Vibrant and determined, Robert Binhammer strides briskly among medical students and the dead.
Binhammer, who will turn 84 this month, feels at home in this big, strange lab at the University of Nebraska Medical Center — a white-walled, concrete-floored room for sharp young minds and donated cadavers.
Binhammer has taught anatomy close to 60 years, the majority of those at UNMC. He's put his hands on cadavers — a gentle word for corpses — for decades, showing students how this works, why this goes here and what that does, and giving details about tendons, cartilage, bone, brain, spine and nerves.
His department wanted to hire two new faculty members but could afford only one. So last fall, Binhammer started working for free. That way the department could have three professors for the price of two.
“The more I thought about it, the more I thought 'I'm pretty good at what I'm doing and I don't see any reason to go vegetate or go see cathedrals in Europe. I'm having too much fun here, so why not keep going?'” Binhammer said.
Many can't run to retirement fast enough. Binhammer has fled it for years and won't contemplate it if he doesn't have to. As one of UNMC's main anatomy professors for more than 30 years, he's been among the first teachers medical students encounter, and his quirky humor and tough tests have achieved legendary status.
After all those years of lab and lecture, a fellow professor says, Binhammer has taught anatomy to the majority of physicians practicing in Nebraska.
Officially an emeritus, or retired, professor, Binhammer desires no compensation from UNMC. “Well, I'm paying myself. I've worked for 56 years, so I've accumulated a fair retirement package,” he said. “I think it's a great way to go, actually, and maybe I should have thought about it a couple years ago.”
He has a modest office, a computer, gets some secretarial help and has a free parking space valued at $27 a month. He made $119,504 his last year of paid work, a stunning amount to a guy who started his anatomy teaching career at $5,000 a year in the mid-1950s at the University of Cincinnati.
Vimla Band, chairwoman of genetics, cell biology and anatomy, said she had wanted to hire two anatomy professors for her aging department but could afford only one. The day after Band shared that with Binhammer, he informed her that he would continue to serve the department as a volunteer.
Band was delighted. This way, she said, Binhammer will be able to help train the new faculty members.
Students like Binhammer, respect him, and laugh at his dry humor and peculiar style. He's tough but affectionate. He knows they're smart and wants them to be excellent.
“These people are going to be taking care of us,” he said, “so they better be good.”
For years Binhammer, who has a doctorate in anatomy, has taught the anatomy course that all med students take at the beginning of their first year. Physical therapy and physician assistant students also receive anatomy training in the lab.
The course is tough and some students blow the initial anatomy test given within the first couple of weeks of med school.
“More than anything, it's a wake-up call, because the material is so dense and the time to learn it is so small,” said fourth-year med student Joel Passer, a 26-year-old Omahan.
Nobody coming into med school has experienced anything like it, said Faisal Ahmed, a 35-year-old Omahan and the fourth-year class president. They “get that first taste of how intense medical school can be,” Ahmed said.
Binhammer knows it's a stressful time. These are students who are used to getting A's. He doesn't worry much about their anxiety. They're talented and they'll make it, he reasons.
“They have to understand that they're going to be challenged,” he said, “and I think it's my job to start that process, not to namby-pamby.”
He breaks the tension with humor. In one class he dons shorts to demonstrate gaits and show what muscles control which movements.
Students like him so much that there's a UNMC cliché about him: “I've been hammered by Binhammer.”
The first-year med school class frequently produces a T-shirt of Binhammerisms or about being hammered by Binhammer. Binhammer said some students told him they walked into a T-shirt shop with a photo of the professor and the proprietor pulled from a drawer a Binhammer photo that had been left by a previous class.
The first-year class in 2009 made a T-shirt with Binhammer quotes on it such as: “I was grading your tests this weekend, and I found myself wanting to drink radiator fluid” and “Skeletal muscles get it up, and smooth muscles keep it up. Now you can think what you want, but I'm talking about the eyelid.”
He marvels at the way the body works, the construction of its parts, the way things connect and work together. There are about 100 billion neurons in the brain, for instance, and trillions of connections take place among them, he said.
