Remembering the Heart Museum

Natalie Sypolt


When I was a junior in college, I began to learn about hearts. Hearts broken, hearts bottled, hearts forgotten and turning to dust.

During the summer between my junior and senior year, I worked as a student assistant for University Health Associates, a group that provided employees for the large teaching hospital attached to the university I was attending.  The pay was not very much, but I was promised by friends who’d been employed there that the work would be easy, which was important as I was starting my final year as a double major and would also be Editor of the school’s literary journal.

I was assigned to work in the Pediatric Cardiology office and my job would essentially be filing papers, addressing envelopes, and making copies.  I could handle that. 

I worked in the “old hospital”, a large, grim building mostly used for classrooms and offices.  It was attached by an underground tunnel to the “new hospital” where patients were seen and procedures were conducted.  When the automatic doors to the tunnel opened, a gust of wind would blow back my hair.  I could never figure out where this wind came from, or if it was welcoming or foreboding.

I was on the sixth floor in a small office full of tall grey file cabinets.  My supervisor’s name was Cathy and she had been working in the department for many years.  Across the hall was the much nicer office of the handsome young Pediatric Cardiologist and his nurse.  I was only to go in there on very specific occasions—to pick something up, to drop off a message, occasionally to use the small copy machine if we only needed one or two copies—otherwise, we were to go to the forever breaking machine upstairs that most of the departments used. 

Cathy was in her middle to late 30s, I think.  I never asked.  She also had an eye that turned in towards her nose and always looked a little watery and damaged.  While I came to really like Cathy, I never got used to that eye. 

Cathy loved the kids whose files we kept and organized in our office.  Sometimes she talked to parents on the phone, but for the most part, she only knew those patients through the documents that came into the office.  She’d call them by first name, talk about them as though they were family members.  She worried about them, celebrated their successes, and grieved their setbacks.  She hadn’t gone to college, but after working for so many years in Ped Card, she’d learned which words on the paperwork meant good things and which meant bad.

I was told that files were confidential and that we shouldn’t read more than we had to, but, honestly, even if I had wanted to spend hours leafing through some of the stacks of paperwork, I wouldn’t have understood much of it.  I could have looked things up, been more curious, but I was going into my senior year, and I had more important things to worry about.

What I did learn:

1. Once someone is a pediatric heart patient, they stay a pediatric heart     patient, no matter how old they get.  I thought this was funny, imagining     some 40 year old man visiting his pediatrician, and even now I’m now     sure that’s how it works.  I also now wonder how many of the kids who     were consistent patients actually made it to their 40th birthday.
2. There are many ways that a kid can be sick.  Rare diseases with scary     names that will take the baby you’ve waited and waited for.  They will     make her heart beat too fast or too slow, grow too big or not grow at all.       They will make a twenty year old college student question ever having a     kid that could possibly get so sick.  There are so many kinds of     heartbreak.
3. Once someone had a file in the Peds Card office, it stayed there.  Files     were created at a first appointment and kept, even if the child didn’t     ultimately have a problem.  Even if the child died.
4. Children die.  Sometimes they are born with a defect so severe that they     never leave the hospital.  Sometimes they get sick when they’re a little     older and don’t last long after that.  Sometimes they have tests and     procedures and surgeries and their files get so fat that a second one is     started and they live to be maybe 13 or 14 and people get attached.      Then, when they die, those files remain like memorials of a fight so     unfair; a battle where the frail human doctors and nurses--even with all     their technology--never stood a chance.
5. Sometimes kids live, and grow up, and send things like wedding     invitations and birth announcements to a woman who they only ever     knew over the phone, but who took great care with their precious     information.  They are thankful that the data, those foreign words,     never became so impersonal that someone forgot the body behind them.

The thickest folder we had belonged to a boy, let’s call him Ben, who had been born with a heart condition that required a lot of attention, many procedures and surgeries.  This was a boy that Cathy had known through his paperwork for his whole life.  She knew his mother and sometimes talked to her on the phone.  He lived longer than most anyone had expected, and was apparently a great kid, funny and smart.  He died during my senior year.  I walked into the office and Cathy was wiping her eyes, had clearly been crying.  She told me that Ben had died in surgery with the handsome young doctor across the hall. 

I didn’t know how to react.  She was clearly upset, and I was sorry for that, but I didn’t feel any real emotion for the patient beyond that generic sadness we feel for people we don’t know, tornado victims and people murdered in distant cities.  I was lucky.  At that point, I hadn’t lost anyone close to me—I still had all four grandparents and had only been to one funeral—so I could sympathize, but did not have the immediate heartbreak to draw from.  “I’m really sorry,” I said. “I’ll do the mail run for you today.”

