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In death, a promise for the future

As her world diminished, Elizabeth Uyehara signed her body over to researchers to help unravel the mystery of Lou Gehrig's disease.

August 28, 2010|By Thomas Curwen, Los Angeles Times

If Elizabeth Uyehara were alive, she would be pleased. Everything was working out as she had hoped. The terrible banality of her illness had ended, and she was about to make her final journey.

Two hours before she died, David Jones' pager went off. He canceled his lunch and made a few phone calls to sort out the details with the hospital and the family. He went to his lab and picked up the paperwork and, before heading over the Sepulveda Pass, stopped at a 7-Eleven for some ice that he tossed into a cooler.

He parked in the back of the mortuary in Northridge and let himself into the prep room. Her body lay on the porcelain table. He walked over to the cabinet where he kept his instruments, pulled on two pairs of size-81/2 surgical gloves and zipped open the white bag.

He still remembers seeing her there. She was 75 years old, 5 feet 5, a little less than 111 pounds, brown hair, brown eyes. He read her toe tag and wrist bracelet and double-checked her name and date of birth.

Schooled in mortuary science, Jones had been performing autopsies and harvesting organs for 30 years; by his count more than 11,000 bodies. Whether by habit or instinct — he wasn't sure — he always paused at this moment.

Here was someone's loved one, he thought; you were brought to me for a reason: that someday we might help someone else.

Uyehara would have returned the sentiment.

*

She had always been sensitive about her health. Nothing was too extreme to worry about, so four years ago, when she found herself slurring her words and her vision suddenly blurry, she made an appointment with a neurologist.

It could be a number of things, he suggested: cancer, stroke, progressive bulbar palsy, neuromuscular dystrophy, even Lou Gehrig's disease. She listened, dumbstruck. He's measuring me for a coffin, she thought, and she went looking for a second, then a third opinion.

She was tested and re-diagnosed. She was told she had Stephen Hawking's disease. She was told she had Dudley Moore's disease. One doctor admitted he didn't know what she had. At least he was honest, she thought.

Nearly a year and a half went by. Someone had mentioned myasthenia gravis. Its description — slurred speech, blurred vision, fatigue — matched her symptoms. She felt encouraged; typically it wasn't fatal. She made an appointment for another test.

This time a needle electrode was inserted an inch into her muscles, and as she tensed and relaxed, a machine recorded the activity. When it was over, the news wasn't good.

A relaxed muscle results in a reading close to zero and is almost silent; in her case, the reading was 3-plus and accompanied by a cacophonous and irregular sound, an indication that the nerves leading to the muscles were beginning to fail. When she flexed, the results were more dramatic.

She found herself in the company of yet another celebrity.

"Lou Gehrig's disease," she heard the neurologist say. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS.

She started to cry. It would take a few weeks to find a comeback: "Does this mean I can finally hit a major league fastball?"

*

Beneath the fluorescent lights in the windowless room, Jones pulled on shoe covers, a gown and a face shield and laid out his instruments. He cued his CD player to the gospel strains of the Edwin Hawkins Singers and placed a small rubber block beneath her head. If he felt any emotions, he kept them in check.

With a Stryker saw, he cut a circle around her cranium and removed the cap. He used a syringe to extract the spinal fluid between the hemispheres, and afterward he cradled her head with one hand, reached around the brain and with a scalpel freed it from the stem. He lifted out both hemispheres and placed them in a plastic bag and put the bag on ice.

He opened her chest with a deep Y-shaped incision and sawed through her ribs. He withdrew about 60 milliliters of blood from the inferior vena cava and then removed her heart. He excised her liver, spleen, pancreas, lungs, kidneys, adrenal and thyroid glands, uterus, bladder and large and small bowels and cut samples from each.

The spine was now exposed, and he sawed through the vertebrae and freed the cord, a half-inch-diameter bundle of nerves, roughly 2 feet long, soft and white. He coiled it into a round plastic container.

By late afternoon, he began positioning the organs back inside her, and with nylon thread and a baseball stitch, he sewed her up. He didn't know whether she would be cremated or whether there would be a viewing, but that didn't matter. He always made sure his work was as inconspicuous as possible.

With water, soap and a soft towel, he washed her off and pulled the body bag around her.

*

She feared ALS but never considered it a possibility. It wasn't her style, so dramatic: no treatment, no remission, just muscles shutting down to the point of suffocation.

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