Monthly Archives: June 2013

Medical Microfiction: Analemma

Suicide Note

Liz knew her science fair project would be great. Her teacher told her how if you take a picture of the sun at the same location and time every day, and then put them together, you could see how its position made a figure-eight pattern over the year.

So every morning, Liz faithfully trudged out to the lake and took a picture of the sun until she had a year’s worth. Then she layered the pictures atop each other.

The sun formed a pattern alright. It wasn’t a figure-eight, though. Liz made out a message: Going Nova. Goodbye, Cruel Worl–.

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I’ve cheated a bit today. Analemma isn’t a medical term. It’s an astronomy term that refers to the figure-eight shape created when you track the sun’s highest point in the sky throughout the year. The sun’s not really complicit in this process at all; it’s the earth’s elliptical orbit that creates this effect.

Fictional Photomontage (actual positions of th...
The figure-eight pattern forming the analemma. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I first saw a photomontage capturing the analemma, I immediately thought of skywriting. Wouldn’t it be interesting if someone trying to document this effect discovered that someone was trying to send a message? Although it’s not scientifically accurate, I decided to write about the sun’s very slow efforts to warn the Earth about its own impending death. Maybe the sun’s lost the will to live after eons of being ignored by the planets in its solar system. Nonetheless, we’d best get a move on before the sun finishes its suicide note, or risk going up with everything else in the nova.

It’s a lonely universe for sentient stars.

Are you interested in astronomy? I’m slowly becoming addicted, thanks to the superb Bad Astronomy blog, written by astronomer Phil Plait (who I also admire for his pro-vaccine activism). Check out his blog for some really stunning pictures and reams of well-written information on astronomy for amateurs and the experienced alike.

Medical Microfiction: Soma

Telegraphs and Endings

Some go on great adventures. Some stay home. And others, like me, live in a tower until the story’s over.

I wait for no rescue.

Instead, I watch through the window, where the wire runs from sky to machine, and I record the bleeps and blips that I must pass on.

Who waits at the end of the wire? Does anyone wait at all? And do they care for us abandoned to the margins?

I tap out the syllables on the telegraph:

Di-dah-dah di-di-di-dit di-dah dah. Di-di-di-dit di-dah dah di-di-di-dit. Dah-dah-dit dah-dah-dah dah-di-dit. Di-dah-dah di-dah-dit dah-dah-dah di-di-dah dah-dah-dit di-di-di-dit dah.

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Morse Code Straight Key J-38
Morse Code Straight Key J-38 (Photo credit: Whiskeygonebad)

soma is the body of a nerve cell. It’s the portion of the cell that receives signals, and also the portion where the action potential is generated. The action potential, an electrical signal, travels down the axon, which is a long tail leading away from the soma. At the end of the axon, the signal reaches the synaptic terminal where chemical signals get released to the next neuron in line.

Think of the soma as the speaker in today’s story: alone in its tower, awaiting incoming messages. Think of the axon as the wire of the telegraph leading away from that tower. And the synaptic terminal is the point at which the line of communication leaves the domain of the first telegraph operator and enters the domain of the next.

English: Drawing illustrating the process of s...
Neurons (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I find it inherently tragic that the signal travels in only one direction down the axon. A neuron can never “hear back” from the place the message went. How lonely it must be to send out your message and wonder who received it, and whether it was received at all.

It’s much like the human condition. We send our messages out into the universe and hope that there’s an operator on the other end to catch the signal.  And who’s to say for sure who receives the messages, and what’s done with them?

People of faith hope that something supernatural’s listening. And then there’s these guys. Really, is it such a great idea to let any old Joe send a personalized message to hypothetical aliens? What if the aliens are a bunch of punks, like in this epic Escape Pod episode?

You want to know meaning of the Morse Code message? If you want to translate it yourself, stop reading now and use the key found here on Wikipedia to solve it. Dah=long, di/dit=short. Go! Encryption’s a blast!

For those short on time, the code translates to: “What Hath God Wrought?” This was the first message ever sent over the telegraph using Morse Code. How’s that for literally “telegraphing the ending”?

Medical Microfiction: Anonychia

The Shadow Over Ian’s Mouth

You know that dream where you lose all your teeth?

For me, it’s a recurring dream. I had it last night, in fact.

I was treading water in the ocean completely naked, and something brushed past my toes. A boneless, clammy thing. It was waiting for me to sink. It wanted something from me.

I floundered; I couldn’t breathe. I opened my mouth and inhaled water. Then it extended slimy appendages down my throat and yanked out my teeth.

