Sunday, July 28, 2013

How We Kill...


Welcome to the great state of Texas! You remember Texas – our friends out west grappling with an onslaught of leprosy from feasting on armadillos (June's Critters and Contagion)… Well, last month, Texas carried out its five hundredth execution. And that’s just since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated after a brief hiatus. Who knows how many they’ve strung up over the last hundred years for such crimes as cow tipping and death by cactus. Texas is rough.

But Texas is not alone. There have been eighteen executions in the US just this year (although almost half of these were in the Lone Star State) and capital punishment is alive and well in thirty-six out of fifty states. We can thank our friends across the pond. 

The death penalty came ashore with the pilgrims and the first documented execution was Captain George Kendall's. A member of the Jamestown Colony in Virginia, Kendall was convicted of spying for Spain and was subsequently put to death in 1608. By 1612, Virginia’s governor was so enamored of the practice that he enacted the Divine, Moral and Martial Laws, which allowed him to bump off any pilgrim caught committing the grievous crime of killing a chicken or stealing a grape. (And yet their state slogan is “Virginia is for lovers...” Curious.)

Now, here we are, four hundred years later, and although execution is typically reserved for the most heinous crimes, it is still active in the majority of states. And how do we kill our criminals? Let’s take a look.

The most popular method is lethal injection. It was first adopted in Oklahoma in 1977 and the first to be tied to the gurney was a Mr. Brooks in 1982. Strapping down the criminal is just the first step. Two IVs are then started (one’s a backup; just in case) and a dose of sodium thiopental is given, which puts the person to sleep. Once resting comfortably, the prisoner is given a cocktail of pavulon and pancuronium bromide, which causes paralysis. Since inhalation is impossible without the use of the intercostal muscles, breathing is no longer an option. And to cap off the exercise, a bit of potassium chloride is administered, which stops the heart. Done.

And how many people have been “put to sleep” as they say in the veterinary biz? Over eleven hundred since 1976.

The next method (we’re going in order of popularity here) is electrocution. The electric chair was born out of a need for a more humane form of execution than the old “let ‘em swing” method. The first chair was constructed way back in 1888 and a Mr. Kemmler broke it in two years later. Typically, the person is shaved and then strapped to the chair. A large metal electrode is attached to the scalp over a saline-moistened sponge. This improves conductivity (although if the sponge is too wet, you risk short-circuiting the machine). A second electrode is attached to the leg and the person is then zapped with up to two thousand volts. After the first shock, the pulse is checked. If the heart is still beating, another shock is given. The nastiest aspects of electrocution (aside from death) are the side effects: electrocution brings out the worst in people – I’m talkin’ feces, vomit, and urine. To make matters worse, the limbs can contract with such force as to cause dislocations and fractures. It’s not a pretty scene, but I wonder how it compares to what the criminal doled out to his victim.

On to the next method. In 1924, a Mr. Jon was the first to be put to death via cyanide gas and the age of the gas chamber was born. Nevada was the first to use it, although their initial attempt was an embarrassing failure. They tried pumping the gas into Jon’s cell while he slept, but the gas escaped and Jon dreamt on. So they hastily constructed a special chamber, which has been in use ever since. Once again, the person is strapped to a chair (I see a pattern here). Beneath the chair rests a bucket of sulfuric acid. At the signal, a lever is pulled, which drops crystals of sodium cyanide into the bucket, and through the miracle of chemistry, hydrogen cyanide is created. The prisoner is instructed to breathe deeply (no lie!) so that death comes quickly, although most tend to hold their breath and fight the chair. There’s a specialized stethoscope attached to the patient through which a doctor outside the chamber can listen to the heart. When the procedure is over, the room is ventilated and the corpse sprayed down with ammonia, which neutralizes any remaining cyanide. Before the body is removed, the orderlies are instructed to “ruffle the victim’s hair” in order to release any trapped gas (they actually have a “how-to” manual).

The final two methods are from a bygone era: firing squad and hanging, although they’re still on the books in several states. Delaware, New Hampshire, and Washington still kill by hanging (although lethal injection is the primary method) and you can choose the firing squad in Oklahoma (and in Utah), but only in cases where lethal injection and electrocution are deemed unconstitutional (which is ironic, since it was the Okies who first introduced lethal injection, anyway).

