Woman agrees to become an 'Immortal Corpse' for science

National Geographic reports on Susan Potter's decision to have her body sliced up 27,000 times and turned into a digital cadaver for medical education.
17:24 | 12/13/18

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Transcript for Woman agrees to become an 'Immortal Corpse' for science
Hello everyone and thanks for watching ABC news lie and this is the reporter's notebook what we're about to put on your radar is not only fascinating. It's revolutionary. A lot of you guys might be organ donor is but imagine making the decision to dedicate and donate your entire life your entire body. To science research that's exactly what Susan potter did. And she's a subject of a new National Geographic documentary called the immortal courts must take a look. Teach you to write a prescription. Its ETD giving inject chin. Let's take you two to search tree and cut you up that's. Easy. Guess more to it than that. And that is my pact to. Two would be in Mississippi you and the super human. To bring. Information and teaching. Two medical profession. Keep in Thai health care profession. Some joined by doctor Vick Spitzer he's the director of this incredible resurgent the University of Colorado. And I'm also joined by that editor in chief of National Geographic Susan Goldberg. Susan I want to start with you what piqued your interest in this particular project you guys were shooting miss Burke nearly sixteen years. Well we've been covering science and medicine really since the beginning of National Geographic 130 years ago but none of us had ever heard of a story like this. You know I would also say that they had sixteen years this is the longest it has ever taken us to do a story at National Geographic you know three different editors were in charge three different US presidents. Held office in the time it really took us to tell this amazing story. It's it's beyond fascinating so doctor nick. The very first words that you can see on the texted they say. Susan potter donated her body to science it was froze then sliced 27000. Times and photographed after each cut. The result is a virtual cadaver that will speak to medical students from the grave. Doctor Mick how this someone agreed to be a subject for this. Old. Most people just aggrieved by donating their body to education or research. The Susan agreed in a different way. She came and very specifically wanted us only one thing and that was to be part of or be a visible human. She often call that the invisible human but that doesn't work. She wanted to be part of the visible human project which he read about. And rolled into my office with the newspaper clippings about the visible human she's that I want to do this. It was very clear that she understood this was about teaching anatomy but her real passion was about teaching. Compassion. To health care providers she wants health care providers to be compassionate. As well as good health health care providers. See both can answer this I mean there's there's a difference between is someone just you know students working on a cadaver but in this case. The students and anyone who's looking at this body. They may learn. The anatomy as well as her life because you guys documented her voice and everything that she went through leading up to this how does that make a different impact. Bob. I think it makes a huge difference and that's one of the reasons it's such a good story for us because not only. Do you seeing sort of the fact that she technically is the highest resolution image of a human body that exist. But you get to know the person. Before she just became that image before she died he hear about her motivations in U. Cease or the ups and downs of her life you get to understand her as a person and so I think she was actually very successful if her goal was to. Bring more compassion because that that really means getting to understand the person and so if she really achieves that I think quite successfully. Zach and nick di thing that changes the way in that. Medical students you know should do their work you know when you're not just thinking of something as. A separate part and or again a liver and gallbladder but you're looking at it more holistic links. I think it might change the way we. Talk to donors. There's been interest and some people make some efforts. Some donors. Volunteers ever write a letter to the student that maybe dissecting them. Our institution and we don't even share that letter until. After the dissect has over who would mean we just feel like it's it's too compelling I think this bikes. Get people into the of mode being able to understand the person that they're working on I think it changes. It's what you do with a living patients and we don't really treat our cadavers that way we. We keep them anonymous shall we don't try to portray their life and why they might I have the palaces on there hands that they have. I think this whole opportunity here is to. Into the medical students more than just their bodies but their lives so they can understand that body better the we do that with patience we might as well do what cadavers I think. Some schools do a little bit of this now nobody ever believe does it to this extent. In fact I don't think we were planning on this Susan potter promised me. She would be dead within a year after we agreed to do this kid just after a long time to die but longer than she expected. Wow I wanna go into another clip of Susan just so you can learn a little more and more about her. Susan. Even. Two meeting. Almost everything you could go for the last fifty years different elements of society but most recently. You made a decision to donations. Just sort of evenings but also. Your life that goes with it. I have always felt that there is so blocks to be learned in medicine and society. And if I could be a small part of protecting been involved for tots adults. And children. That my body was published Haiti for donation. Doctor make one thing that really sent out to me as you said is that. You know you weren't you were emotional when she actually passed away. But then when it came to doing what you had to do you had to put all of that aside and then it was just work. How do you keep that compartmentalize. Win you knew her really well you actually had like a friendship with her. A had a friendship I deny that I move wanted that and I told her I didn't want that. But we certainly became friends. I think its role couched in the in. Very emotional person that I put that aside I think. When I've got a professional job to do. Section in a body isn't easy whether you're doing with a scalpel or with a machine. And why it also helps that four. Twelve years Susan was expected to die when when things are expected. Did helps. Emotional well. Involvement. But there's there's still wasn't told. When she did pass she had been giving for a long she'd if you've been giving ever since she agreed to give. Her living body she continued worth. Making. 