Rose Marie Bentley was 99 years old when she died of natural causes. When her body was embalmed, the team of medical students assigned to her had the shock of their lives – most of her vital organs were in reverse position!
The team working at the lab at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland discovered that Mrs. Bentley had a very rare condition called situs inversus with levocardia.
Mrs. Bentley had no idea how her body would be regarded as “a medical unicorn.”
The way her organs were positioned was just like having a mirror inside the body.
“I think the odds of finding another person like her may be as remote as one in 50 million,” said Cameron Walker, assistant professor at the Foundations of Clinical Anatomy class at Oregon Health and Science University. “I don’t think any of us will ever forget it, honestly.”
Warren Nielsen was among the student team assigned to open up Mrs. Bentley’s body. Soon enough, they became bewildered by what they saw.
“Her heart was missing a large vein that’s normally on the right side,” Nielsen said.
“Where’s the inferior vena cava? Are we missing it? Are we crazy?” they asked their professors.
“And they kind of rolled their eyes,” Nielsen recalled. “Like, ‘how can these students miss this big vessel?’ And they come over and that’s when the hubbub starts. They’re like ‘Oh, my God, this is totally backwards!’ “
The vena cava is a large vein that follows the right side of the vertebral column.
It curves under the liver and empties deoxygenated blood into the heart.
Mrs. Bentley’s vena cava was on the left and “her vein continued through her diaphragm, along the thoracic vertebrae, up and around and over the aortic arch and then emptied into the right side of her heart,” said Walker.
“Normally speaking, none of us have a vessel that does that directly,” he added.
Walker and the rest of team also found other irregularities in the body. Veins that typically drain the liver and other areas of the chest cavity were either not there or sprouted from an unusual spot.
The lung usually has three lobes, but Mrs. Bentley’s right one only had two. Also, the right atrium of her heart was twice the normal size.
Walker also observed that “instead of having a stomach on the left, which is normal, her stomach was on the right. Her liver, which normally occurs predominantly on the right, was predominantly on the left. Her spleen was on the right side instead of its normal occurrence on the left. And then the rest of her digestive tract, the ascending colon, was inverted as well.”
He further explained that “the mutations in situs inversus with levocardia occur early, Walker explained, possibly between 30 and 45 days into the pregnancy. No one knows why.”
The condition would normally result to a congenital heart disease and a very short life expectancy. But Mrs. Bentley didn’t have heart defects and definitely lived a very long life.
Mrs. Bentley was born Rose Marie Phelps was born in 1918 in Waldport, a small town on the Oregon coast.
According to daughter Patti Helmig, her mother volunteered during World War II for one of the nurse’s aid corps.
She had chronic heartburn, which was not unusual given her unusual anatomy. But she never showed any negative health signs.
According to Ginger Robbins, Mrs. Bentley’s third child, they “had no reason to believe there was anything like that wrong. She was always very healthy. She was always doing something, taking us to Campfire Girls, fishing, swimming. She was an excellent swimmer.”
She was always doing something, taking us to Campfire Girls, fishing, swimming. She was an excellent swimmer.”
Her decision to become a body donor was influenced by her husband Jim Bentley. Jim donated his own body and he died of pneumonia more than a decade before Rose’s death.
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