Sunday, May 26, 2013

Losin' It

 It’s been a hellacious week. Monday I found out my job will disappear in October. My immediate reaction? Shiiiiiit!!!!! But once I gathered myself together, I started planning.

The loss of my job means the loss of my house. Like many homeowners across America, I’m still underwater on my mortgage, which means selling is not an option. The inability to sell means the loss of my down payment. Fortunately, I still have a nest egg, part of which I lost when the economy went to hell, but a goodly chunk remains.

Because my week has been a mad scramble, I was unable to prepare a proper post, so I beg your forgiveness. But coming to terms with my current roster of losses made me reflect on the losses we experience as we age. Here’s a brief summary.

It starts with your belly button. When you’re born, the doc cuts the umbilical cord, leaving you with a diminutive stump that falls off after a few weeks. I remember when my brother lost his unsightly little nub. Oh, the horror! The loss continues with your teeth. Those tiny deciduous teeth you sprout as a toddler are eventually shoved out of your head to make room for the permanent dentition. If not, you’d be severely challenged. Our larger permanent teeth enable us to bite, tear, and chew enough food to sustain our adult bodies, which would be impossible for our deciduous ones. Beside, you’d look pretty freakish with baby teeth.

The loss increases with age, especially in our skeletons. We lose bone density, predisposing us to fractures; we lose cartilage in our joints, ushering in arthritis; we lose vision as our lenses change and cataracts creep in; we lose our teeth, if we’re not careful about oral hygiene; and we lose our mental clarity, as the synapses in our brains slow down and misfire.

And don’t even get me started on appearance. Our tissues lose their elasticity, our skin loses its firmness, our teeth lose their brightness, our hair loses its luster, and our muscles lose their strength.

Life is about loss. Health is about trying to minimize that loss. It’s about beating back the forces of aging: gravity, inertia, stiffness, and weathering.

To put it all in perspective, I have much to be thankful for. Although fifty is creeping onto the horizon, I can still perform the same workouts I did as a firefighter in my twenties. Although I’ve required some general maintenance through the years, the old body is hanging in there and I’m sure it will see me through to a new job.

So tune in next week and I promise to have something enlightening to share. In the meantime, do what you can to minimize loss and keep what loss you experience in perspective. Remember… if you have your health, you have everything.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Ode to the Leech

Here’s a newsflash: Leeches are making a comeback!

Yes, it’s true. Our little bloodsucking friend, banished from modern medicine for almost a century, has made a resurgence within the medical community. That age-old practice of leeching has swung back en vogue and its contribution to patient care and disease prevention is on the rise. So let’s take a closer look at these little suckers (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

At what point in our evolutionary history did our bloodsucking buddy make its first appearance?

It turns out leeches evolved from harmless freshwater worms, as evidenced from their DNA, as well as certain physical traits they share. They, like their wormy relatives, sport a sucker at the base of their tails that enables them to trundle along, inchworm fashion, as they make their way across the landscape or traverse potential hosts. 

There are between seven hundred and one thousand species of leeches on the planet. The one most commonly used in medicine is aptly named Hirudo medicinalis.Many leeches live in water environments, both marine and estuarine, where they latch onto fish, thereby securing dinner as well as transportation. Those that scoot about on land prefer moist environments and are masters at camouflage, blending in with their surroundings as they search out their next meal. Not all of them feed on blood. Some prefer insects, mollusks, and even their humble cousin, the earthworm. Some are happy simply munching on surrounding ground litter. The bloodsuckers give them all a bad name.

I know what you’re wondering… how do leeches make more leeches? It turns out leech sex is quite exotic. Many species are hermaphroditic, meaning they possess both male and female reproductive organs.  Their procreative inventory includes several pairs of testes, one pair of ovaries, and, for those that engage in sex, a single orifice through which all the action takes place. They cuddle up to each other, either face to face or face to tail (who would have guessed they know about the “69” position?), and some don’t cuddle at all; they simply deposit their sperm on their partner, which then dissolves a small portion of skin, allowing the sperm to enter the mate’s body. Once inside, the sperm migrate to the ovaries, where they perform their magic.

