Losing your heart in Heidelberg, and then getting it back

I have lived in Heidelberg for many years and it is certainly a charming place. The Old Town is small enough that you can walk from one end to another in half an hour. Except during Heidelberger Herbst. Then the same walk takes about six hours. For those unfamiliar with Heidelberger Herbst, it means “Heidelberg Autumn” and is a quaint tradition dating back to the 1980s or farther, to the 70s or perhaps the Middle Ages. Over one long weekend 1 million visitors squeeze onto a street that fits about a thousand, to buy things you could get at any normal time without feeling like a cow being driven to the slaughterhouse. That’s the type of festival we have back home in Kansas, but we call it “Hamburger Herbst.”

Otherwise the city is truly charming. In Heidelberg you can fall in love, you can visit the Beer Museum (where they have over 100 kinds of beer) and try to break the current record (25 beers within two hours, depending on whether you count restroom breaks and emergency resuscitations). There is even a wonderful university clinic where you can get a heart transplant. Yes, visitors to Heidelberg can enjoy all of these experiences, although it’s best not to try to squeeze them all into one weekend.

Sometimes, though, it happens. Take the case of an acquaintance of mine who came through town on one of those bus tours where the bus leaves the highway, drives straight into the city center, stops at McDonald’s so that everyone can go to the restroom, then gives them just enough time to stroll two or three blocks to the nearest Starbuck’s, check their Facebook pages, and get back on the bus. Then it’s off to the next big city.

On that kind of schedule you have to squeeze in all the culture you can, even if you’re on your honeymoon. My friend and his new wife had just gotten married that afternoon, during a slow moment in the bus tour, and were walking from McDonald’s to Starbucks when they spotted the Beer Museum. A bus tour doesn’t give you much time to see a bit of authentic German culture, so when you see a Beer Museum, you have to take advantage of it.

My friend and his new wife hadn’t known each other all that long; in fact they’d just met the week before, sitting next to each other on the bus tour, so they still had plenty of things to learn about each other. My friend’s wife, for example, had never witnessed the bar trick my friend had perfected in college, which involves nine empty beer bottles, drained in the traditional way, which you then stack on your head in an inverted pyramidal structure. There’s only one method of stacking known to work, and you have to be seriously drunk to accomplish it.

That night my friend gave a magnificent performance, demonstrating his proficiency at one thing, at least, which is a good thing, because after nine beers the performance he attempted to give later, on his wedding night in a hotel room, was a complete disaster. His wife burst into tears and fled for the airport. She left Germany while he was sleeping it off, a nap that lasted about a day and a half, and when he finally woke up, she was gone for good. Never to be found again, at least not by him, since he hadn’t known her long enough to learn her maiden name, the name of her hometown, her cell phone number, or even her address on Facebook or Skype. Not only was his new bride gone, the bus had left town. It broke his heart. I mean this quite literally. He was taken to the Heart Clinic, where they gave him a transplant.

If you need a transplant or some other medical intervention while visiting Heidelberg, you’ll find the clinics across the river in Neuenheimer Feld. Actually the in is part of the name, in Neuenheimer Feld, so you probably have to say they are across the river in in Neuenheimer Feld. But this looks suspiciously like one of those situations in German where you need to change the case, probably to in einer Neuenheimer Feld, or in einer anderer Neuenheimer Feld, or in some other anderer Neuenheimer Feld, so my advice is just ignore the German case system. I have learned that you can get by perfectly well without it, if you mumble your articles. Due to the somewhat inflexible nature of the brain after adolescence, it takes a long time to learn all of these complicated rules, and then all you’d have to show for it would be a bunch of derdiedasderendessens. Instead you could have used that time volunteering at an NGO that rescues victims of genocide, or Ebola. Or you could organize the annual staff Christmas party.

But back to the issue of obtaining an organ transplant while visiting Heidelberg. Across the bridge you need only follow the signs to the proper clinic. You should decide which of your organs is causing the most pain, and that’s the clinic you should head for. For a new heart you go to the Heart Clinic, and kidneys are stored in the Kidney Clinic. This cuts down on a lot of mistakes that might occur during transplantation surgery, those stories you hear, you know? Where they cut off somebody’s healthy arm or leg, and leave the injured one hanging there? Cutting off the wrong appendage is bad, but other mistakes are really gruesome, for example, when they sew an arm back on the wrong side. You see a person like this and realize there is something odd about his arms, but that they’ve been stuck on backwards isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. You usually only notice when you try to shake hands.

