‘The Unseen Body’

‘The Unseen Body’

Doctor with local roots explores the human anatomy, nature, and unexpected connections

Dr. Jonathan Reisman
Dr. Jonathan Reisman

Dr. Jonathan Reisman’s new book, “The Unseen Body: A Doctor’s Journey Through the Hidden Wonders of the Human Anatomy,” isn’t likely to make those of us too squeamish ever to have thought about medical school wish we’d reconsidered.

But it is likely to make us think about the body’s centrality to every understanding of history, of crafts, of geography, of food, of metaphor; through his sometimes gorgeous, sometimes brutal, sometimes both gorgeous and brutal prose, Dr. Reisman’s understanding of the body soars in poetry.

His understanding of the body, Dr. Reisman said, comes from his “need to know the story behind everything,” compared with his desire to be hands-on all the time. “I wanted to learn everything about everything,” he said. “When I came to medicine, I approached it in that exact same way.”

Jonathan Reisman, in Nepal, opens his arms to the Himalayas.

Jonathan Reisman grew up in Closter and went to Northern Valley High School in Demarest, and then to NYU. “I really didn’t enjoy it,” he said. “I didn’t enjoy college at all. I didn’t get a fake ID. I didn’t have a typical college experience, with freedom and drinking.

“I was at NYU, in the Village, which is supposed to be the hippest place on earth. I was studying math and philosophy; it’s a perfect, abstract world. At the college level, math doesn’t even use numbers or digits. It’s on such an abstract plane that it’s beyond normal numbers. Everything was just all theoretical.

“I got into the natural world and identifying plants in the Village, and in Central Park. I just was not interested in the city. I wanted to go out into nature. I wanted to travel. I wanted to see the world. I wanted to get my hands dirty. I didn’t want to study these abstract concepts.”

What to do?

“Initially, I thought about dropping out of college, but that didn’t go over well with my parents,” he said. “So instead, I took on a lot of classes, six classes a semester, and summer classes at Ramapo College. The head of the math department said, ‘Okay. I don’t care.’ And I also had a lot of AP credits from high school. So I ended up graduating just before my 20th birthday.” That was in 2001.

“It’s funny,” Dr. Reisman continued. “NYU gives an award to the oldest and the youngest graduate. I did not get the youngest one. I asked who did — it was someone who was one day younger than me. But it took me two years, and it took that person three years.”

Right after college, Dr. Reisman did some work at the Closter Nature Center, where he learned from its head, Marc Gussen. Mr. Gussen is “a mushroom forager, and he knew ancient crafts,” Dr. Reisman said; he didn’t teach Dr. Reisman how to tan hides, but he introduced him to that craft, as well as to “the world of understanding prehistoric cultures. For me, always being interested in where things come from, it was fascinating.”

Dr. Reisman is working in a medical clinic in Kolkata, India.

When he was at Ramapo, Dr. Reisman took classes taught by Dr. Maria Tysiachniouk, a visiting professor from a Russian university. “She was from Saint Petersburg, and meeting her changed the course of my life,” he said. On the first of his many trips to Russia, he lived in her son’s room for six months, “immersed myself in the culture, and her mother tutored me in Russian one-on-one almost every day.

“It was an amazing trip. I got my first taste of travel.” Later trips took him to Kamchatka, the peninsula in extreme eastern Siberia, among many other places. “I was only 22 when I went there. It is a wilderness area with a fascinating culture. For someone from a New Jersey suburb — my eyes had never been that open.”

It also became more personal. “I started learning about the Jews who lived in Russia, and that got me curious about my own family history,” Dr. Reisman said. “So I learned more.

“One of my grandparents was from Vilna, two were from Poland, and one was from Moldova,” he continued; in other words, they came from places not far from where he traveled. “I had one grandmother who was still alive when I went to Kamchatka. For her, Siberia was a place where you hide from Nazis.” She’d gone from Moldova to Siberia, he learned. “My grandfather from Poland was sent to a gulag, and they met in Kazakhstan.”

As a ship’s doctor, Dr. Reisman went to the Bering Strait on a wildlife cruise to the Russian Arctic.