When I awoke from the dream, I immediately felt around inside my mouth.

That’s when I realized I had no nails.

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holding tooth #2
Losing your teeth? Better check your nails, too.

Anonychia is a condition where you’re born without nails on your hands and/or feet. In this  story, a Lovecraftian horror from Ian’s dreams is the cause of his anonychia. It’s a classic bait-and-switch: he thought it wanted his teeth, but really it was after his nails.

The title is a really bad pun on a classic H. P. Lovecraft story, The Shadow over Innsmouth. If you haven’t read it (and really, you should!), it involves a race of half-human, half-amphibian monsters called the Deep Ones. I like to think that the thing in my story might be one of these nasty fellows, but who’s to say for sure?

On the subject of dreaming, I don’t really have recurring dreams. I do dream about zombies at least once a month, but it’s a different dream each time. I’ve been told that dreams about losing your teeth are somewhat common, but I’ve never had one. Maybe we have such good dental care nowadays that this once-common nightmare is going the way of the dinosaurs.

That is, it’s slowly turning into birds.

Do you ever have recurring dreams? Have you ever dreamed about losing your teeth, or your nails, for that matter?

Medical Microfiction: Necrophagous

The Humans Bite Back

Life sucked for the survivors of the zombie apocalypse. First they ran out of fresh vegetables, then the non-perishables dwindled. When they got down to Ramen noodles and Twinkies, they turned to cannibalism, because nobody wants to eat that crap.

In retrospect, someone inevitably had to try it. But when the first survivor fried up a zombie steak, everyone was astounded by how darn good it tasted. We’re talking bacon-wrapped shrimp levels of tastiness!

That solved the zombie problem but introduced a new one: once you’ve eaten something that delicious, how do you ever go back to bland old bacon?

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English: Uncooked pork belly bacon strips disp...
Bacon: the King of Foods, at least until you try zombie. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Necrophagous is a word that means feeding on corpses or dead matter. Generally in nature, this refers to scavengers such as vultures or hyenas. They’re nature’s recyclers, helpfully cleaning up dead creatures that would otherwise just spread disease.

This story’s about another kind of recycling. Jason calls this concept “reverse zombies:” the humans eat the zombies. It’s fun that the humans have become a different kind of manic, flesh-eating beast by the end of the story. I like this idea, although thinking about the mechanics of it all is giving me a headache. In a zombie situation, I’d personally be wary of trying zombie meat not just because of the cannibalism aspect, but because of fear of getting the virus myself.

Depending on how the zombie virus behaved, it’s theoretically possible that it might pass through your digestive tract harmlessly. Zombie bites suggest transmission through infected saliva; perhaps the rest of that sucker is fine dining! I know there are some diseases that operate this way, but I’m drawing a blank this morning. Can you think of an example of something harmless to the digestive tract that would be harmful if exposed to the bloodstream? (Edit: EvolGeneius says the substance we’re looking for is venom! Check the comments for the fantastic explanation). I think the HIV virus might fit the bill, but don’t quote me on that.

In case of a zombie apocalypse, what’s your plan for keeping the food supply up? Are you willing to dip into the dreaded Twinkies and Ramen?

Motley Microfiction: Carl and The Quest for the Holy Grail

When Sir Galahad arrived at Castle Pembley in search of the Holy Grail, they directed him to the kitchen.

“The puss needed something to eat ‘is fish from,” explained the scullery maid. “No ‘un was using it, so I nicked it for Carl.”

Sure enough, the word Carl was carved into the sacred cup’s base.

“Sacrilege!” cried Sir Galahad, and he reached for his sword. But he underestimated the power of the Grail. Years of meals eaten from the blessed chalice had bestowed Carl with seventy times seven lives.

Now Arthur’s looking for another MacGuffin to send his knights after.

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Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Great movie, but why no Tale of Sir Carl? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This one’s somewhat based on a true story. Last week, I hit the thrift shops with a close friend of mine, and for some reason we kept running across grails. Big grails like trophies. Small grails, like a child princess might drink out of. And one grail belonging to someone named Carl.

I have no idea who Carl is, and why he has a grail with his name engraved on it. Was Carl a person? Was he a great Knight whose deeds have gone unsung in the annals of history?

Maybe, just maybe, he was a cat.

If Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade has taught me anything, it’s that drinking out of the Holy Grail gives you a magic healing factor, kind of like Wolverine of the X-Men (not to be confused with the XXX-Men). But Carl’s been eating Fancy Feast out of the Holy Grail for years. That’s got to do something for his nine lives. I bet he’s basically immortal by now.

