Sunday, April 19, 2015

Dissecting the dead and alive—virtually!—at MGH

by Judith Lavelle

At the Paul S. Russell Museum of Medical History and Innovation, you can see demonstrations of a state-of-the-art virtual dissection table at 11AM and 4PM every weekday during the Cambridge Science Festival.

A high-tech alternative to traditional cadaver dissections, the Anatomage is finding its way into medical schools as a teaching device. But its capabilities don’t end there. At Massachusetts General Hospital, doctors use the technology to view three-dimensional images of their patients’ bodies—whether these patients have been recently admitted to MGH or showed up a century earlier.

I learned about the latter case from Russell Museum docent Jodie Grossman, who led a group of festival-attendees on a tour through the Ether Dome—the national historical landmark where the first public anesthetized surgery took place in 1846. There, she introduced us to MGH’s spokesmummy, Padihershef. We don’t know much about Padihershef’s life and afterlife before he was gifted to MGH by the city of Boston in 1823. But a recent 3D scan of his remains has given us a bit more information.

Grossman explained that Padihershef was the first mummy on American shores. When he arrived, egyptologists and other scholars determined his name and his possible profession (stonemasonry) from the hieroglyphics on his sarcophagus.

Of course, he’s a rare gem even today, but at the time, MGH’s founders took advantage of the novelty and sent Padihershef off on a national tour to garner support for the institution. Since then, he’s been away from his home in the Dome two more times—for another fundraising tour and while on loan to a museum in Springfield, Mass., in the 1980s. It was there that he must have received what Grossman calls “plastic surgery.”

Back at the museum, she brought Padihershef’s scan up on the Anatomage (on the left) and showed us what she meant.

 The scan reveals a number of predictable and surprising discoveries. With her finger tracing his crooked back, Grossman points out that the mummy’s vertebrae look healthy—indicating that the “slouch” occurred post-mortem after decades of standing. This was understandable. What researchers didn’t expect to find was a broom handle stuck through poor Padi’s torso. The researchers deduced that the curator at the Springfield museum must have inserted the handle as an attempt to cure Padihershef’s poor posture. Grossman says that curators at MGH worry that removing the broom handle will do more harm than good, so for now, Padi is stuck with it.

In patients slightly younger than Padihershef’s 2600 years, doctors can use three-dimensional images to find other things that shouldn’t be there. Grossman showed us an example of a patient’s three-dimensional skull, complete with a detailed network of blood vessels within and around the cranial cavity. She “sliced” open the skull to reveal a cerebral aneurysm—a balloon-like enlargement of an artery. Thanks to new three-dimensional techniques like this one, doctors can diagnose and treat this and other life-threatening conditions with even more precision.

Check it out yourself this week at the Cambridge Science Festival!


 The Anatomage displays a cerebral aneurysm in a patient’s cranial cavity.

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