By Sasha Doppelt
For our latest installment of “Health Matters,” premiering tonight at 8 and online now, host David Granet talked to Dr. Jacopo Annese, director of The Brain Observatory at UC San Diego. Dr. Annese is working on a “Digital Brain Library” that uses advanced neuroimaging technologies to create digital models of the human brain at cellular resolution. Sounds like pretty standard scientific research, right? Not quite.
What makes Dr. Annese’s work unique is that he also studies — and ideally gets to know — the person behind the brain. With this information, he offers an unprecedented holistic perspective on this complex organ.
Dr. Annese’s Digital Brain Library relies on generous brain donations from community members who want to have a role in discovering how disease and aging affect the brain. San Diego resident Bishop Spangler was one of these people.
Bishop passed away on June 12, 2011 after living with GIST (gastrointestinal stromal tumor) for nine years. In the following paragraphs, his wife Bettie Spangler tells us about her husband, why he felt compelled to donate his brain to Dr. Annese, and how the donation experience profoundly affected Bishop and the entire Spangler family during his final days.
Can you tell us a little bit about your husband?
Bishop Spangler was born in 1932 in a rural area of Southwest Virginia into a farming family of seven children. His family had a proud, rich history of helping settle a community named Meadows of Dan. Growing up, he learned about integrity, helping your neighbors, working as a team, doing deals with a “hand shake,” making your own music, barn dancing, and church. He learned about determination if you wanted to accomplish anything, and the importance of the environment for raising crops and live stock. After high school he found a college in Kentucky where he could go and work his way through and, four years later, he graduated from Berea College with his B.A. degree majoring in physics. He went on to the University of Pittsburgh on a teaching assistant program and earned a Masters in Mathematics, and later his PhD also in Mathematics. He married and later moved to San Diego where he worked in the aerospace industry and raised a family. Eventually, Bishop left the aerospace industry and became an entrepreneur. He loved to “wheel and deal” so he became a real estate broker where he could use many of his gifts/talents/passions. His goal was to always try to help people “stretch in order to obtain their dreams.”
How did your family become involved in the brain library project?
Bishop read an article in the newspaper toward the end of May about the Brain Observatory and the work that Dr. Annese was doing. He showed me the article after he had made the phone call to the paper asking for someone to call him, as he would like to be a donor. He told me that he wanted to give his brain to this project after he died and would I make sure it happened? I said that I did not want to do that for myself, but if that is what he wanted to do, then I would do all I could do to make it happen. He told his children about his decision and they supported him, as we all recognized this as a Bishop thing.
Can you tell us about the experience?
On May 25, 2011 I received a call from Dr. Annese giving me some information about the project. I told him he would need to talk to my husband and he offered to come to our home the next day. Bishop insisted on getting dressed and coming downstairs to meet Dr. Annese, along with our daughter and son. He was ready to sign whatever papers necessary as he knew his time was short and he wanted to take care of business. He was now a brain donor! Dr. Annese was always kind and considerate about not adding pressure or pushing Bishop for more. He would always tell him what was happening during the MRI studies and asking if he felt like doing more. When Bishop got tired he would tell him…no more. At one time the whole family came into the bedroom where Bishop was talking about his early history and the grandchildren asked to sit in. It was fine with Dr. Annese as long as we were quiet. He looked around the room with some on the bed and others on the floor spread out and said, “It looks like camping,” and everyone felt at ease. One of our granddaughters said, “Witnessing Gampa relive key moments of his life through Jacopo’s interviews and knowing that it would be used in support of something he deeply cared about was one of the most powerful experiences of my life.”
Why did your husband want to donate his brain?
Bishop wanted to leave something he could be remembered by—a kind of legacy. He also wanted to leave something that might help humanity in the future. One of our granddaughters said it best, “It made perfect sense since he marked his life with a desire to make a difference and an ongoing quest for deeper understanding about the mysteries of earth and spirituality.”
How did his decision to participate impact his end-of-life experience?
A few days before he died, we were all sitting around in the bedroom listening to him and Dr. Annese talk, when our friend and minister and his wife came in. Introductions were made and then Bishop pointed to Dr. Annese and told our minister, “This man saved my life.” Meaning, he had given him hope that he would live on into the future through this project, and he would be able to contribute something that might help humanity and the scientific community. He lived to accomplish whatever he could give to Dr. Annese for his program.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Dr. Annese kept all of the promises he had made. He told me he would be with Bishop at the end and he would arrange everything needed to accomplish what Bishop indicated he wanted to do with his brain after he died. He was very clear in describing the project to us and to share the goals and objectives that he hoped to accomplish. He never pushed us in making any decisions or to keep appointments if it was not convenient. He also came to the Celebration Of Life service and gave support to all the family. By this time, we all considered him part of our family. We still are in contact. He has a kindness and a bedside manner that many do not have today. Bishop loved Jacopo and trusted him with the end of his life.
To learn more about Dr. Annese’s brain library project and research, watch “Health Matters: Your Own Personal Brain Map.” Thank you to Bettie Spangler for sharing her husband’s inspiring story with us.