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Discover Denver: Gunther von Hagens tells The Story of the Heart

DENVER, Colo. -- Gunther von Hagens presents Body Worlds and the Story of the Heart, an exhibition that displays real human bodies, at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Marcy Glass)

DENVER, Colo. -- Gunther von Hagens presents Body Worlds and the Story of the Heart, an exhibition that displays real human bodies, at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Marcy Glass)

DENVER, Colo. -- At the Body Worlds and the Story of the Heart exhibit, these barrels provide and illustration of the 1,800 gallons of blood pumped by the human heart each day. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Marcy Glass)

DENVER, Colo. -- At the Body Worlds and the Story of the Heart exhibit, these barrels provide and illustration of the 1,800 gallons of blood pumped by the human heart each day. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Marcy Glass)

DENVER, Colo. -- The Praying Skeleton is presented as a memorial to the body donors at the Body Worlds and the Story of the Hearth exhibit. The skeleton praises the vessels of the heart, indicating the fragility of our existance. The heart is the first organ to form and stops working last. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Marcy Glass)

DENVER, Colo. -- The Praying Skeleton is presented as a memorial to the body donors at the Body Worlds and the Story of the Hearth exhibit. The skeleton praises the vessels of the heart, indicating the fragility of our existance. The heart is the first organ to form and stops working last. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Marcy Glass)

DENVER, Colo. -- The Hurdler shows the interplay between surface and intermediate muscles. Skeletal muscles make up almost half the weight of our body as they work together in movement. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Marcy Glass)

DENVER, Colo. -- The Hurdler shows the interplay between surface and intermediate muscles. Skeletal muscles make up almost half the weight of our body as they work together in movement. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Marcy Glass)

DENVER, Colo. -- The Archer shows the tension in virtually all the muscles of her body, shortly after the arrow left her bow. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Marcy Glass)

DENVER, Colo. -- The Archer shows the tension in virtually all the muscles of her body, shortly after the arrow left her bow. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Marcy Glass)

DENVER, Colo. -- The visceral organs of the Torchbearer display can sustain a substantially reduced blood supply for more than an hour during intense exercise. The effects of smoking are shown with the blackened lobes of the lungs. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Marcy Glass)

DENVER, Colo. -- The visceral organs of the Torchbearer display can sustain a substantially reduced blood supply for more than an hour during intense exercise. The effects of smoking are shown with the blackened lobes of the lungs. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Marcy Glass)

DENVER, Colo. -- The Torchbearer poses with one arm up and one down, showing the anatomy of the armpit in open and closed positions. Muscles use less than 10 percent of blood flow when at rest but can take up to 50 percent of it while they are working. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Marcy Glass)

DENVER, Colo. -- The Torchbearer poses with one arm up and one down, showing the anatomy of the armpit in open and closed positions. Muscles use less than 10 percent of blood flow when at rest but can take up to 50 percent of it while they are working. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Marcy Glass)

DENVER, Colo. -- The Walker offers a view of the arterial configuration of the heart and the large bronchi. During physical exercise, the contracting muscles exert pressure on the veins, pushing blood through the one-way valves of the veins. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Marcy Glass)

DENVER, Colo. -- The Walker offers a view of the arterial configuration of the heart and the large bronchi. During physical exercise, the contracting muscles exert pressure on the veins, pushing blood through the one-way valves of the veins. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Marcy Glass)

DENVER, Colo. -- The Suspended Arterial Bone Body. The cardiovascular system is an organism's major transport system. Not only does it distribute nutrients, oxygen and hormones to individual regions of the body; it also collects metabolic by-products, which are then eliminated. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Marcy Glass)

DENVER, Colo. -- The Suspended Arterial Bone Body. The cardiovascular system is an organism's major transport system. Not only does it distribute nutrients, oxygen and hormones to individual regions of the body; it also collects metabolic by-products, which are then eliminated. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Marcy Glass)

DENVER, Colo. -- The Hockey Players show how the muscles and organs work in movement. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Marcy Glass)
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DENVER, Colo. -- The Hockey Players show how the muscles and organs work in movement. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Marcy Glass)

DENVER, Colo. -- The Trapeze Artist shows her opened abdominal cavity. The intestinal organs have been removed, offering a view of the kidneys alongside the abdominal aorta and the vena cava. Kidneys play a major role in the regulation of blood pressure by keeping the body fluids balanced. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Marcy Glass)
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DENVER, Colo. -- The Trapeze Artist shows her opened abdominal cavity. The intestinal organs have been removed, offering a view of the kidneys alongside the abdominal aorta and the vena cava. Kidneys play a major role in the regulation of blood pressure by keeping the body fluids balanced. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Marcy Glass)

