely ribboned wall behind them, she told the Mendoncas of the arrangements she’d made.
“When I go, I want my body to go to the university,” she told them.
Marvin and Betty admired Ivy for contributing to future doctors’ knowledge.
“I might even do something like that myself,” said Marvin, approaching Social Security age.
One year after Browne’s celebration -of-life ceremony, the Anatomical Donation Program and the first-year med students sponsored the 2002-03 farewell eulogy to Reno’s cadavers.
The first-years sent invitations to family members. Mountain View Cemetery provided the chapel gratis. Staff from Walton’s Sierra Chapel attended. It’s happened this way for as long as anyone can remember. But this was the first year the press showed up.
That’s largely because, as Hamann said, “last year’s service was the best I’ve ever seen.” Although two years ago, students shed tears that marred the professionalism doctors are supposed to embody, he said, he was impressed by the composure of last year’s students, particularly the five speakers.
“They even dressed up,” he said, meaning suits and ties and dresses under their white coats embroidered “University of Nevada School of Medicine.” The coats were blazer-length; the knee-length are for the lab.
Giselle Zagari stood before pews full of strangers and recited a poem:
“I wonder how it came to be
That now you lie in front of me.
I look at you and cannot understand
Why I am scared to look at your hand. …”
Her own hands, her calidis manus, played Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” on piano. Cadavers’ families complimented her artistic contributions.
“Reno’s future doctors are going to make excellent ones,” Hamann said. “Even though they learn off dead bodies, all the knowledge will be applied to saving lives, to delivering babies. People should focus on this rebirth. Life, not death.”
Hamann, unable to attend, said he hoped this year’s ceremony would lend closure to both the families and the 52 students in the class of 2006.
“It will be emotional for us and the families,” Heather Finney said before April 29. “At the same time, it will be a little weird to meet [cadavers'] wives, husbands, children.”
Under their white blazers, this year’s group was as sharply dressed as the previous group. They lined up against the walls of the main chapel.
The guests who filed through the double doors—white canes, walkers and all—numbered nearly as many as the students. Two men took off their cowboy hats, sat in the back beside a well-behaved child and plumped the hats on their knees. A woman with puffy white hair and a blue windbreaker wore a yellow ribbon and a pin—"Peace is Patriotic.”
Prompted by note cards, Dr. Terence Smith, director of the Anatomical Donation Program, expounded in his Australian accent the characteristics donors held in common. They were “strong and independent spirits” who sought to “confront life fully” and contributed their corpses in this “last meaningful and unselfish act.”
He had described Browne with the precision of a zodiac chart. But it fit.
Two bronze hands prayed on the wall beside the podium. The sidewalls were lined with tombs, each embossed with a miniature of the praying hands, reproduced down to the veins. Silk flowers embellished some tombs. Others remained unoccupied but reserved.
Pete Schefel, class president, introduced the recitals. Chris Quitadamo reread Giselle Zagari’s poem. A woman sitting in the front row with a video camera brushed her eye with a Kleenex. One of the cowboys dabbed his nose with a hankie.
As Todd Philips recited a poem by William Blake, the Mendoncas walked through the doors and found an empty space in the pews. The woman with the yellow ribbon and pin called the poem superb and asked if Philips wrote it.
The last performance was by Matt Ripplinger, who sang “Each Life That Touches Ours for Good” to violin accompaniment.
“We sing it from our hearts,” he began.
After the closing and recession, students and families met outside in view of the cemetery’s manicured grass and rolling hills. The cowboys wore their hats. Some guests ate light snacks. Not the Mendoncas.
They spoke with several of the 52 first-years. They shook Tim McAteer’s hand for the first time and reminisced about Browne and the Sierra Nevada Masters.
A short time after the ceremony, the Mendoncas claimed their mother’s ashes and dispersed them over Lake Tahoe’s infinite shades of blue.