Before Rose Marie Bentley died, she decided to donate her body to the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) in Portland. Then, some months after Bentley’s passing, a group of medical students at the institution went on to examine her cadaver in an effort to see what they could learn from the elderly woman. After the group opened up Bentley’s body, however, they weren’t able to believe their eyes. You see, there was something strange about the organs in front of them – and it was enough to shock even seasoned medical professionals.
As we get older, we naturally start to think about the future and what we’ll be doing in our later lives. And however we choose to spend retirement – by keeping active with hobbies and volunteering or simply enjoying the time we have left with our respective families – most of us want to live to ripe old ages. Bentley was fortunate enough to get that chance.
You see, the resident of Molalla, Oregon, was 99 years old when she died – reportedly of natural causes. Upon Bentley’s passing in October 2017, she also left behind five adult children as well as, no doubt, some precious memories. And not only had the mom lived longer than many, but she had also packed many incredible experiences into her decades on Earth.
For one, Bentley and her husband had enjoyed the freedom that had come with retirement by traveling around the U.S. And right up until the senior died, there didn’t appear to be any major problems with her health, either. So, taking that into consideration, no one could’ve predicted what the medical students discovered in March 2018.
Over the course of our lives, we’ll all have aspirations and goals that we hope to fulfill – starting businesses, perhaps, or having families of our own. And, naturally, these aims can help drive us forward even when times are tough and achieving those dreams seems increasingly out of reach.
Regardless of what Bentley had once wished for, though, she reached several personal landmarks during her long life. And like all nonagenarians out there today, she lived through some key historical moments, too. Still, in many respects, Bentley was a typical American woman – even if she did hit the headlines following her death.
Bentley was welcomed into the world back in 1918 in Waldport, Oregon. And as the youngest of four kids, she often received special treatment from her parents – something that Bentley’s own eldest daughter reflected upon following her death.
“[Bentley] was babied,” Patti Helmig told CNN during an interview about her mom in April 2019. “She would admit she was spoiled [as a kid].” However, while Bentley was showered with attention, her life was far from trouble-free – especially where her health was concerned.
Unfortunately for the young girl, she was struck down by a case of smallpox that had the potential to turn lethal. At that time, in fact, the disease was responsible for taking the lives of millions of people around the world. Fortunately, though, Bentley eventually recovered from her illness, and her life returned to normal.
Furthermore, Bentley started to show a real interest in medicine and science as she got older. Yet she found it a struggle to find a way into the medical field, and this left her to ultimately pursue a completely different career: hairdressing.
Then, as Bentley was in her early 20s, World War II began. Famously, the conflict would run for the next six years, resulting in devastation across Europe as well as the loss of many millions of people. And in Oregon, the hairstylist was more than willing to put herself forward for the cause.
Looking back on that time in Bentley’s life, Helmig told CNN, “[My mom] volunteered during World War II for one of the nurses’ aide corps. And she was thrilled when someone reached out to her about doing a study on smallpox survivors, which she had as a child.”
Bentley then returned to the salon after the war ended, although this wasn’t her only responsibility. Alongside the hairdressing, you see, she also took up a position as a Sunday School teacher at the Molalla United Methodist Church. The mom was already quite familiar with the congregation, in fact, as she was in the church’s choir.
Bentley was pretty active with her family as well and enjoyed various trips with her five children. These precious moments were fondly remembered by her third child, Ginger Robbins, who shared details of one of her mother’s most impressive talents with CNN.
“[Bentley] was always very healthy,” Robbins explained. “She was always doing something, taking us to Camp Fire Girls, fishing [or] swimming. She was an excellent swimmer.” But as it turned out, Bentley had to overcome another hurdle in order to enjoy those activities – and yet again, it was all to do with her health.
Indeed, for some reason, Bentley suffered from bad heartburn that she was unable to shift. Aside from this ailment, though, she appeared to be fit and well ahead of an operation in later life. At that time, the mom was scheduled to have her appendix taken out in what should have been a standard procedure. Yet the physician concerned with the op ultimately encountered a strange problem.
Louise Allee – who was the youngest of Bentley’s girls – told CNN, “The surgeon made a note that [my mom’s] appendix wasn’t in the right spot when they took it out. But [they] never said anything to us. Nobody said a thing when they took her gallbladder out and [later] did a hysterectomy, either.”
Bentley didn’t share anything untoward about her health with her family, either. And any issues she may have had didn’t stop her from opening up a local business with husband James. The Bentley Feed Store provided supplies for both pet owners and farmers in the Molalla area.
Then, when Bentley and her spouse reached retirement back in 1980, they decided to go traveling together. In fact, the pair went on to visit every state in the U.S. before fitting in some overseas trips, too. It was quite a way to celebrate their freedom from the world of work.