“I joke about it a fair amount with the students,” he said. “I say 'See? She thought of everything.'”
This morning he is exposing more than 60 first-year med students to the brain. The students sit in four-person groups around steel carts that usually hold cadavers. Today each table has a model of a brain and a real brain preserved in a jar of fluid.
“We can get this lab started,” he tells the students. After some instructions, he reminds them it's vital that people in the community donate their bodies so exercises such as this one — examinations of real brains — can continue. “What I tell people is we'd love to have you after you're through with yourself.”
The students go after the brains with long toothpick-like tools. They probe and prod. Binhammer walks with zest from table to table. He behaves much younger than his age. But his gray hair is thinning, and despite rollerblading and exercising at night while watching “PBS NewsHour” and “CSI,” he has a bit of an old guy's gut. He wears a blue shirt and tie this day and navy khakis that just reach the backs of his scuffed brown shoes.
“OK, are you doing all right?” he asks the students at one table. “That's arachnoid,” he says, describing where they probed. “There's a molecular layer of fluid between there. ... She's in subarachnoid space now.”
Med students need to digest 250,000 bits of information through two years of med school, he said, and that's five times the information a chess grandmaster must command.
“It's kind of not possible, but it's still expected,” he says.
Students like the lab. They spend hours in lectures and studying, packing facts into their brains. It's great to be in a place where you can see and touch things.
Text about the brain, drawings of the brain and photos of the brain are on video screens around the room. One image is titled “Mapping of the Cat Brain,” with sections of the brain labeled “Inexorable fear of vacuum cleaners” and “Hatred of dogs.”
He shows a table of four where the superior cerebellar artery is.
“Cool,” says Andrea Langeveld, 26, of Orem, Utah.
“He's awesome,” says Tate Johnson, 24, of North Bend, Neb. “He has a very wide range of knowledge. It's very impressive.”
Life is never a burden for Binhammer.
“I don't think I have had a moment of depression in my life,” he said.
One of his three children, daughter Beth, said her father is fine with who he is and figures “life is here to be lived and enjoyed and immersed in, and you take the good with the bad and you keep going.”
He works. That's what he does, said Beth Binhammer, a psychotherapist in Madison, Wis. “He doesn't have a lot of existential angst.”
His wife, Anne, lived her final 17 years with compromised mobility from a heart attack and stroke. “And I said 'We're not gonna let this interfere,'” he said.
Binhammer bought the groceries, did the cooking and laundry, helped dress his wife and pushed her in her wheelchair to Jazz on the Green, symphonies, plays, Shakespeare on the Green.
She died in 2007. “It was a great love affair for 56 years,” he said.
Binhammer replaced grief by throwing dinner parties for eight. He planned the meals, figured out his guest list and did the cooking. He's still throwing them.
His daughter said his list of interests is long. He's a bird-watcher, goes to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts at Film Streams, gardens, writes poetry for birthdays and celebrations, has sung in choirs for decades and is a tenor at Presbyterian Church of the Cross.
His office contains photos of him sailing on the St. Lawrence River in the Northeast and carving abstract pieces out of walnut and cherry wood. One framed photo given to him by the physician assistant class of 1997 shows Binhammer sitting with a book in his lap, sleeping. “Well, I get a kick out of stuff like that,” he said.
Binhammer has taught anatomy to the majority of physicians practicing in Nebraska, said Gordon Todd, a professor in the department of genetics, cell biology and anatomy at UNMC.
When Jill Westcott, a fourth-year med student, mentioned Binhammer to her mother, Omaha physician Susan Westcott, her 54-year-old mother said Binhammer had taught her, too.
He has received plenty of awards from students, colleagues and administrators: Golden Apples, Outstanding Teaching Awards and others.
Binhammer doesn't expect this free year of teaching to be his only one. “I'm going to keep doing this till I can't,” he said.
Names of students don't come to mind as easily as they once did. If that happens with anatomy terms, he said, he'll have to give it up.
For now, he's capable and content, teaching med students for free.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1123, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/rickruggles