Cathy had been ambivalent about handsome young doctor, who had started not long before I had.  He’d taken the place of a very old man who’d been very kind to Cathy and, as I understood it, had been somewhat of an advocate for her the times that she’d had problems with the supervising secretary (a nasty little thing who sometimes asked to “borrow” me as though I were a vacuum cleaner).  Cathy did have some problems with being late or with taking too many days off—this only got worse through the year that I worked with her—and apparently the handsome young doctor had not been as generous as old man doctor had.  Handsome young doctor had two cute little boys that I doubt he saw very much and a pretty blonde wife.

Cathy thought handsome young doctor was a bit cold, a bit too busy to really care or know anyone (including, I think, her).  I thought handsome young doctor was handsome. He once complimented me on my flip flops (tie dyed with a big smiley face hidden under my foot, except when I was reaching up to get something from a shelf as he was walking by).  Looking back, I suppose flip flops might not have been the most appropriate footwear, but he said they brightened up the place.

On the day that Ben died, I went into handsome young doctor’s outer office to get some files he’d left for us.  I didn’t think he was in, but his door was open, and I saw him with his head down on his desk, his shoulders shaking. 

6. I will never make as much money as handsome young doctor, but will also never have the weight of so many children’s lives on my shoulders. 

Later that year, Cathy’s teenage daughter ran away.  She’d been having trouble—skipping school and fighting with Cathy’s new, youngish husband.  Cathy’d had a baby with the new husband and her older daughter started acting out not long after that.  When I started working in Ped Card, Cathy’s baby was two and her daughter was around 14. 

Cathy’s daughter had been missing for three days when I overhead Cathy talking on the phone to her mother.  Cathy hadn’t told me that her daughter was gone, and had been at work every day.  Her mother had found the girl, finally, on day three. She’d been hiding out at a friend’s house.  “Bring her home,” Cathy said, but sounded defeated, as though she knew she’d run away again.  She’d already decided that this girl’s road was going to be a hard one.

I don’t remember when Cathy started talking about quitting.  I graduated and was only going to work through the summer.  I was going to graduate school to try to figure out how to be a writer, and had already put in my notice that I’d be leaving in August.  Cathy had been growing more and more unhappy, both with her life at home and her life at work.  The supervising secretary was on Cathy’s case more than ever, sometimes calling my phone in the middle of the day to see if Cathy was at work.   She’d started to be accused of petty things, like not doing the mail quickly enough, or leaving five minutes early. Since I started working there, we’d gone down the hall to share in free lunch on the days that the drug reps would bring sandwiches or pizza for the department.  I thought this was a nice perk, but apparently some of the doctors started to complain, feeling like secretaries should wait until well after lunch and take what was left (and student assistants probably shouldn’t eat anything at all).  This was embarrassing and frustrating to Cathy, who was seeing everything she’d known change.  I imagine that she felt it was just one more thing that she didn’t have any control over. 

In late spring, she found out that she was pregnant again.  She’d had complications with her earlier pregnancy, and only expected the same from this one.  Plus, her family was struggling financially and her teenage daughter was still causing trouble.  They clearly hadn’t planned for this baby.  She talked about doing transcription work from home, and I just listened, feeling useless.  What advice could I give, a recent college graduate with no real job, no real problems, not even a boyfriend.  I realize now that she hadn’t been asking for advice, just a sympathetic ear, so I suppose I served that purpose.

After that, things started going downhill.  Cathy was often sick, coming in late or not at all.  She’d also gotten the unwelcome word that her office was going to be turned into a doctor’s office, and she was going to be moving into a much smaller space down the hall.  This was a space that, up until she said we’d be moving there, I had thought was a storage closet.  It turns out that it was actually the Heart Museum.  This is what the tiny sign on the door said, but this was a museum in title only.

The room was small, not even half the size of the office we currently used.  No one had been in there for who knows how long—years, maybe decades.  Cathy knew what was in there, so she’d apparently opened the door at some point.  “The idea was to collect them to study,” she said while I stared in horror at the specimen jars that lined several shelves in the “museum”. 

I knew that this was a “teaching” hospital and dental school, and that somewhere on the floors below me, students were doing all manner of things with cadavers (including practicing fillings and extractions on their teeth); however, this room of hearts in jars was nearly more than I could take.  I immediately flashed back to a high school creative writing class and this guy named William (scary, silent, all black wearing boy) who wrote a story called “The Canner” in which a psychopath murdered and then canned his victims.  There was one scene in particular that always stuck with me: a root cellar, rotting wooden shelves lined with mason jars full of parts.