Meanwhile, as many older people do, Bentley and James both started to think about what would happen following their deaths. And after reading a Robert Test poem, James ultimately decided that he would put plans in place to donate his body to science. In fact, such was his passion for the matter that his wife showed an interest in following suit.
Allee recalled to CNN, “There was a poem that my dad found, and it was all about donating your [body] parts. You know, ‘Give my eyes to a man who has never seen the sunrise’ and the like. He kept showing us the poem. It was really important to [him and my mom].”
So, when James died in 2004, the OHSU Body Donation Program took him in. Bentley then went on to live without her husband for the next 13 years until 2017. And in October of that year, she also passed away, leaving a grieving family in her wake.
From that point, Bentley’s body was moved to OHSU, where it remained until March 2018. Then, finally, the 99-year-old’s cadaver was brought out for a group of medical students as part of an anatomy lesson. Perhaps no one in the class could’ve predicted what would happen next, though.
With the cadaver resting on the table, Warren Nielsen and his fellow students were tasked to cut open the torso. Then, after that, they needed to look over Bentley’s heart. Yet within a few moments of making the incision, Nielsen noticed something really quite bewildering about the vital organ.
Talking to CNN in April 2019, Nielsen revealed, “Bentley’s heart was missing a large vein that’s normally on the right side. We asked our teachers, ‘Where’s the inferior vena cava? Are we missing it? Are we crazy?’ And they kind of rolled their eyes. Like, ‘How can these students miss this big vessel?’” But as it turns out, the trainees had a point.
“And then the teachers come over,” Nielsen continued. “And that’s when the hubbub starts. They’re like, ‘Oh, my God, this [vena cava] is totally backward!’” Now, a normal vena cava is situated on the right of the body; the vein also usually “curves” beneath the liver and carries blood up to the heart.
In Bentley’s case, though, her vena cava was on the opposite side. And it didn’t end in the regular place, either. As the university’s Professor Cameron Walker explained to CNN, “[Bentley’s] 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.”
Walker added, “Normally speaking, none of us have a vessel that does that directly.” Then, following that surprising discovery, the group took a closer look at the inside of Bentley’s body. And as it turns out, there were further curiosities to be found. Not only was part of the woman’s heart abnormally large, but her right lung was also missing a lobe.
Certain veins in Bentley’s torso weren’t in the right places, either. And Walker and the students were in for another shock when they examined the lower half of her body. You see, many of her other vital organs were positioned abnormally.
“Instead of having a stomach on the left, which is normal, [Bentley’s] stomach was on the right,” Walker told CNN. “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.” So what had caused this all to happen?
Well, Bentley had been suffering from an ailment known as situs inversus with levocardia throughout her life – although she hadn’t known it. This genetic condition usually manifests itself when a fetus is between 30 to 45 days old in the womb and causes the positions of its organs to become inverted.
But situs inversus with levocardia is actually incredibly rare, with only one in 22,000 people being born with the condition. And, unfortunately, it can also lead to heart disease – the reason why only 13 percent of sufferers at most survive beyond their fifth birthdays.
But luckily for Bentley, she faced no such problems before her passing – other than that incessant heartburn. Existing medical records show, too, that someone else lived with the condition for 73 years ahead of their death in 1991. At that time, this individual was deemed to be the “second-longest survivor” of situs inversus with levocardia in history.
To Walker, though, Bentley’s case would be tough to top. He said, “I think the odds of finding another person like [Bentley] may be as remote as one in 50 million. I don’t think any of us will ever forget it, honestly.” And the professor’s thoughts on the matter didn’t end there.
In April 2019, you see, Walker also spoke to U.K. newspaper The Guardian about Bentley’s unusual anomalies. And over the course of the conversation, he claimed that thanks to her condition, the 99-year-old had made an impact even in death.
“This is an important case,” Walker told the publication. “[It] really gave us an opportunity to talk about the importance of future clinicians paying attention to subtle anatomic variations – not just large anatomic variations – in terms of addressing their future patients as individuals. Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
Nielsen, too, was affected by what he saw that day at OHSU. Yes, the student went on to share his feelings during a talk with the college’s website in April 2019, and apparently his entire outlook on medicine had changed after examining Bentley’s body.
Nielsen explained, “We were able to not only learn normal anatomy, but also all the anatomic variation that can occur. I grew to appreciate how [Bentley] was able to live as long as she did. It made me wonder who she was. The experience has me looking forward to caring for patients and being able to apply what I’ve learned from her.”
But as Nielsen and Walker shared their astonishment with the world, Bentley’s family were just as surprised. After all, they’d had no idea about their mother’s condition prior to her passing. That said, Allee told OHSU that her mother may have appreciated being of real use to those medical students.
“My mom would think this was so cool,” Allee said to the university’s website as she reflected on everything that had transpired. “She would be tickled pink that she could teach something like this. She would probably get a big smile on her face, knowing that she was different but [had] made it through.”