PORTLAND, Ore. – In the early spring of 2018, Warren Nielsen, a 26-year-old medical student and four of his classmates, prepared a corpse in the Oregon Health and Science University's chilly dissection laboratory in Portland.
Similar groups of five people gathered around the bodies on the other 15 tables of the anatomy class, all eager to explore the mysteries of the human body that they had only seen in manuals.
The corpse assigned to the Nielsen team was a 99-year-old woman who died of natural causes. She called Rose Marie Bentley, but the students did not know her at the time. To honor and respect the privacy of those who offer their bodies to science, no further details are given to medical students about the person who once inhabited the body lying on the silver plate that preceded them.
But as the students and their professors would soon know, Bentley was so special that she deserved her unique place in medical literature and history books.
The reason? A condition called situs inversus with levocardia, in which most vital organs are inverted – almost like a mirror inside the body. This, along with many other strange but wonderful anomalies, has made Bentley a sort of medical unicorn.
"I think the odds of finding another person like her can be as low as one in 50 million," said Assistant Professor Cameron Walker, who teaches the course on the fundamentals of clinical anatomy at Oregon Health and Science University. "Honestly, I think no one will ever forget it."
"It's totally backwards"
On this March day, the mission was to open the chest cavity of the body to examine the heart. Shortly after, Nielsen's group began to question their new medical knowledge.
"His heart was missing a big vein that was normally on the right side," said Nielsen.
Disconcerted, he and his team called the teachers and asked them, "Where is the inferior vena cava, are we missing it, are we crazy?"
"And they kind of rolled their eyes," he said. "How can these students miss this great ship?" And they come and it's at that moment that the hubbub begins. They say to themselves, "Oh, my God, it's totally back!" "
A typical body has a large vein called the vena cava that follows the right side of the spine, curving under the liver and emptying the deoxygenated blood into the heart.
Bentley's vein was on the left and instead of ending directly in the heart, which is typical, "his vein continued through his diaphragm, along the thoracic vertebra, up and down and around the arch aortic, then emptied into the right side of the heart, "Walker said.
"Normally, none of us have a ship that does it directly," he added.
This was not the only irregularity found by Walker and his students in Bentley's body.
Many veins that usually drain the liver and other parts of the chest cavity were either missing or sprouting from an unusual place. His right lung had only two lobes, instead of the standard three, while the right atrium of his heart was twice his normal size.
"And instead of having the stomach left, which is normal, she has the stomach right," Walker said. "His liver, which is mostly right, was mostly left, his spleen was on the right side instead of normally on the left, and the rest of his digestive tract, the ascending colon, was reversed."
The mutations of situs inversus with levocardia occur early, Walker explained, probably between 30 and 45 days of pregnancy. Nobody knows why.
The disease occurs in only 1 in 22,000 babies and is invariably associated with severe congenital heart disease. Due to heart defects, only 5 to 13% of older people are over 5 years old. Case reports mention a 13-year-old boy and a 73-year-old boy who was the second survivor at the time.
But Bentley was an abnormality, one of the few born with the disease who did not suffer from heart defects, Walker said.
"It is almost certainly the factor that has contributed most to his long life," he said.
And that, along with all of his other extremely rare anatomical abnormalities, makes Bentley one out of 50 million, Walker said.
"Mom would have been so tickled"
Rose Marie Phelps was born in 1918 in Waldport, a small town on the coast of Oregon. The youngest four-year-old, "she was born," said her daughter Patti Helmig, who at age 78 is the eldest of her five children. "She would admit that she was spoiled."
Helmig remembers Bentley, a professional hairdresser, has always been fascinated by science. She thinks her mother would make an excellent nurse if she had the opportunity to train.
"During the Second World War, she volunteered for one of the bodies of the nursing assistant," said Helmig. "And she was delighted when someone asked her to do a study on the smallpox survivors she had as a child."
Despite chronic heartburn (which would have been explained by his unusual gastric anatomy), Bentley has shown no negative effects from his bowels, said Ginger Robbins, 76, the third of Bentley's children .
"We had no reason to believe that there was a problem like this," Robbins said. "She was still very healthy, always doing something by taking us to Campfire Girls, fishing, swimming, she was a great swimmer."
The only indication that something may be unusual came when the Bentley appendix was removed, said Louise Allee, 66, the fourth-child and youngest daughter.
"The surgeon noted that his appendix was not in the right place when they removed it," Allee said, "but she never told us anything." Nobody said anything when she took out her gall bladder and hysterectomy. "
The decision to become a body donor began with Jim Bentley, Rose Marie's husband, but she too "thought it was the best thing," Allee recalls.
"My father has found a poem and its purpose is to give your pieces," she said. "You know, give me eyes to a man who has never seen the sunrise," and so on. He continued to show us the poem. It was really important to them. "
The poem, written by Robert Test, begins with the following: "Gives the view to the man who has never seen sunrise, baby's face or love in the eyes from a woman "and ends with" If, by chance, you want to remember me, do it with a kind act or word to someone who needs you. what I asked, I will live forever. "
The couple's beliefs about giving had an impact. The three girls plan to donate their bodies for research.
Jim Bentley kept his promise and donated his body when he died of pneumonia more than twelve years before the death of his wife. His daughters know that he would have liked to know the entrails of his wife to be able to tease her.
"He would also have been seduced by the fact that they could teach medical students something so different and make excellent use of his body," Allee said.
And what would Bentley have said to be a girl on 50 million?
"She just thought it was funny," Robbins said.
Allee nodded, "She would have had a big smile on her face."