I like to think of my job as a storyteller. Whether I’m writing a grant proposal or posting a photo on our school’s Facebook page, whether I’m preparing a student to speak before hundreds of people at our Annual Benefit or having a one-on-one meeting with a partner or vendor, a big part of my job is sharing The City School’s story. To do this well, it’s important I spend time with our students and teachers, watching and writing down the million big-and-little ways our mission is lived out every day. One way I get to do this is by chaperoning our field trips. When Mrs. Hamel invited me to join the middle school on a tour of the Mütter Museum, I knew there was a story to pursue.
Dedicated to the bizarre and often ghastly history of medical science, the Mütter Museum is as informative as it is macabre. It is a learning experience, to be sure, but beyond the crash course in anatomy and virology, there is a deeper lesson for our students. We live in God’s world, a world artfully designed, particle by particle, by a God of infinite genius, beauty, joy, and goodness. But, look around: we live in a world of disease, decay, despair, and death. The Mütter Museum challenges us to confront this reality. I believe our Savior, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, teaches us to do the same.
I head to the middle school campus and meet with Mrs. Hamel, Mr. Spalding. Mrs. King, and Ms. Mercer. Their students are a controlled chaos of excitement. Field trips have that effect, remember? We buddy up and make our way to the train station. “So,” I ask Mrs. Hamel, “why do middle school students visit the Mütter Museum?”
“We are learning about God’s design in the human body,” she answers, “and I think it’s important they see the other side of design—that in a fallen world there are diseases and deformities. This knowledge leads to empathy. They learn so they can serve.” I think about her answer as we board the train.
As we disembark, a man from the crowd stops Mrs. Hamel. “Pardon me,” he says, “but I notice the logo on your students’ uniforms—you’re from The City School. I want to tell you I sent my son there, and it was the best decision of my life.” Joan smiles, “Where is he now?” His son, we learn, recently graduated from college and is pursuing a teaching career of his own. “He has an offer at Drexel,” the man tells us, “I am so proud of the man he has become.” He thanks us and asks where we’re headed. “We’re on our way to the Mütter Museum,” Mrs. Hamel explains. “Fascinating,” our new friend remarks, “Kids, think carefully about what you see today. You can be the one to change it.” We part ways and head to our destination.
A huge banner hangs beside the entrance, declaring the museum’s motto and setting ominous ambiance. “Disturbingly Informative,” it reads, against a sepia-toned backdrop of human skulls. I ask our students if they would like to pose with the somber sign. A few rush to volunteer and I snap a couple quick shots. As it turns out, photography is strictly forbidden inside, so this is our only memento—too bad, because the exhibits would make for a phenomenal photo shoot. You’ll have to use your imagination.
We walk inside and meet our tour guide. She’s cheery and enthusiastic, and her demeanor helps contextualize the grisly displays. She tells us about the museum’s founder and namesake, Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter. He was a master surgeon and well-loved professor at Jefferson Medical College, and he pioneered the field of antiseptics. Through his distinguished medical career, he treated many people with rare and bizarre afflictions. Fascinated with medical oddities, he began the collection that eventually became the Mütter Museum.
We walk the halls and inspect ghastly displays. With context, each piece becomes more than a gruesome relic—it is an academic investigation and, beyond that, the legacy of a real person uniquely bearing God’s glory. We see the lumbering, disproportioned skeleton of a giant beside the mangled frame of a dwarf. We see them not as freaks or medical curiosities, but as people: people whose lives we can honor by showing compassion to the weakest and most vulnerable among us. We see slices of Albert Einstein’s brain and ponder the marvels of a God who so permeates creation that three pounds of grey gunk can contain—and create!—all the genius of history’s foremost scientific mind. An exhibit devoted to medical oddities in infants cuts too deep. I think of my own son, Tristan, born three months premature—fragile and fighting for life—as I divert my eyes. If nothing else, these little ones remind me to hold my son extra close that night.
I hear a few girls gasp in harmony and I turn around. “What is this?” they ask, eyes wide with curiosity and horror. “Those,” Mrs. Hamel curtly responds, “are ovarian cysts.”
“Ovarian?” Sadie repeats, her fingers trailing down her belly as the meaning of the word dawns on her. “Like, ovaries?” The girls howl together with imagined pain.
“Mr. Brandon,” Mrs. Hamel calls over to me, “can you tell these girls how painful ovarian cysts are?”
I can. My wife, Stephanie, has endured endometriosis and ovarian cysts for years. Just a few days earlier, she had surgery: one of her ovaries was so ravaged with cysts that it had to be removed. She was at home nursing a six-inch incision, a new wound to replace the pain of swelling cysts.
“It’s like being stabbed in the gut over and over again,” I tell them, quoting my wife. I tell them about her chronic pain and her recent surgery. I tell them the surgeons removed a cyst larger than my fist. “I feel like a walking bomb,” I tell them in my wife’s voice, “at any moment my cysts could hemorrhage and I could die.” I tell them doctors said she would never be able to have children, but we have an adorable two-year-old prince who proves them wrong.
“He’s a miracle,” Carmen says. I agree.
Listening, their expressions change. Even without words, the subtle change in their eyes tells the story of why The City School visits the Mütter Museum. The glare of disgust—a rightful response to the sight of cyst-rotted ovaries—gives way to a gaze of compassion. This is why we visit the macabre museum, to confront disease, decay, and despair—not to ogle at it, but to overcome it.
“I’m so sorry she has to go through that,” Ebony says. “I hope she heals quickly,” Devin adds. “We need to pray for a cure,” Larina proposes with hope in her voice, still staring at the cadaverous display.
As we head out, I ask Samar what he thought about the trip. “The baby exhibits hurt my stomach,” he says with a pause, “…and my heart.” I nod, “Mine too.” We share a moment of silence and Samar interjects:
“It was important to see those things, though. Sometimes it was hard to look, but it inspires me to make a difference with my life. I bet a lot of people first decide to become doctors because they see something like this as a kid. When you see the disease, you want to find the cure.”
Maybe there were future doctors, nurses, surgeons, and scientists in our group that day. Maybe one of our students will cure endometriosis or save the lives of children born with rare and deadly diseases. I don’t know what ministry God has in store for each student. But I do know we left the museum with softened hearts and strengthened worldviews. We left, I think, a little more like Jesus, our man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.
“God,” Samar whispers, “help us make this right.”