His grandmother’s first husband had died a long time ago, but Dr. Reisman knew her second husband, Misha. “He spoke no English,” Dr. Reisman said. “Just Russian and Yiddish. When I got back from my trip, we could talk. We’d never really talked before, and I’d known him since childhood.” That led him to think about language. “My parents, Vivian and Seymour Reisman, were the first in their families to be born in the United States. They both grew up speaking Yiddish at home, until they went to school.

“But nobody in my generation in the family speaks Yiddish. In Kamchatka, the oldest generation doesn’t even speak Russian. They only speak the native language. The kids, the youngest generation, don’t speak the native language at all. Only Russian. It’s the same as in my family.”

His trip to Kamchatka, his fourth to Russia, lasted for four months, “and it was the most immersive solo travel I had ever done, and the most eye-opening. I went for two months without speaking any English. I got interested in the native culture of the north, and that led later to my work in Alaska.”

In Barrow, Alaska, Dr. Reisman stands below two massive jawbones from bowhead whales.

Soon, he realized that it was time to think about the future. “I thought about what to do next,” he said. “I thought about sociology or anthropology, but I like crafts. I like hide tanning. I like working with my hands. And I also like intellectual problem-solving.

“So I thought that being a doctor would be a good combination of using my hands and using my brains. It’s combining crafts and problem-solving; it’s maybe using deductive reasoning, like you do in math.”

The problem of how to become a doctor was easily solvable. “I hadn’t taken any science in college,” Dr. Reisman said. “I had placed out of them. But I took classes at Hunter and Ramapo, and I loved them from the first second. And I never looked back.

“I hated college, but I loved science. I was surprised at how science works, and how people could figure it out. That seemed superhuman.”

Dr. Reisman stands outside a clinic in Manang, Nepal.

He went to medical school at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson in Piscataway for the first two years, and then in Camden for the second two. “I loved it,” he said. “I loved learning about the body and body parts.

“I was constantly thinking about the body in relation to other things, to geography and history. To where people come from, and to how we relate to the food we eat, to other species, to each other. I was working with my hands.”

To be a good doctor, you have to learn not only about an individual body — although certainly you do have to learn about that individual body, and throughout his book Dr. Reisman writes in great detail about individual bodies — but also about how each body connects to the world. “When you learn about nature, you learn about the animal you’re studying, and about its species, but also about how they live. You have to understand who eats who, and how the tree is connected to the mushroom. You can know a lot about an individual species, but to really understand, you have to take a step back and see how the species are related to each other.

Here, Dr. Reisman is researching infectious disease research among the Yupik Eskimo in western Alaska.

“I brought that same perspective to the human body. To understand how it works, you have to step back and see the ecology.”

When he was a resident, Dr. Reisman went whale hunting in Alaska, he said; he writes about whales and whale fat at great length in his book, in the chapter on fat. “The Eskimo diet traditionally is more than half fat, with no fruits, no plants, no grains — it’s all animal,” he said. “People eating that diet have very low cholesterol.” That doesn’t mean that Western scholarship about fat and diet is wrong; it just means that “we know so little,” he said. He also did a residency elective in Tanzania. “I’ve been very blessed with opportunities,” he said.

“And I took a trip in Antarctica in a ship with 160 Japanese tourists. I did it because I love going to those places, to wilderness places where you see extreme nature, and to be able to practice medicine there – that was perfect for me.” He also voyaged to the Russian arctic, worked in northern Alaska, and sailed up Russia’s eastern coast.

Dr. Reisman is married now; his wife, Dr. Anna Wexler, is a professor of bioethics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “She grew up modern Orthodox, rebelled as a teenager, and made a documentary about it called ‘Unorthodox,’” Dr. Reisman said. “Her movie is really very good.”

When he was a ship’s doctor, Dr. Reisman accompanied tourists on a hike in Antarctica.

Dr. Reisman and Dr. Wexler live in Philadelphia with their young children. “I have three part-time jobs,” he said; dividing his time is a way for him to pursue many interests more or less at once. “One is in the pediatric emergency room, working with residents and medical students in Camden. One is in coal country in Appalachia, in a rural hospital.” He lives in between those two places, give or take. “And the other one is a telemedicine job,” he said. “I see patients in rural Wisconsin” — see, that is, but not touch — “a few days a month.”