Perhaps we should return to that old French favorite, the guillotine. Named after Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin (the “e” was added later), the contraption was invented by the kind doctor out of a desire for a more humane means of capital punishment that could serve all of humanity. Prior to its invention, the poor were usually “quartered” (for you non-Frenchies, that’s a fancy term for having your limbs torn from your body). Hanging and beheading were reserved for the wealthy.

The first to benefit from Dr. Guillotin’s creativity was a Monsieur Pelletie. On April 25, 1792, his head was the first to tumble (thus, the saying, “Heads will roll”). Thousands would follow in what became festive public events that drew huge crowds. Sadly, this fine custom came to an end – but not until 1977.

As you can see, hundreds of years’ worth of blood, sweat, and ghoulish invention have gone into devising ways to kill, and capital punishment continues to be a controversial subject in the US and abroad. If forced to choose, I’d take the easy route: death by chocolate.

Here's an interesting op-ed from The Times on the status of the death penalty in America.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Unseen

Late this afternoon, I found another tick. I’ve been plucking the little bastards off me for the past twenty-four hours, ever since I came in from the field. I write this not from the cozy comfort of my home in Cocoa, but from just outside Tomoka State Park. Located on the east coast of Florida and the site of my friend, Jon’s, archaeological field school, the park contains numerous sand and shell mounds among which Native Americans lived thousands of years ago. A professor at Eastern Kentucky, Jon is here to investigate the mounds’ histories and to train the next generation of archaeologists. Their first lesson in digging: wear plenty of bug repellent.
(Right: Jon Endonino, me, and Kevin Gidusko)

It’s summer in Florida, which means three things: heat, humidity, and a plethora of insects. The woods of Tomoka host the usual buggy assemblage - spiders, mosquitos, and ticks galore. And it seems no matter how much precaution I take, I return to the hotel crawling with hitchhikers. I really hate the little f#ckers.

It makes me wonder how the natives survived. How did they make it through endless summers while infested with these nasty creatures? They were obviously a hardier breed than us, what with our air conditioning and screened porches.

But at least I can see and feel the ticks, for it turns out our bodies play host to myriad unseen creatures. Let’s talk bacteria.

There are about two hundred different species of bacteria living on or within our bodies at any given moment. They colonize our skin, our orifices, and the different tracts of our bodies; those systems connected to the outer world via said orifices (think digestive and respiratory). In fact, bacteria outnumber our cells ten to one! And I thought a few ticks were bad.

Here are just a few of the bacteria that reside within various parts of your body: in your nose, corynebacteria mix and mingle; in your throat, Neisseria; your colon houses the enterics; and in your vagina (if you have one), reside the lactobacilli - the same genus used in cheese and yogurt (bet you'll never look at a cup of Yoplait the same again...).

This entire assemblage is known as the microbiota and it’s become a really hot topic among biologists, geneticists, and just about every nerdy “–ist” in science. It’s the new frontier in biological research and there are a particular set of science cowboys leading the charge.

The Human Microbiome Project (HMP), which is hosted by the National Institutes of Health, has set out to catalog the vast microbial communities each of us houses and to analyze the roles these critters play in our daily life and health. The HMP is taking a multipronged approach. It intends to not only identify and characterize the biome; it also hopes to sequence their genes in order to develop research strategies for investigating each and every species, all in hopes of better understanding the role the biome plays in maintaining health and preventing disease.

The majority of our bacteria are necessary for survival. As long as they stick to their assigned location and maintain their proper proportions, things tend to function normally. It’s when they go roaming or their numbers fluctuate dramatically that problems ensue.

For example, Escherichia coli (E. coli) is a type of bacteria that lives in your intestines. However, some types of E. coli, when ingested via contaminated food or water, can cause severe and sometimes deadly diarrhea. This is particularly troublesome in developing countries lacking proper sanitation (aka, a large chunk of the Third World). 

Streptococcus is a bacterium often found on the skin or in the throat and in most cases causes no problems. However, pregnant women who are vaginally or rectally colonized (yes, I just used the term “rectally colonized”) by group B streptococcus can pass it on to their newborns during delivery. This puts the babes at risk for developing meningitis, pneumonia, and septicemia. Sadly, these bacteria are one of the most common infectious causes of neonatal death.

On a positive note, studies of the microbiota can lead to fame and fortune. Just ask Barry Marshall and Robin Warren. In 2005, they earned a Nobel Prize for their discovery that peptic ulcers, previously attributed to stress and lifestyle, are actually caused by Helicobacter pylori, which commonly colonize the stomach, but wreak havoc within certain individuals. I hope the prize winners celebrated over a giant greasy pizza.

