Lessons in death: Cancer patient's last wish fulfilled

May 28, 2012 5:47:10 AM PDT
We have an update to a story we have been following about Rob Steffens, the 57-year-old Huntsville man suffering from liver cancer and donating his body to science.

Steffens died recently and his body is now at Sam Houston State University preparing to be studied.

We met Steffens two months ago.

"Some days it's worse. Some days it's better," he told us. "There have been some days I can't get out of this chair."

He was desperately struggling to survive liver cancer.

"Are you afraid to die?" we asked him

"No, I'm not," he said. "But when it comes down to the nitty gritty, I'll probably fight not to see it so quick."

Well, eventually it did come down to the nitty gritty. Each visit became painfully more difficult for him, his body slowly withering away.

Mozart provided some comfort, but every day brought a new fight to stay alive, until the fight was finally over.

When Steffens died, there was no funeral. There is no gravesite or headstone, but there is a lasting memory of this extraordinary man.

At only 57 years old, he never accumulated much in riches or accolades, but what he does leave will benefit mankind for decades to come.

"His contribution to us is invaluable," said Dr. Joan Bytheway.

Bytheway runs one of the most respected forensics labs -- or body farms -- in the country at SHSU. This is where Steffens' body will be studied, dissected, and laid in a field to rot.

"He's a great candidate for this study because you want to start with a fresh subject," Bytheway said. "We monitor the decomposition process. Every 15 minutes, we capture a picture of the decomposition process."

The research could eventually save lives and help solve crimes.

"One of my cousins was murdered when I was younger and the case was never closed," SHSU graduate student Angela Rippley told us.

A cold case involving family is the reason Rippley is studying forensics. She visited with Steffens before his death.

"He was amazing," she said. "He had the best stories I have ever heard in my life."

And now Rippley and other students will study Steffens' body as it decomposes.

"I'll be sad when we start, but I know that he wanted to help people, so we'll try to push past those emotions," Rippley said.

"This research needs to be done for the betterment of society, so you try to look past that, push past your human emotions and look toward the future," said SHSU forensics student Kevin Ryan Derr, who was also able to meet Steffens when he was alive. "This is what he wanted."

"Here we have someone who my students got to meet, that is a living person, part of mankind," Bytheway said. "So, they are seeing a living side and they will see the skeletal remains and they will be able to handle those with respect because this was a living person and that's a very valuable lesson."

Steffens was always about leaving "lessons" and living a fulfilled life. He was always a risk taker. In fact, he jumped nearly a thousand times from a plane, once even from 22,000 feet. He leaves a legacy of love for life -- and death.

Even in dying, Steffens told us he was happy. And no doubt, he is still happy "on the other side," as he put it.

His body is now in a freezer, but in the next couple of weeks it will be placed in a field to decompose and to be studied, fulfilling his last wish.


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