So what do these little dudes have to do with the human body? A lot, it turns out, for they possess special gifts that only leeches can bestow upon needy patients. 

Their application in medicine goes back over four thousand years, but they enjoyed their heyday in the 1st century and were employed for a range of issues, from fevers to farting. Galen, one of the earliest physicians, promoted the use of leeches to restore the “humors” of the body. 

Practitioners achieved this through bloodletting: a technique of “bleeding” a patient to remove illness or impurities from the body. The leeches would be applied and would go to town on their host. And as it turns out, they’re quite efficient. A leech can consume its weight in blood in a mere fifteen minutes! Pretty impressive. If given the time and an accommodating host, leeches can consume up to eight times their own body weight, and when full, they simply detach from their host and roll off. 

The use of leeches was such a booming industry in France that over forty million were imported during the late 1800s. In fact, recently a French company was the first to request and receive FDA approval to market leeches for medicinal use. Let’s face it, the French are simply enamored of the leech. 

Thanks to a dedicated cadre of leech scientists, we now know more about their physiology and their potential application in modern medicine. It turns out leech saliva has magical properties. It contains natural anesthetics that help dull pain at the site of attachment, which comes in handy, for leeches are now being utilized to drain blood from swollen appendages following trauma and surgery. Leech saliva also dilates blood vessels, thus increasing blood flow to the site, which promotes healing. And finally, leech spit contains hirudin, which inhibits blood from clotting. This anticlotting property is now advancing the use of leeches on patients receiving grafts and reattached appendages. 

For example, say you’re slicing your morning bagel and accidentally lop off a finger. Once you arrive at the hospital and are whisked to surgery, the doctor reattaches the digit and you’re wheeled into the recovery room. When you wake up, you look down to find a couple of chubby leeches happily affixed to your wounded hand. You watch as their bodies engorge to near-bursting before they detach and roll off.

Don’t panic! These guys are doing what they do best. By applying leeches to newly grafted body parts, the leech’s saliva keeps blood flowing to the area, thus promoting the growth of new vessels and enhancing circulation.

So let’s give the leech a little respect. It just goes to show that we can find a true friend and ally among even our most humble relatives.

And now, for your viewing pleasure, witness LEECHES IN ACTION (click here)!!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Art of Man

It  must be hard to be a man, especially in America, where “maleness” is defined by toughness, stoicism, and the ability to mask emotions. Having worked with firefighters for over a decade, I witnessed maleness on a grand scale. 

But firefighters are a curious mix of machismo and compassion, for nowhere else do you have ultra-masculine males tasked with caring for complete strangers. I’ve seen grown men shift from verbal combat at the station to weeping over the death of a child alongside the interstate, all within a matter of moments. They’re truly special individuals.

But they are also human. Males are a complex breed.

So how does one become a male? What is this process that separates the sexes? Let’s take a look…

Each cell within the human body contains chromosomes, which house our genetic code in the form of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). Most cells of the body contain forty-six chromosomes. The sex cells, however – the egg from the female and the sperm from the male – possess only twenty-three. During fertilization, the egg, which contains an X chromosome, merges with the sperm, which contains either an X or a Y. The resultant fertilized egg, or zygote, ends up with a chromosome from each parent. XX and the zygote becomes a female; XY and you get a male. The Y chromosome contains a gene that directs the cells to create testosterone, thereby guiding the development of male sex organs. The X chromosome dictates the production of estrogen and hence, female organs. Sounds simple, but it’s really quite complicated.

Like any complex process, things can sometimes go awry. Occasionally the chromosomes don’t segregate properly prior to fertilization, resulting in an odd number of chromosomes. For example, Klinefelter’s Syndrome results in males with an extra X chromosome (XXY). These males are frequently sterile, with smaller than average testicles and larger than normal breasts. 

Certain genetic disorders reside solely on the X or Y chromosomes. The sex-linked condition of hemophilia, which is found on the X chromosome, is typically expressed in males. (Yes, I know it sounds counterintuitive, but let me explain.) Females inherit an X chromosome from each parent; therefore, unless both parents pass down an affected gene, the unaffected X will dominate and hemophilia will not be expressed. Males, with their single X chromosome, are more vulnerable. If their X is affected, they are born with hemophilia, since there is no normal X to override the defective chromosome.

