Spooky Tales from the Lab: The Horrors of Collecting Data with Frankenstein's Foot

One of our cadavers I’ve written before about my experiences working in a biomechanics lab and how they pertain to data analysis and quality process improvement. This time, I’m going to relate Halloween-y things I experienced while working at the lab.

Frankenstein’s Foot: Data Collection Isn't Always Pretty

My lab worked with human cadavers. Usually not their entire body, but specifically their feet. In fact, we had a freezer filled with dead feet. One of the faculty members had constructed a machine that would walk dead feet. This elaborate contraption not only swung the foot in a walking motion, but also pulled the tendons so that it would flex in an extremely lifelike manner. The machine was made of stainless steel and it had cryogenically cooled clamps. The end result was this shiny, glistening machine that had fog coming from it and a dead foot attached to it -- and the foot moved as if it were alive! It truly seemed like something straight out of Frankenstein.  It would’ve been the perfect Halloween decoration at any party!

Some of the lab discussions about the frozen feet reminded me of Thanksgiving discussions about how long it would take to thaw the foot, thawing it in the sink, and how it always seemed to take longer than expected. There was also the question about how many times you could thaw and freeze the foot before it became . . . unusable.

Anyway, when I was the new guy at the lab, I was perplexed by the dead foot machine. What was the point of animating a dead foot?! Isn't it more than a little creepy? It turns out that the scientific purpose of this was to include instrumentation inside the foot to measure what was going on during walking; the forces, angles, compression, flexion, etc. This is something that you could not do with a living foot. So, as bizarre as it was, the statistical analysis for this experiment produced very valuable scientific results. The lesson learned is that data collection isn't always pretty if you want to get the good results!

The best practical joke I ever participated in also occurred at the lab. The target of the joke was the unflappable faculty member who worked with the cadaver feet. Nothing much fazed him; he worked with dead bodies, after all. The ringleader was a nurse who used to work at the coroner’s office.  She had a real body bag--unused, fortunately!

We put shipping labels on the bag and brought it to the shipping area. She got into the bag and I zipped it up. She told me it was hot and hard to breathe in it (problems that the intended occupants wouldn’t have faced). I found the faculty member and told him that there was an interesting delivery in his office and that he should check it out. So, he came over and calmly examined the shipping information. He later related that he was trying to figure out what the problem was. He was only expecting a foot, not a whole body!

It was while he was studying the label that the nurse sat upright inside the body bag! The unflappable professor ended up halfway across the room with a shocked look on his face! If we'd tracked his usual behavior on a control chart, this would definitely have been an outlier!

Happy Halloween!  

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