9/11. Ribbons for I believe 20000. Ribbons as bookmarks just to keep people thinking. She did a lot of giving throughout her life and of this is just your last gift. Yes doses and I'm curious about any like ethical issues challenges that. You may have had with your team covering this what things came up when you guys were shooting this. Well I mean this was obviously done completely with Susan potters permission she was eager to tell her story so we didn't really have that kind of ethical issue. I think one of that most interesting things that comes out of this story though. Is this relationship that you see this friendly relationship. Between Susan potter and doctor Spitzer. And also the interests that Susan potter hand in exactly what was going to happen to her she wanted to see inside the lab where she was going to be. You know covered with with a jail frozen sectioned into four. Four quarters and then. And then sliced 27000. Times and she wanted to see every bit of what was going to happen to her and I just. In addition to you know the ability to learn from her it as the immortal corpse just understanding the psychology and watching her. Com her get ready for this next chapter of hurled her life in her death. His is absolutely fascinating. In India what were what were the challenges in a shooting it for sixteen years because I imagine you start with one team. But then you know she's expected to die after year but she lives for another decade is it a different team that takes it on at that point. What are we how does that work. Actually one of the most amazing things as well the top editor of the magazine at National Geographic changed three times. The team that was involved in this story stayed the same we in the same writer who started. The same photographer who started on and the same immediate editor of the story who started on it so they are able to bring this amazing perspective because. They were there the whole time as well. That is unbelievable. And you mention. The the article so what if if you want to see more about this. This documentary its going to be in the January issue of National Geographic article about it so. Doctor nick. You know I watch this and all I can thinking is. You know how proud he must be of yourself this is something that. You've been working on for such a long time with a visible human project. And now you're doing this what more do you want to accomplish in the field of anatomy and science research you've done so much. More well this is all about static. Anatomy it's about structure. And anatomy it's about function and the structure it's just very difficult to portray but that's what will be happening. Over the next decades. To bring. They cadaver back to life. About cadavers a simulator we stimulate living people we don't want to teach the anatomy of the dead it's just the best thing we can do. To approximate the anatomy of the living. So getting assumes and we haven't heard. OK we've captured her talking to students when she can move her arm in response to something they've done the what she can move or legs. When she can function more like a living person. The students and gets more of an interaction with the patient and the anatomy becomes lifelike. That's where this all pastor go to teach better and that of many of or better humanity. Yes so so when we were when I was looking at clips of this you know you'd mentioned that. At first you warn even going to except Susan as. A subject for this at all do you think that would've been a poor choice if you would have made that decision. Yes I do we we have always concentrated on teaching anatomy and the the most desirable cadaver that you can find is the younger ones. Most of our students dissect older bodies that's who donates their bodies are older people that some guys are older people. So who we concentrate when we publish a book. Or where we try to teach best anatomy we concentrate on. I younger cadaver. And that was a goal professional Leverett medicine's visible government projects get a younger cadaver meaning less than sixty years old that's young. Susan was not just sixty. But I am I am extremely happy that. At this. Because we now see the anatomy. The agent. They're a important part of our population we have to deal it was patience. Why do we work so hard country trying to teach the anatomy of the young well the real goal is to teach normal anatomy so that apology comes as. Variation from anatomy and she certainly. Plus I variance. Normal anatomy. She had 26 surgeries you have melanoma she had breast cancer he had diabetes. She had cervical. Screws in her neck and she that hip prosthesis. That's not what you try to teach anatomy whit because you're then showing pathology. But it also brings up. Passion that this lady was trying to instill in health care providers for those procedures that she had this to change her life and. Yes I want to I wanna take one more look at a clip. I'm Susan potter. You sick you don't want to look at that as he can't like do. Especially if you're going to do it to meet. What this the first thing you do when you get to see cops delivered and it doesn't frighten me you have to realize distance just your body gets going to be cut up. And if that body. That has served you all these years Simi won't say how well. You have stemmed Sutton deem death leaves a legacy behind. This work is beyond a remarkable I mean I aim at a senior project of mine in college was cutting a cadaver and the idea that you could know the person that you were working on. Blows my mind to so for Suzanne and doctor day when people watch this what do you want them to take away what he want them to be left with when they see this. Well I really hope that people will be just. In. If not only be gifted she's given to the future but. Frankly our ability to document it over the years and I hope that two. You know will. Remind people the value. Excellent journalism fact based journalism science based journalism and it'll invest the investment of time than journalists can take in bringing the very best. Stories to life I feel very proud of this. Project as part of our issue on medicine in January. And after neck. Well I really. Stepped back toward the questions you better earlier that was about the ethics of this site. I'm worried about that. I've been concerned about the ethics did you Susan always understand. What us through what she was doing was it was or any thing. That was deceptive about any aspect of our donation and did she always want to donate. I just have to say this is and never wavered. You brought up the idea and that's where we're shooting right now is actually in the freezer. Where a high rolled her on a bill about the second day after I'd better. She said she wanted to see it. I was a little reluctant. To match I shall it to a lot of people but I never showed for someone that it is it. I'm going to use and we don't short exception lab to donors. It's very graphic it's. It's difficult but she repeatedly said she wanted to see if I went along what that but then for the next decade she kept saying. She wants to do this sometimes she really had problems with waiting so long she at certain times had a desire to die and he just was too strong to die. So it was very uninteresting but the ethics. Consent. A you always want consents but concern for want to actually have your body shared by the entire world. She didn't start. Wanting that what she wanted to donate to was the university of Colorado school of medicine. And we talk through it and talked about how selfish that would be good for her to respect this big donation. Just the University of Colorado. And it didn't take too long for her to agree. So that's a big agreement because she's sharing her insights her emotions. With the world but that's what she's trying to do this influence health care provider. Tests. Of eyes again you can check out more information about this particular documentary in the January issue of National Geographic. I want to thank doctor Spitzer from the University of Colorado won a thank. Susan Goldberg from National Geographic a big kudos to the completion of this project in very good work. Guys you've been watching ABC news lag I'm Kimberly Brooks C next time.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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