If there’s one takeaway from today’s blog, it’s that our bodies are so much more than meets the eye. They are teeming with life all their own; a world we cannot see but on which we depend. And for the most part, these bacteria are our friends.

But keep your fingers out of your orifices and your hands clean, for bacteria are fine when they stay put, but can raise hell if they go awanderin’.

To learn more about how our microbiota are affected by modern culture, pick up this great book by Rob Dunn. Very exciting!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Dead and Buried

Last weekend, I attended a funeral. I’m one of those strange individuals who actually enjoys them. At funerals I can indulge my fascination with death, have the opportunity to view a corpse (which I also find thrilling), and witness the careful orchestration of remembrance. To me, these ceremonies are one of the most interesting aspects of culture. 

I attended my first funeral while in grade school, at a time when I was just beginning to grapple with the concept of death. The service made a profound impression on me. Chuck was a beautiful boy in my sixth grade class and the focus of an intense crush. We had just moved beyond gawking at each other over lunch and had progressed to the point of light conversation when he decided to go hunting with a friend. His friend tripped while carrying a shotgun, the gun discharged, and Chuck was killed instantly. I can still picture him in his casket. His dark suit couldn’t hide the bulky dressing used to fill the gaping wound in his chest. I remember his blond hair.

Funerals have deep roots in human culture. For thousands of years, humans have celebrated death in some form or another. Even our cousins, the Neanderthals, incorporated ceremony into the disposal of the dead; at least, according to researchers at the Spanish site of  Sima de las Palomas, where they’ve excavated the remains of at least six individuals who appear to have been intentionally interred.

But does interment mean an actual funeral took place? That's where mortuary analysis comes in. By examining the myriad and often creative ways humans dispose of the dead, we can infer meaning behind such practices. First, we look at the evidence.
How is the body prepared? How is it positioned in the ground? What is included in the grave (grave goods)? And who is buried next to whom? These are some of the questions that provide the scaffolding on which we recreate burial rituals of the past. 

Most archaeologists contend that intentional burial implies some form of ceremony. This is a logical assumption, especially when there are associated grave goods, the body has been treated or manipulated in some manner, and there are obvious patterns to the interments.

Interment, however, doesn’t necessarily require ceremony, ritual, or even a belief in an afterlife. At its most basic, it’s an economical means of disposing of a smelly corpse.

But as our brains evolved and our cortexes expanded, our cognition developed beyond mere self-awareness. With abstract thought came the ability to imagine, ponder, and reflect. Our large brains enabled us to see beyond the here and now and ask questions. Who are we? Where did we come from? And what happens to us when we die?

These questions needed answers. With imagination came the ability to conjure explanations for what we experience in life and what we just might experience in death.

I believe the concept of an afterlife began as a simple explanation for that most vexing of questions: where do we go when we die?

If you’ve ever watched someone die, you can’t help but wonder what is happening to them as they move through the process. I’m not talking about the physiology of death: the cessation of pulse, circulation, and breath.

I’m talking about the more ephemeral aspects of a person. Their personality, their joys, their sorrows; everything that made that person who they were in life. Where does that go? Most people refuse to accept that the attributes that make each of us unique are simply based on the wiring of our brains, and when the wires stop transmitting, the person ceases to exist. Which may explain the concept of the soul.

Many religions treat death as a journey - to another place, another realm, sometimes even to a new and better life (depending on how well you behaved in the last one). And once people started viewing death as a journey, the next logical step was to prepare the deceased for the trip. Thus, adorning the body, gathering belongings, providing food, and in extreme cases, sacrificing individuals to accompany the dead to the other side.

Of course if you’re an atheist like me, dead is dead. End of story. (I hope I’m right: I would hate to come back as a dung beetle.)

So I attend funerals not for their spiritual or religious meaning, but with the curiosity of an anthropologist. But I also attend so that I can grieve and say goodbye, which is really what funerals are all about.

Even us nonbelievers appreciate a good sendoff.

Here's an intense read on the subject of mortuary analysis co-edited by one of the founders of American bioarchaeology, Jane Buikstra.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Hot and Cold

America experienced a tragedy this week. No, it wasn’t another school shooting, although it seems we can’t go a day without some crazed individual exorcising his demons by inflicting mass casualties. This tragedy occurred when nineteen firefighters lost their lives battling a wildfire in Arizona. The wind shifted and they were gone.

