Rough Cut

A film-in-progress dissects the relationship between med students and their cadavers

Unlike Cole, Bob doesn't talk about "spiritual journeys." But in the workshop, he realized that he'd led a hell of a life. He'd been shipwrecked off California, shot at in Germany. He'd had two wives, lots of girlfriends, and even more careers: as a brakeman, a cook, a tugboat mechanic, a helicopter inspector. He'd worked on pipelines and on seismic boats; now, in semiretirement, he does freelance floral design, throws newspapers, and repairs vacuum cleaners for UTMB. Bob wrote poems about old girlfriends; he wrote about the smell of gardenias; he wrote about a failed attempt to kill a rat.

The writing group took on a life of its own, and continued meeting without Cole. Bob has become one of Cole's poster geezers, evidence of the workshop's success, proof that it's never too late to examine your life. A few months ago Cole asked him to pose for a brochure.

At the photo shoot, Cole told Bob that he was making a documentary about medical students and their cadavers. He imagined the film as a conversation between the living and the dead, between medical students and body donors. He'd already interviewed students; now he was looking for cadavers. Cole asked Bob: Have you ever thought about donating your body?

Tom Cole: Humanizing the medical profession from the very first slice.
Tom Cole: Humanizing the medical profession from the very first slice.

And so Bob, the jack-of-all-trades, added one more job title to his list: cadaver-to-be, speaker for the dead. For two days Cole and his crew -- Dave Thompson and Randy Twaddle of the production company ttweak -- filmed Bob as he puttered in his apartment, assembled corsages at a flower shop and repaired UTMB vacuum cleaners. Cole interviewed him at length and later gave him a copy of the rough footage, a kind of film biography. "Five hours of nothing but Bob Harvey talking about Bob Harvey," says Bob, shaking his head.

He doesn't fret about being a cadaver, even though he knows firsthand the kind of indignities his body will suffer. He was born in Galveston and grew up near UTMB. When he was 12, he and a 14-year-old neighbor girl would sneak into the third-floor anatomy lab. They'd lift the sheets and ogle the body parts ("You know which ones," he says). With tongs, they'd reach into the tanks and pull out human remains. "It didn't bother me," he says. "Never has. We were just curious."

Bob, an atheist and a mechanic, believes that his body is only a tool, a device that performs a particular function; he sees nothing spiritual or special about it. He likes the idea that a medical student might be able to use it after he's finished with it, but he doesn't worry whether his body will be treated with respect. "I'm through with it," he says. "I'm gone."

That attitude, of course, undermines the very premise of Cole's film. As the camera rolled, Cole didn't disagree with Bob directly. But his eyes flickered, and Bob, sure that he'd gotten under Cole's skin, thought, "Gotcha, sucker."

Cole says he'll probably edit out Bob's body-as-a-tool musings. But another example of his devilment will almost certainly survive. Cole had been interviewing Bob in the anatomy lab just before the class was to start. As students drifted in, Bob chatted with them: What did they think of these new on-line learning tools? Will the Digital Man ever replace a real cadaver? How long, he asked, do you work on these bodies?

"Eight weeks," a student told him.

"You must get to know them pretty well," said Bob.

"Very well," they said.

Bob savored the moment. Deadpan, he asked, "Does love ever bloom?"

One student blushed; the others didn't know what to say. The dirty joke wasn't at all the high-minded conversation between the living and the dead that Cole had imagined. But the moment was perfect: riveting, human and full of life. For once, the dead man got the last word, and the living stayed silent.

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