Paving the road to nowhere, one word at a time.

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Location: Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

American born, living in Mexico since 1992.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Body, Heal Thyself

Most machinery cannot fix itself when something breaks, like a car or a toaster or a trash compactor or a computer or even a bicycle. Such machines are designed and built to operate under certain power requirements such as electricity or combustion created by fuel and fire or even human movement. The best that some of these machines can do is to diagnose themselves, such as through warning lights or even messages on monitors that alert anyone that cares about a potential problem or imminent failure. Often, there is no warning for such events, nor is there a mode of diagnosis. Most machines are, at some point, entirely dependent on human beings in some capacity.

The human body is also a machine, but unlike other types of machines, it often has the capacity to fix itself. The main warning device employed by the machine that is the human body, is pain. Pain signifies that there is a problem. When one smashes one’s thumb with the inaccurate strike of a hammer, for example, pain dictates that the thumb has been injured and such pain often sends a message to the memory banks of the carbon-based, body-controlling computer that we call a brain. The brain then instructs the arm not to swing a hammer so close to the thumb. If we’re lucky, the arm complies.

The injured thumb almost always heals, by itself, unless you happen to own a very large hammer. Take even a small hammer to your computer keyboard and you’re probably going to have to buy a new one. It certainly isn’t going to fix itself. The luckiest you’ll get is if, by chance, you can repair it yourself. Or else, you’ll have to take it to someone who can. But it won’t fix itself, regardless. Sometimes, the human body is, in fact, self-repairing.

* * * *

When I hobbled into the Perico a couple of weeks ago, cane-dependant, Scott was there and asked me about the leg. I told him that it pretty much constantly hurt and that perhaps the battery of tests ordered by the doctor would reveal why. I told him that I awoke one morning and there it was, pain. I had no reason for it nor any explanation, only vague notions of what it could be. Then Scott asked me about the most painful thing, physically, that I had ever endured.

"Pneumothorax," I told him, not needing to think about it. When I was perhaps twenty or twenty-one, one morning while filing away test data I had the most intense pain, in my chest, that I’ve ever experienced. I didn’t know what it was – a heart attack? I could barely breath. Somehow I transported myself down the street to the company clinic where they x-rayed my chest, and I stayed down on my back on a bed while they developed the film. Within a half-hour, the pain was completely gone, as quickly as it came. I offered no explanation nor was I given one.

It wasn’t until later that I realized that the attendants at that clinic were not very good at reading x-rays.

The second occurrence was much milder and didn’t go away for a couple of days. I didn’t bother going to the doctor until many months later, when it happened again while I suffered from a nasty cold. I went to my regular physician because I suspected it could be pleurisy. Again my regular physician ordered a x-ray, which I brought back for him to read. He came out of the reading room and told me I needed an ambulance. I actually laughed.

I drove myself to the hospital and met a doctor of internal medicine, a short man with curly hair from the East Coast and a very relaxed and witty sense of humor. In the emergency room I explained what I had been through over the last year and he diagnosed me with spontaneous pneumothorax. "It’s rare, but it happens sometimes with tall thin guys. This is your second documented occurrence. On the third documented occurrence we have no choice; we have to operate. It’s painful. We cut and spread your ribcage and take out your lung and irritate the lining, which makes the scar tissue necessary to keep it from collapsing again."

It certainly didn’t sound promising. He continued, "But what we’ve found is that with every occurrence, your lung collapses less and less, because scar tissue is made with each collapse, and as you’ve noticed, each collapse is less and less profound. There’s a good chance, presuming that you can deal with the pain, that we won’t have to operate. If it collapses any more than it is right now, you need to get in here. If it doesn’t, you won’t have this issue in a couple of years."

That doctor was right. That part of this machine of mine took care of itself.

* * * *

I related the second-most intense pain I ever experienced to Scott over yet another beer that afternoon in the Perico. It was when I shattered my heel bone while playing baseball. But again, it was a success story involving a human machine. And again, it was a damned good doctor who allowed that to happen.

It took eighteen hours from when it happened until I was actually at a specialist in the United States of America, x-rays in hand. The x-ray technician, upon viewing my film, had asked my why I wasn’t crying. I didn’t know how to answer him. All I could think about was how much worse it was to have a collapsed lung. The foot specialist ordered an ultrasound, which I took the next day. I showed up back at his office with the results.

"Well, let me tell you, in the old days there would be no question," said the young man – perhaps a decade younger than myself – telling me this as he read my images. "The old procedure under any circumstances would be to open up the foot and scrape out all of the bone fragments and mold them together with a special epoxy to make another heel bone. Then we would fuse it back up there where your old one was. In your case, you didn’t blow it out to one side or another; but rather, the fragments are still fairly symmetrical. I’m inclined to put you in a cast and allow the bone fragments to fuse on their own. We’ve found this to be successful in cases like yours."

"Will I walk normally?"

"Yes. You won’t be able to run marathons and no more baseball, but the only effect you’ll notice after a few years is arthritis, and you’ll probably have a few wayward bone fragments working their way out of your foot."

It took six months to get to the point where all I needed was a cane, and then a few weeks after that, I was fine. I lack some mobility, and experience slight arthritis, but that doctor was also right about that part of my machine. Basically, it healed itself in the cast. Stanford University can be proud of him. I am proud of Stanford University.

* * * *

When I awoke with that pain in my leg, and it didn’t go away after a few weeks, and there was no good reason for having it that I could think of, I went to a doctor. I tried to take their tests, but fate did not cooperate. I figured I would take those tests this week, now that I know what I’m up against. Then something else happened.

I awoke the other morning, and like any morning I put both feet on the ground and reached for my robe. Then I noticed something. The pain was gone. I went downstairs and made a cup of coffee and waited for it to return, but it didn’t. And it hasn’t. It’s as if nothing happened at all. I’ll be damned if I can figure it out.

Understanding that I risk the wrath of friends and family members, the tests will remain on hold for a while. Those papers have no expiration date. Besides, what’s a Doppler ultrasound going to find now? Blood tests? Urinalysis? Chest x-ray? Nothing more than the fact that, apparently and inexplicably, my machine has fixed itself. That, and a slight iron deficiency. And a warning that if I don’t quit smoking I run the risk of cancer and heart disease and several other dangerous and harmful effects on my machine.

I walked to the local market noting the chill here in Baja that seems to have settled in for a while. I bought two packages of unfiltered cigarettes so that just in case I get that chest x-ray taken at some point, they’ll have a reason to lecture me. Even the store clerk noticed me walking without a cane. Weeks ago when I first appeared with the cane he had asked me if I had fallen. It made me feel old.

"Feeling better?" he said to me in Spanish.

"Like new," I said. "The human body is a remarkable machine."

I walked back home slowly and completely free of pain, careful to avoid the uneven concrete lest I fall and need that damned cane again.


Blogger tijuanagringo said...

I am so relieved you are feeling better. Hope this trend continues. Nice little piece you told us here. Thanks.

7:20 PM, January 28, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

must be nice my tendanitest still kills me i hope i have the same luck

10:42 PM, January 28, 2010  
Blogger EmJay said...


9:53 PM, March 12, 2010  

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