Firefighter deaths are nothing new. Each year, the U.S. Fire Administration produces grim statistics that track the nature of line-of-duty deaths. Most of these deaths are not caused by fire; burns and suffocation make up a small percentage of firefighter fatalities. The majority are cardiac related, which is not surprising. Responding to emergency calls is incredibly stressful. For thirteen years I was jolted awake every third night of my life to answer calls throughout the city of Orlando. And let me tell you, going from zero to sixty when you’re fast asleep is no picnic. Eventually you become conditioned, but it still takes its toll.

Fighting a building fire is also incredibly stressful. But wildfires make building fires seem like child’s play. For one thing, you’re working outside in the heat, usually in the middle of summer when these fires are most active. And compared to the vastness of a forest, firefighters are simply specks on the landscape. We can only imagine how hard the members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were working when they were overcome.

As an Orlando firefighter, I fought few wildfires. Most of the city has been paved over, so wildfires are few and far between. But it only takes one to realize they truly suck. With building fires, you can apply aggressive tactics to bring them quickly under control. With wildfires, it’s you against Mother Nature. And we all know how hard it is to control a female. Any female.

Fortunately (for them), firefighters are usually on the treating end of fire injuries and deaths. As a paramedic, I treated some horrific burns. From the young man who accidently doused himself with gasoline then walked too close to an acetylene torch, to a suicidal HIV patient who cut his wrists and then lit himself off, the burned patients from my past flash before me whenever I hear about a death by fire. They’re not pretty.

As homeotherms (nerd-speak for warm blooded creatures), we rely on heat to maintain our body’s metabolism. But it’s a fine line between too much and too little. The average core temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s 37 for those who uses the Celsius scale: aka, the rest of the world). Temperature typically fluctuates about two degrees throughout the day, and age plays a role, with the elderly typically running about a degree cooler than their younger cohorts.

But what happens when temperature runs amuck? As you shall see, either extreme can spell death.

Thermoregulation - the ability to maintain a constant body temperature – begins in the brain (which is ironic, since it’s the first organ to suffer when our temperatures spike). The hypothalamus, considered the body’s thermostat, is made up of a cluster of neurons that are highly sensitive to changes in temperature, which it gauges via receptors in the skin and mucous membranes (cool video!). When the core temp plunges, it kicks the body into gear in an effort to produce heat. Thus, your muscles contract involuntarily (shivering) and your body responds behaviorally – by rubbing your hands, moving your feet, and seeking an external heat source. Responses can also be gradual, as when summer wanes to fall. The hypothalamus triggers the release of hormones, which over time increase metabolism, subsequently increasing the amount of heat produced by the body.

Should these mechanisms fail or be unable to compensate (as when you’re plunged into freezing water) hypothermia can set in quickly and consciousness is lost within fifteen minutes. As the core temperature dips below 95 degrees F, the body’s regulatory systems cannot keep up and the internal organs pay the price. The circulatory and nervous systems quickly fail and the body eventurally expires.

At the opposite extreme, as in fever, that same thermostat in your head triggers dilation of the vessels beneath the skin (thus the flushed face of a febrile child) and sweating intensifies. Under extreme conditions, say running in the summertime heat, cramps can set in, especially in the legs. This can progress to heat exhaustion, which is accompanied by pale, moist skin, nausea, and vomiting. If left unchecked (body temp above 106 degrees), heat stroke ensues leading to seizures, coma, and eventual death.

Every moment, your body is working; working to keep you warm, working to keep you cool. It’s the body's innate ability to self-regulate that allows humans to occupy some of the harshest regions on Earth, like the Chukchi of Siberia or the Basarwa of the Kalahari.

But those brave men who died last Sunday are a reminder of the fragility of our bodies and how susceptible they are to the brutal force of fire. For all it took was a change in the wind and a few fleeting moments. And a week later, America still mourns.

 In Memory
Andrew Ashcraft, 29
Robert Caldwell, 23
Travis Carter, 31
Dustin Deford, 24
Christopher MacKenzie, 30
Eric Marsh, 43
Grant McKee, 21
Sean Misner, 26
Scott Norris, 28
Wade Parker, 22
John Percin, 24
Anthony Rose, 23
Jesse Steed, 36
Joe Thurston, 32
Travis Turbyfill, 27
William Warneke, 25
Clayton Whitted, 28
Kevin Woyjeck, 21
Garret Zuppiger, 27