Don’t you dare touch his Grail.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever found at a thrift shop?

Race Report: Jammin’ Jog 2013 5K

Jammin' JogI just ran my first race of the year! In fact, it’s the first race I’ve run since recovering from a tendon injury to my foot called plantar fasciitis. This condition refers to inflammation of the plantar fascia tendon, which runs from your heel to toe along the bottom of your foot. The name’s actually a misnomer. Since the plantar fascia is a tendon, it doesn’t have blood vessels, and therefore can’t become “inflamed” the way other body parts do. Instead, the condition is an accumulation of microscopic tears along the tendon which leads to long-term, chronic pain.

Medical X-rays Plantar fasciitis. Increased de...
X-ray of Plantar fasciitis. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The only cure for this condition is rest. That means no running until it heals. Me being the genius that I am, I ignored my increasingly painful plantar fasciitis for two years until this past December, when I finally forced myself to give up running temporarily. It took months before the pain went away, and I finally resumed my training two months ago.

The awful thing about taking such a long break is that you suck when you finally start training again. Last year, I’d trained up to running 10k’s for my regular runs and wanted to build enough mileage to run my first half-marathon by this year. When I started running two months ago, I couldn’t finish 5k without taking short walks here and there. That’s why the Creeper Guy Incident pissed me off so much. That was the first run I’d been able to maintain a running pace for the full 5k. It represented a return to health after a long recovery.

So when I ran the Jammin’ Jog 5k a couple hours ago, I fully expected to suck by my previous standards (which honestly, weren’t that impressive to begin with). Boy was I surprised when I came up the last hill and saw the giant clock at the finish line, and realized I was going to beat my time from last year, for the same race! In the end, I shaved a whole minute off my previous personal best. Not bad!!

Just for fun, here’s a quick rundown of the race experience. The Jammin’ Jog is unique in that the race organizers get a bunch of Athens-area musicians to play for you all along the race course. It’s awesome! Athens is home to a vibrant local music scene. We are the home of R.E.M. and the B-52’s after all! The musicians on the race course are always a mixture of local amateurs and pros. There was an ensemble from a local high school, several dudes with guitars, and even a full string section at one point!

I decided not to listen to music on my iPod so as to enjoy the live music. I put on a favorite podcast episode instead (Drabblecast B-Sides #15: Connor Choadsworth, In Search of the Brain-Eating Nandi Bear, if you’re curious). It was easy to pop out an earphone when I heard music ahead.

I felt strong all through Mile 1. Shortly into Mile 2, I was very surprised when Jason appeared behind me! I thought he was far ahead of me, but apparently he’d taken a slower pace from the start and had been trailing me the whole time.

English: Finish line of the 2006 Peachtree Roa...
Finish line of the 2006 Peachtree Road Race. I ran this one last summer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mile 2 started to get tough as the ascent is a long, slow uphill that seems to go on forever. It was also the least-shady part of the course. Also, by that point, the runners had gotten so spread out that it’s harder to use peer pressure to push yourself. I got a little competitive with two 10-year-old boys who kept sprinting past me, then stopping right in front of me to walk. I could swear I remember them from last year.

I was hurting by Mile 3. I’d taken a downhill weird and my knee felt all twitchy. But Mile 3 actually loops through a course in the park that I’ve trained on before, so I was able to fall back on my training and coach myself through it. The only problem? Usually when I run that course, I run it in the OPPOSITE direction.

Anyway, glad to have a new record under my belt, and glad to be back into the swing of my training. Now it’s time to pick a new race to train for! Any recommendations? Preferably somewhere in Georgia, but I could be persuaded to travel if the race is really cool!

Medical Microfiction: Brachymelia

Pseudosaurus

They’d spent generations cultivating human media to ensure their welcome. When they invaded, the humans would greet them as familiar friends and worship their new tyrants.

First, they introduced the hack novelist who wrote about cloning. Then the Hollywood blockbuster based on his book. That cartoon about the adorable brachiosaurus had been a stroke of genius.

But today’s headline ruined everything: EXPERTS SAY DINOSAURS HAD FEATHERS.

Aboard the mothership, the alien commander fumed. Undone by feathers!

“Orders, sir?” asked his subordinate.

The commander gestured with stumpy arms. “Bring me superglue and a feather pillow. I’ll need help reaching my back.”