It’s easy to criticize a surgeon who makes this type of mistake, but think of the skill that is actually required. While there’s surely some difference between a right-arm socket and a left-arm socket, would an amateur notice? After all, our bodies are not designed like IKEA bookshelves. You go trying to jam a right-side arm into a left-side socket, at some point you ought to recognize that something’s wrong. You can get the sucker in there, but you have to use a lot of WD40 and then whack the arm with a hammer a few times and apply a lot of duct tape to keep the thing on.

Even worse than having one of your arms sewn on backwards is receiving the wrong arm entirely. I read of such a case recently. A man recently lost his arm out in the desert somewhere and they reattached it in a field hospital. After two months they took off the cast, and on his good left arm there were tattoos starting on the shoulder and going all the way down the arm, including tattoos across his knuckles. The sewn-on arm was a foot shorter, with nails painted bright pink and a little girl’s ring that they had tried to get off but couldn’t, at least not under his current medical plan. Later the biggest question was where they found a fresh arm like that, in the middle of the desert.

Now such mistakes rarely happen in Heidelberg; this university clinic has never put a right arm on the left side, or vice versa, respectively. There’s a good reason: long ago they decided to keep all the transplantation centers entirely separate. The kidneys are in a different building than the livers. The hearts are in a different clinic than the brains. There are different clinics for your right side and your left side: a clinic for right arms and another for left arms, more for right legs and left legs, left eyeballs and right eyeballs, etc. Unfortunately some of the clinics for the right side are on the left side of the road, or vice versa when you’re coming from the other direction, so you need to follow the signs. You’ll see, “RIGHT LEFT ARM CLINIC” on a sign that is, appropriately, shaped like an arm, pointing right, and if you’re coming the other direction you’ll see the arm from the other side, so it’s pointing left and it says “RIGHT RIGHT ARM CLINIC.” Most people head for that one. They certainly don’t want the “WRONG RIGHT ARM CLINIC,” or the “RIGHT WRONG ARM CLINIC,” which are in an entirely different part of town.

The system works wonderfully until you get to an organ such as the heart or brain, which most people only have one copy of, and then the university has the dilemma of deciding whether the clinic gets grouped with the right or left, at which point politics and special interests may come into play. Years ago the rightists jumped in to lay claim on the heart. In making the pitch, a representative said the following:

First of all, a heart is red, and red is the color of the right, as is obvious from the fact that Americans place their right hands on their hearts when Pledging Allegiance to the flag. For Americans, the heart is a sacred tradition. Their mothers had hearts, and you can’t get much more sacred than your mother, I don’t care what religion you belong to. In some cultures this affection extends to mothers-in-law, which means that a person regards his (or her) mother-in-law as more sacred than his or her wife or husband, respectively. Probably in France, for example. In France it could well be an ancient tradition to sleep with your mother-in-law. There are also cannibalistic societies that celebrate funerals by eating the heart of the person who died. I have no direct evidence of this in France, but I wouldn’t rule it out, given other things that the French are known to eat, including horseflesh, which is sold under the generic term “beef”.

In fact the administrator was misquoting celebrated French sociologist Simon Saucisson, who had first noted the overlap of the two trends in New Guinea. It could not be an accident, said Saucisson, that cannibalism and mother-in-law reverence showed such an overlapping pattern among ancient tribes. In some cases the traditions had become confused, so aboriginals began eating the hearts of their mother-in-laws, usually at the funeral, but sometimes a few minutes before. Saucisson invented the technical term “mangeurs du coeur de la belle-mère” that is now commonly used to classify these cultures in a larger social matrix.

Simon Saucisson comments: “Members of these cultures typically regard mothers-in-law as goddesses and therefore eat their hearts, so that you can develop an intimate relationship with the goddess as she passes through your digestive tract. The heart of your average mother-in-law will feed a normal-sized family, but in a tribe there aren’t that many mothers-in-law to begin with, and you go through them pretty fast. So you need to supplement your diet with other things, as well. For example, crickets.”

Since the right got the heart, the brain automatically went to the left, which explains a lot about the current political climate.

Published by


I am a science writer at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, author of fiction and popular science books, an artist, and a professional musician who performs on the viola da gamba and Medieval and Renaissance stringed instruments. I edit manuscripts of all types and teach the full range of scientific communication skills. I am doing theoretical work in this subject - see for example https://goodsciencewriting.wordpress.com/2018/03/11/ghosts-models-and-meaning-in-science/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.