Reproduction, like a good partnership, takes effort from both sides, but it’s the males who call the shots when it comes to the sex of the child. It’s those enthusiastic little sperm, and the X or Y tucked within them, that determine whether the squealing newborn will be a boy or a girl. If it were left up to us females, all births would be of the feminine persuasion. Males, on the other hand, are like blind gunmen: they simply fire their weapons and hope for the best.

So the next time the male in your life stumbles over his pride or masks his emotions, try some patience. Remember that he was programmed male prior to birth and is struggling against the weight of a culture that discourages tenderness. In the words of one of my favorite songs:

“I’m just the boy inside the man, not exactly who you think I am…”
“Be Somebody” by Thousand Foot Krutch

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Beauty of Feet

I have goofy feet. Their goofiness resides on several levels. For starters, they are rather wide, thus earning me the nickname “Ducky” by my high school boyfriend, Patrick. I also had problems with my gait when I was young, which relegated me to a clunky pair of orthopedic shoes. I wore them for several years and cried when I was forced to pair them with my new birthday party dress.
And finally, I had the misfortune of acquiring the “bunion gene” (if there is such a thing) from my grandmother. The condition started rearing its ugly head when I was a teenager, and was only aggravated by the high heels I favored when I had my heart set on being a model. Good thing I switched to firefighting. The footwear is far more practical.

With my bunions advancing, I knew I had to take action. I didn’t want to end up with my grandmother’s gnarled feet, so a few years back I had corrective surgery. Now, my feet are quite cute, despite the scars adorning both big toes.

Every once in a while, stop and take a good look at your feet. When you think about it, they’re quite astounding. Each foot is composed of twenty-six funky little bones that are connected via thirty-three joints  and propelled by nineteen muscles. Over one hundred ligaments bind everything together to form a biomechanical wonder of locomotion. In fact, the fifty-two bones that make up the feet account for about a quarter of the body’s total bony assemblage (as do the hands, which contain an additional bone each).

Did you know that per square centimeter, the soles of your feet contain more sweat glands than any other part of your body? The same can be said for the foot’s sensory organs, which explains why feet are the perfect target of tickle monsters.

Women tend to have more frequent foot problems than men. We can blame such sadists as Jimmy Choo and Christian Louboutin, whose ridiculous skyscrapers women feel compelled to clomp around in, despite the unnatural demands they place on the feet. A two-and-a-half-inch heel can increase the load on the forefoot by seventy-five percent. Just think what those six-inch stilettos do to our poor soles, not to mention our tempers. It’s a wonder there aren’t more stiletto stabbings in New York.
I guess it could be worse. We could still buy in to the ancient Chinese practice of foot binding. This strange cultural tradition, which may date back over two thousand years, would be undertaken when a young girl’s foot bones were still pliable. The feet would be wrapped tightly, the toes and arches broken, in order to stuff them into teeny-tiny shoes. Bound feet were a status symbol and increased a woman’s chance of finding a rich mate. This practice of creating “three-inch golden lotuses” was banned in 1912, although many women continued the practice in secret. It’s a good thing it faded from fashion. There’d be no way I could get my wide "quackers" into such diminutive footwear. I would have been married off to the first rice farmer who came a callin'.

I must admit that high heels do enhance a woman’s legs. They add height and length and force the calves to flex in order to remain perched atop the heel. Not so for those comfortable yet oh-so-hideous Birkenstocks. Then again, if you’ve given in to Birkenstocks, I doubt catching a man is high on your list of priorities. 

But I give credit to my down-to-earth sisters who refuse to put on airs, or high heels. I myself prefer a midrange heel, one high enough to appear feminine, yet low enough that I could outrun Jack the Ripper, should he make chase. Although that stiletto might just come in handy… 

 Here is an excellent video on the practice of Chinese foot binding and how the concept of "beauty" is dictated by culture.