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T-Rex
T-Rex (Photo credit: mcdlttx)

Brachymelia means having unusually short arms. Y’know, like a T-rex! Brachymelia explains why the alien commander’s gonna need a little help feathering his back in order to carry out his plot of cultural and actual invasion.

I like to think that even if actual Earth dinosaurs had feathers, somewhere out in the universe there’s got to be another species that resembles the scaly dinosaurs that Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg promised us. Unfortunately, it’s always possible that said aliens have bad intentions, and that our dinosaur-loving media is all just a ploy to lower our defenses against our dinosaur overlords.

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister.

Humans can have brachymelia too. In particular, it’s associated with achondroplastic dwarfism (also called achondroplasia), a form of dwarfism where a person’s head and torso grow to normal adult proportions, but the person’s limbs are shorter than average. The talented actor Peter Dinklage, who plays the badass Tyrion on Game of Thrones, exhibits achondroplastic dwarfism.

So how does the limb-shortness come about? Achondroplasia literally means “without cartilage development.” Bones (particularly the long bones of the arms and legs) usually grow in length during puberty via a process where cartilage is added to the growth zone of a bone. The cartilage is gradually converted into new bone, resulting in the arms and legs lengthening. People with achondroplasia have a genetic mutation that inhibits this process.

Now on to a more important question. Who would win in a fight between a T-rex and Tyrion Lannister?

The Penniless Altruist’s Guide to Saving Lives

“I was sick, and you looked after me.” — Matthew 25:36

So you’re an altruist. You’ve seen the commercials with the sick puppies and sick children asking you to please help. But you’re also broke. You’re a student, maybe, or on a tight budget, or perhaps you already give money to another good cause.

Hermione
You’re not Hermione. But you can still help. (Photo credit: ursulakm)

You wish you could help, but don’t think there’s much you can do. You’re not a doctor, a scientist, or even a wizard; there’s nothing you can do to cure someone’s heart disease or cancer.

But what if I told you that right now, you can contribute to the health and well-being of a total stranger for free? Guess what: your own body’s already producing several things that would make a difference.

I now present my round-up of 10 free things you can do to heal the world using your own body. All of these things are free, and most are also low-effort and require very little time. How’s that for a win-win situation?

  1. Give blood. The Red Cross hosts periodic blood drives in most cities. They also have physical donor centers where you can drop by any time and make a donation. My husband Jason donates every two months because of his high-demand blood type, and he loves the organization and the experience.
  2. Become an Organ and/or Cornea Donor. If you’re not already an organ donor, here’s instructions on how to join the team. While 95% of Americans support organ donation, only 45% are actually registered. This is a problem, as the waiting list for organs such as kidneys, hearts, livers, and lungs is depressingly long. I love knowing that my last act in life will be to leave a legacy of life for others. While you’re at it, share your donor status on Facebook!
  3. Join the Bone Marrow Registry. I’ve talked about this process ad nauseum because it’s simple, free, and it lets you freakin’ cure someone’s cancer. How cool is that? It’s also one of the simplest things to do on this list as it only takes about 15 minutes to sign up, and the testing process happens by mail.
  4. Donate Cord Blood. This one’s for pregnant ladies only. Many hospitals accept donated umbilical cords containing cells that can cure leukemia the way bone marrow donations do. The best part? The umbilical cord’s just biological waste anyway, so you’re recycling! How cool would it be to give birth and cure cancer, all in the same day? To donate, discuss it with your doctor or midwife and find out if the hospital you’re delivering at accepts donations.
  5. Donate your hair. Several organizations collect hair to make wigs for cancer patients. Locks of Love is the most well-known. I love this option for so many reasons. I think it would make for a fun and awesome activity to do as a family as they can accept any hair of the right length. Kids can do it, and gray hair’s fine too! Just go to the hair dresser when your mane’s long enough and get that ponytail lopped off. See the website for all the details.
  6. Donate your body to science. Similar to organ donation, except the whole body will be used for medical research or for teaching medical students. I worked with human cadavers while learning anatomy, and it was one of the most deeply moving experiences of my life. I am so grateful to people who give this ultimate gift. Now you can’t donate your organs and your body; it’s a one-or-the-other proposition. But there are some good reasons to consider body donation. Perhaps you love the idea of going to med school! Perhaps due to your medical history, your organs wouldn’t be usable for transplants. Also, you usually get a free cremation in the bargain (I’m not one to look down on the benefits!). You can donate directly to universities or through various mediators.
  7. Volunteer for medical studies. If you live near a university, I guarantee that their science and health departments run experiments that need volunteers. Last summer, I participated in a study comparing the way women of different weights metabolize vitamins like folic acid. I hung out in the research lab all day, taking vitamins and watching movies while they collected my data. I made some new friends, too! The best part about volunteering for medical studies is that they often pay you for your time. Make sure you only volunteer through reputable organizations that are accountable to review boards that ensure you’re not doing anything dangerous. The National Institute of Health offers this program if you don’t live near a university.
  8. Donate unused prescription drugs. I cheated; this one doesn’t involve something you make with your own body. Leftover prescription drugs can be recycled and donated for use by sick people who can’t afford them. These programs are regional and vary from state to state. Contact your local Health Department for information.
  9. If you’re able to do any of the above, brag about it. Brag loudly, in the hearing of many people. Brag obnoxiously, until your friends disown you. Share what you’ve done on Facebook, Twitter, or wherever you lurk. It sounds strange that tooting your own horn is on my list of altruistic deeds, but seriously, it’s actually quite helpful. We need to normalize donations and overcome what I like to call the “I’ll-do-it-tomorrow hump”. We need to make everyone else jealous so they give it a shot too. That means talking about it lots.
  10. Share this list. Some people will not be able to make the donations on this list because of personal circumstances. That’s completely understandable — don’t feel bad! But one thing you can do is pass on the word. Post this list on your favorite social media, or mention these things to your family and friends.