 “Well,” Cathy said.  “It’s all yours.”

“What?” I said. She had told me we’d be clearing out this room. She’d said we.  I was sure of it. 

“I’ll be in to help when I can,” she said, and patted me on the back. 

The main thing that needed to be done, it seemed, was moving the jars that had once been arranged in some logical order from where they were currently located--one deep along several shelves—across the room to another set of higher shelves where they would be stacked, however many could fit.  Cathy’s desk would be moved into the office and would sit under the heart-less shelves, which she’d use for files and other paperwork. 

“Just wipe them off, and sit them down, then wipe off the shelf,” Cathy said.  “When you’re done there, you can start putting them up on the other side.”

Did I mention I had one week left to work? Luckily, they’d saved the best for last. 

I had to do deep breathing and give myself a pep talk before going into the room.  “They’re just jars,” I told myself.  “It’s nothing.  It’s just a jar and some liquid, and don’t look.  Just don’t look.”

That, of course, was impossible.

To get to the highest shelf, I had to stand on a chair and reach above my head.  My biggest fear was that I would drop a jar and it would fall to the floor, shattering, glass and formaldehyde and heart everywhere. 

Some of the jars were stuck to the shelf and I had to pull to get them up.  Everything was covered in dust—layers of dust—and clearly hadn’t been looked at or studied for a very long time.  There were little paper labels on the jars.  Some had names.  Most just said something like “Baby Doe” or “Female, 7 yo” and some big medical words that I didn’t understand.  Some of the specimens were very large, some very very small.  Some were without color, some were dark, almost black.  Some were just slices, some were whole hearts. 

This is what I remember, but memory is fallible, unreliable, and I no longer know what is true.

The worst were the jars that had not been sealed properly.  Who knows how long ago, they had come open enough for the liquid to evaporate.  A few of the jars had no liquid at all (maybe they never did? I don’t know) and the specimen was a little hard rock in the bottom.  Others were only half full of liquid and sloshed when I picked them up.  I was terrified that the formaldehyde would splash out, onto my skin.  I would never be able to wash that away.

I now know that the “museum” was started in the 70s when a new young doctor named William Neal learned about a collection of congenital hearts in the pathology department. Fresh from his residency working with Jesse Edwards, then renowned as one of the world’s best pediatric pathologists, he decided to take it upon himself to catalog the hearts according to the type of defect(s) present, and with the help of students, collected relevant clinical information on each child’s specimen, such as catheter reports, operative records, cineangiograms, and x-rays.  “The idea was to use this resource to compare the clinical presentation of a child with heart disease with their actual defect, to better understand the pathophysiology of severe congenital heart disease,” Dr. Neal told me.

Once, there were no human specimens. It was not only considered immoral, but also illegal to perform autopsies or dissections for research purposes, and doctors/scientists were often reduced to grave robbing to study the human body. The horror was different. Now, is there so much that we can waste, waste the most vital human elements? Human specimens have gone from an anomaly, to a luxury, to a burden.


It’s been many years since my job in PedCard, and I suppose  I’ve told the story about the heart museum a handful of times.  Sometimes, I ask my students to write about their worst jobs.  It’s a prompt that almost everyone can relate to, and they tell me stories about car detailing (grosser than it sounds) and babysitting. Then, I blow them out of the water with my tale of heart transportation. They are horrified, grossed out, but what I don’t tell them is that the thing that made this truly the worst job wasn’t the icky factors (though they were significant), but the knowledge of how quickly the human parts of us—even the most vital bits—can be forgotten, moved from shelf to shelf. As a writer, the metaphors are almost too much to resist—the hearts on shelves turned to stone, disintegrating from inattention. I will try, though, because this essay is not about fancy word play or cleverness.  It is about things forgotten, and remembered.

I don’t remember my last day in Ped Card.  I do know that it was not long after I finished moving the hearts—luckily, none had broken—and before the offices were consolidated.  I seem to remember that Cathy got me a cake, but I think that might be a false memory, or something I’d like to be true. More likely true is the memory that Cathy was sick on my last day, and after sorting the mail, and making copies, and stuffing envelopes, I left with no goodbyes or fanfares, and didn’t look back. After all, this was meant to be a little job, a way to make money, but was never meant to really teach me anything. I was supposed to forget it, move on.  This is how we’re conditioned to treat these early events in our lives, right? Only certain things are supposed to matter; the rest, are shelved, filed away, and forgotten.