Dr. Reisman’s book includes his own experiences — some of it is deeply personal — as well as more dispassionate, although always passionately presented, factual material. He has visceral descriptions of what the body looks, feels, and sometimes smells like (and yes, the pun is intended. Some of it actually is viscera.) He compares the body’s workings to the watershed he saw in Kamchatka and the plumbing he sees in old houses. He tells the stories of patients with whom he’s worked; some of them live, some die, and he both cares for and observes all of them.

His descriptions are striking; some are too graphic, and others are like this one: “The heart is hidden behind an opaque chest wall made from the wattle and daub of flesh and bone.”

In his chapter on lungs, the one he said probably has the most Jewish content, Dr. Reisman begins with a description of a kosher slaughterhouse he visited; some readers, personal experience says, will skip some of those paragraphs. He also talks about how it is not legal to serve lungs as food in the United States, a decision he thinks is wrong. “In the course of that research, I ended up talking to a bunch of elderly Jews, and getting their recipes,” he said. “I include a conversation with a lady from Brooklyn about eating them, and part of the chapter is me searching for them. I finally found a restaurant in Israel, and I tried them there.”

Dr. Reisman took this picture in Kolkata, India.

Another chapter, about liver, details how he wouldn’t eat it at family holiday gatherings before he went to medical school, because he found the texture, look, and idea of it repellent. But as he studied livers in medical school — and as he details how they look, how they feel, and what they do — he became more comfortable with the idea of eating them, and now, when his family comes together for a seder or a Rosh Hashanah dinner, he enjoys chopped liver. Knowledge cures, he says.

Speaking of curing, he writes at length about tanning; he talks about working with roadkill and with cadavers in medical school.

But it would be inaccurate and just entirely wrong to make this book sound as if it’s a ghoulish tour of human bodies as pieces of gristle held together by unlikely organs and breakable bones. Instead, it’s an appreciation of the body, and of the world, by a doctor who’s seen enough of the body, and of the world, to know what he’s talking about, and to do it with grace and style.

An excerpt from Dr. Jonathan Reisman’s
“The Unseen Body”: Chapter 2, “Heart”

The map of the cardiovascular system was the one most forcefully drilled into my memory, and it reminded me of what I had learned during my travels in Kamchatka. The path we traveled up the Bistraya River mimicked the travels of every blood cell that leaves the heart on its way to all of the body’s tissues. Each drop of blood pumped out of the heart first enters the aorta, the body’s main river. When it reaches a confluence, it turns and follows the smaller tributary artery, which leads toward smaller and smaller branches of the arterial tree, each turn bringing blood closer and closer to its destination in the body.

While studying the body’s smallest blood vessels, the capillaries, I recalled standing with Vasily next to the tiniest nameless stream near the mountain pass. While every large and medium-sized blood vessel in the body has a name, the smallest capillaries flowing deep in the body’s remote hinterlands remain unnamed, even in the most detailed medical textbooks.

The capillaries that deliver nutrients directly to the doorstep of our cells are the mountain passes of the body. It is through them that blood travels from the watershed of arteries into the mirroring watershed of veins for the return trip. The second leg of their circulatory travels begins in the tiniest venous streams that fuse and grow into larger and larger vessels. The blue-tinted veins snaking up the forearm are formed by the joining together of the tiniest rivulets trickling out of the hand and its flesh watershed of muscle, bone, tendon, and skin. Every inch of the body is necessarily part of some watershed of blood drainage, just as every drop of rain falling on land eventually finds its outlet into a stream. And each drop of oxygen-depleted blood flowing out of the human body’s most distant geographies drains eventually into the body’s largest venous rivers, or venae cavae.

I learned that blood vessels in our bodies are dynamic like waterways on the earth, and can modify themselves to grow around chronic blockages. People with coronary artery disease often compensate over the years by sprouting new circumventing paths through which blood can flow to cells. When a rock slide newly dams up a stream, the water eventually finds a new route around it, just as the body’s cardiovascular system carves new channels for blood flow and leaves old ones to senesce as oxbow lakes.

As I studied the names, trajectories, and branch points of almost every blood vessel coursing through the body, I strived for the level of familiarity with which Vasily knew the journeying waterways of his home mountains.

Excerpted THE UNSEEN BODY: A Doctor’s Journey Through the Hidden Wonders of Human Anatomy by Jonathan Reisman. Copyright © 2021 by Jonathan Reisman. Reprinted with permission from Flatiron Books. All rights reserved.   

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