DENVER, Colo. -- The Juxtaposed Couple embody the relationships between the heart and the brain, both physiological and physical. The brain with its cool logic and the heart with its volitility act alone as well as in concert - juxtaposed - to make up our essential selves. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Marcy Glass)
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DENVER, Colo. -- The Juxtaposed Couple embody the relationships between the heart and the brain, both physiological and physical. The brain with its cool logic and the heart with its volitility act alone as well as in concert - juxtaposed - to make up our essential selves. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Marcy Glass)

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- EDITOR'S NOTE: Some of the photos accompanying this story depict the internal organs of the human body and may be considered graphic to some readers.

The room is dimly lit, a red hue the most prominent light. Once adjusted to the darkness, your eyes fix upon an overwhelming sight. Before you are the preserved remains of a once-living human being. Their skin separated from their bodies and the internal organs, posed and positioned in artful arrangement, permits a grim insight into a taboo world. Their eyes, glinting with life, leave you pondering the soul's existence beyond death. Forever entombed in silicon and plastic, protected from the world in their glass sanctuary, the exhibits at Body World and The Story of the Heart grip your attention and appeal to our darkest fear: the unknown.

Gunther von Hagens introduces us to Body Worlds and The Story of the Heart, an exhibition intended to "inspire us towards heart-centered and heart healthy living." Mr. von Hagens, the inventor of a process called Plastination and founder of the Institute for Plastination, is able to bring to "life" the world of the human anatomy. Upon death, donated cadavers are delivered to the institute where they begin their process towards a plastic immortality.

"Plastination unveils the beauty beneath the skin, frozen in time between death and decay," Mr. von Hagens wrote in an introduction to the exhibit.

During the plastination process, formaldehyde is used to stop the decomposition before any dissection or sawing takes place. Acetone is then used to replace all the fluids in the body in what is called a "cold acetone bath." The fat is also replaced in a "warm acetone bath."

The last stage of the plastination process is called Forced Impregnation. The cadaver is placed in a vacuum where the acetone is extracted and gradually replaced with plastic. For positioning each structure is brought into the proper pose and then is cured with gas and in the final stage, the cadaver is infused with silicon rubber. This process allows us to see the internal structure of the human body from the central nervous system to the cardiovascular system and the reveals the true mysteries that live within the heart.

The perspective of the human heart lies in both the physical and philosophical aspects of the mind. Whether our heart is breaking or becomes ill, we never give the heart much thought. Physically, our heart is the first organ to form after conception. At rest it beats 70 times a minute pumping roughly three ounces of blood per pulse. Over an average life time of 75 years, the heart pumps one million barrels of blood throughout your body. The four chambers of the heart contain four valves that direct blood flow in and out of the heart, directing oxygen-poor blood to the lungs and pushes the oxygen-rich blood through to the rest of the body. Within the human body lies a network 60,000 miles long of arteries, veins and capillaries that carry blood from the heart to the rest of the body. Weighing 11 ounces, the heart is one of the most hard-working organs in the human body, but its job doesn't stop there.

Viewed as a vessel for our spirit, humans have given a deeper meaning to the significance of the heart. It is viewed as our source of courage, strength and reserve, but also of contempt, jealously, and despair, a gateway in which evil may thrive, or the feeling of comfort we receive when we pray.

From the moment we began to question the stars, the human heart became the main philanthropist in guiding our beliefs and steering the course of our actions. So strong is the tie between our chemical emotions and our physical self that one may suffer from the effects of a "broken heart." A person suffering from "Broken Heart Syndrome" may experience the same symptoms and effects as a heart attack. The body produces an overload of toxic stress hormones, which leads to cardiomyopathy. Shortness of breath, chest pains and a severely-weakened heart muscle occur, but when examined no trace of clots or damaged arteries can be found. A person so stricken with grief or sorrow may never recover, leading to further depression, melancholy and even death, which leaves a question: how much of a role does our heart truly play in our existence?

Featuring more than 200 human exhibits, Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds and The Story of the Heart is on display at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science through July 18. The exhibit runs from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m., Sunday through Wednesday and from 9 a.m. - 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. General public daily admission for this exhibition is $25 for adults, $16 for juniors and $19 for seniors and includes museum admission and parking.
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