I suspect that most teaching hospitals have stories like this, rooms full of pieces of people who thought they were going to advance science, and instead were just forgotten.  Some stories are much worse.  Megan, one of my best friends, who I met in graduate school not long after my time in Peds Card, once told me about the very famous preserved body parts at her undergraduate college. Apparently, it was university urban legend that preserved human remains—once used for instruction and study—were kept someplace on campus.  Every year, fraternities included the remains—let’s call him Fred—on their Rush Week scavenger hunt.  No one ever found them, of course, and few believed they actually existed.  Megan, clearing out some space in the attic of the English Annex one day, came upon the remains, glass jar and all. Like something out of a horror show, she moved some boxes, and there were the jars, filled with liquid and Fred’s pieces, staring back at her (but not really, because he hadn’t donated his eyes). Megan could have garnered significant attention from the fraternity (and fraternity brothers) of her choice if she’d revealed Fred’s location, but she didn’t. Instead, she covered them back up, and left.

Perhaps it was our shared experiences with left over pieces that cemented our friendship.

Years later, the jars resurfaced, so to speak, when the school came under fire for improperly handling remains donated to science.  They were court ordered to find try to find out who the remains belonged to—apparently all records had been lost long ago—and to return the remains to family members, if any were found. If not, they were to properly dispose of the remains themselves, in a civilized and appropriate manner.  I remember clearly when this story was in the news.  The thing that most people were upset about was how much this was going to cost, and what a waste of money and time it would be to bury something that had essentially been buried for decades.

In preparing to write this essay, I emailed Megan to make sure I had my details straight. Here’s where I’ll talk about memory, and how it tricks us, deceives us, makes us think we’re crazy. Megan’s email came back asking for more details, because she couldn’t quite remember the story I was asking about.  “I have been racking my brain trying to remember this story of the human remains.  Can you tell me more?  Am I developing early onset Alzheimer's?  It seems to me that I remember it vaguely but although that seems like a pretty vital story, I just can't recall it,” she replied. After a little prompting, the story came back to her in a rush: “Oh, my God!  Of course!” she wrote. “I had seen some things in jars and looking very weird.  I think we were making space for some supplies we'd ordered for the English Honor Society and no one else wanted to go up there (I had to, like, climb a ladder or something really scary).  So, I went and there might have been, like, a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling but I might also have been using a flashlight.  Anyway, I saw those jars and there were clearly some human parts in them, but I didn't say anything to anyone.  So, when that story broke, I felt pretty weird about it.  All of that is super weird, too, because that was the English Annex...and not even a science building.  So, I got the feeling they'd been there a very, very long time.  Scary.  God, I can't believe I'd forgotten that.”

Of course, from what I remember, these were not “Fred” or Wilma or any other single person, but human specimens, belonging to different human beings just as the hearts in the heart museum had. And, just like the heart museum, they were forgotten until someone stumbled upon them, and then forgotten again. Now, even after extensive research, I can find no record of this story. Nothing online or in newspaper archives. I suppose, as it turns out, this wasn’t such a big story after all, and was only preserved for a little while, until people lost interest. So, this story is my memory, and memory, of course, is fallible and untrustworthy. We remember things like the flip flops I was wearing the day Handsome Young Doctor complimented me, the taste of the glue on the envelopes when I licked them closed, but not the last thing my grandfather said to me.

Recently, a 21 year old family member was involved in a terrible car accident that everyone says should have killed her. She survived, though suffers from a traumatic brain injury. Things have come back to her bit by bit—her words, her balance, her sense of humor. It’s been interesting to see what she remembers and what she doesn’t.  For instance, she remembers that she rented her college textbooks and that they needed to be returned, but has no memory at all of the accident (which isn’t surprising), or of the vehicle she was driving. Her mind has completely erased every memory connected to the truck she’d owned for over a year. Even when she was shown pictures, nothing came back. This has been incredibly frustrating for her, and she’s afraid, I think, of what else she’s forgotten.

This is a fear we can all share, traumatic accident or no. Megan had this same worry when she couldn’t remember the story I’d ask about, and admitted to having thought about her memory a lot recently. “I am starting to get scared, lately, because things that I decide to forget are absolutely gone,” she told me.  “I've been noticing that I do not at all remember things that happened in high school anymore because I have decided to forget them.  A friend will mention something, and I'll know I was there, but I will not really remember it.”

And what about my memory of the heart museum? I don’t know what I’ve forgotten. That’s the rub, right? None of us can ever know. Looking back, I wish that I had taken notes, written down the big words, even taken pictures (though I think that might have gotten me in trouble). There is no record of the museum that I can find. Who is to say it existed at all?

Even though I’ve never had any interest in going into medicine, my life and career has strangely circled around it. I’ve taught writing to exercise physiology students and, for the past several years, have worked with the nursing department at my university to assist students in the Ethics class with writing and research. While these are good students—for the most part smart and earnest—they resent being forced to complete a writing component. And I can see their point. They are learning how to help people live, and often how to help them die. I once had a student come late to my office to ask questions about a revision, and apologize for being late. Her excuse: she’d been helping deliver a baby. I can understand why, when faced with the real life and death moments of medicine, writing a paper seems less than important. Some days, my most cynical days, I don’t disagree. How can words, stories, compete? But then I think of memory.

We cannot trust things to remain. On a whim, I emailed Handsome Young Doctor—no longer that young, still pretty handsome. His email was surprisingly easy to find, as he’s still at the same hospital. I didn’t expect a response, but thought it couldn’t hurt to ask if he knew anything about the heart museum.  He responded within a day, saying, “The hearts are gone unfortunately. I'll ask tomorrow to see if anyone knows what happened to them.”  He later emailed again to say that the museum had indeed been “discarded”—a word that sent chills through me—and put me in touch with Dr. Neal, at that time eight days away from retirement.  Dr. Neal also asked around, but no one seems to know what happed to the specimens, all the hard work he did in the 70s. “The loss of the congenital heart museum is a sad story,” he told me. “It is irreplaceable.  We don’t do autopsies much anymore, and fortunately fewer babies/children die from congenital heart disease.” No doubt Dr. Neal, handsome young doctor, and the other Peds Card physicians are in part responsible for saving hundreds, if not thousands of lives; hopefully the heart museum helped, at least for a little while.  

I can’t decide how I feel about the hearts being gone. They are no longer shelved away, collecting dust in a closet like office, but are they anywhere? Does it matter? The hearts are not the people, and yet. And yet.  Should I have said something, all those years ago, about the way the specimens were being treated? Like Megan, I feel uncomfortable when I think about it, and know that I am somehow now part of their story, just as they are a part of mine. I’ve considered who is to blame for this neglect, and I don’t think it’s the young doctor, or any of the doctors I worked with.  I know from doing some basic research that hospitals and schools today have very strict regulations about how to handle human specimens, and those protocol are based not just on safety, but also on respect. Megan said she believed the jars at her college had been there for a long, long time. The medical present has inherited the sins of the medical past. In the case of the heart museum, it was started with the very best of intentions, as a way to help doctors best treat their pediatric patients, and I don’t suppose it’s anyone’s fault that it fell into such disrepair. People left the pathology department, people were overworked. There wasn’t enough time, enough resources, enough space. Then, eventually, it was simply forgotten.

I once had to return to the unit, a few months after I quit.  I don’t remember why now, only that I had to talk to the mean little head Administrative Assistant, and that Cathy was gone. When I asked about her, it was as though she’d never been there at all, that nothing she’d did mattered, that the tears she’d cried over the kids in the folders had never happened. Someone else was in her office, sitting under the hearts. The new woman probably had her own dramas, her own heartbreaks, but came to work consistently and on time. How quickly, and easily, people can be erased. I had been erased, too. I’d never really made a mark at all, though a mark was made on me.  I think this is how I’ve lived most of my life—being effected without effecting.

Will I do any good here, committing my memory to words? The heart museum was not ever meant to be a place of remembrance, but of education. Did future doctors ever learn from looking at those specimens, the most essential human part reduced to a floating mass, or a hardened rock? I hope so. I hope that those children whose lives were committed to fat files and names on paper were not forgotten after their disease overtook their lives. What I most hope is that writing is preservation. Is it idealistic to say that our stories are specimens, too, preserved in their own glass jars? They will not always last.  Our words can be mishandled, dry out and crack up. Can we remember, though, for a little while? Can’t we try?


  return to nonfiction

Natalie Sypolt lives and writes in West Virginia.  She received an MFA in fiction from West Virginia University in 2005 and is currently an Assistant Professor at Pierpont Community and Technical College. She also teaches community creative writing classes and workshops.  Her work has appeared in Glimmer TrainSwitchbackr.kv.r.y., Ardor Literary MagazineSuperstition ReviewPasteWillow Springs Review, and The Kenyon Review Online, among others Natalie is the winner of the Glimmer Train New Writers Contest and the Betty Gabehart Prize.  She is also an active book reviewer whose work has appeared in Los Angeles ReviewFjords ReviewPasteShenandoahHarpur Palate, and Mid American Review. Additionally, Natalie serves as a literary editor for the Anthology of Appalachian Writers, is the High School Workshop Coordinator for the West Virginia Writers Workshop at WVUand is co-host of SummerBooks: A literary podcast.