This list isn’t comprehensive. In fact, if you’ve got more ideas, please share them in the comments below! If I can get another list together I’ll share your ideas in a follow-up post. Also, many of the links I’ve shared only apply to people living in the United States. If you live in another country and can share links to your national programs, please post them. I’d love to add them to this post for everyone’s benefit. What else can you think of that would save a life today?

Motley Microfiction: Life’s Short, So Write Verbs

There’s a saying: “Life sucks, and then you die.” But for Marvin, this truth was made more bitter by how it monopolized 10% of his lifespan. How unfair! Getting stuck in a short story sucks, sure, but it happened to lots of people, and they managed to accomplish something anyway in their brief lives. But Marvin had the misfortune to land in a drabble, and his writer had already wasted most of his precious 100 words on too many adjectives and adverbs.

“Please, lady!” Marvin begged as his death approached. “Let me do something before I die! Write verbs! Verbs!”

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Daffodil - happy flower
Pretend this daffodil symbolizes your dreams. (Photo credit: garrellmillhouse)

For those of you who write, do you pity your characters, knowing they got the short end of the stick by landing in your story? As in, you know their lives suck, and it’s your fault as the author, and you wish you could promise them a nice retirement in Tahiti when the story’s over? I had a conversation like this with a writer friend of mine I’m novel-swapping with. The characters in her novel have it bad. She writes about dysfunctional family dynamics and the way that problems like abuse are passed down and perpetuated through the generations. It makes for a great story, but I like to tease my friend that I’m going to stage a rescue: import her characters into my current novel (a fantasy/comedy), which will feel like an oasis for those poor souls.

Still, I’m serious when I say, “Life’s short, so write verbs.” A few years ago, I found myself sitting in my cubicle wondering what I was doing with my life. I’d never intended to wind up there. I had dreams, but those dreams seemed to be getting farther off, not closer. I’d gotten caught in that painful cycle that’s all too familiar: working, sleeping, and working some more.

I don’t object to the “working” part. Most of us have to work, and few people are lucky enough to have a choice in what they do for a living. I object to the fact that there’s only two verbs on that list: “work” and “sleep”. If I want to live life, I’m responsible for picking the verbs. So I took up running. I wrote my first novel. I began volunteering. I stopped wasting my time waiting for things to happen to me.

If we only have 100 words in our story, let’s make them count.

What are your goals, creative or otherwise? What verbs do you want in your story?

Medical Microfiction: Metastasize

Scatterbrains

“Let’s build it in Kansas,” they said! “It’s the middle of nowhere,” they said!

Some geniuses they turned out to be. Sure, it’s isolated. I’ll give you that. If you’re going to build Area 52, what better place than the most boring stretch of farmland in America?

But really, it’s Kansas. Didn’t anyone consider the weather?

They built it anyway. Two months after the ribbon-cutting ceremony, an EF4-level tornado made short work of the holding pen roof, sending all the test subjects spiraling into the funnel.

The apocalypse began two hours later, when 500 angry zombies rained down on Wichita.

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Today’s story illustrates the word metastasize, which describes the spread of a cancer from one organ or location to another one. Cancer’s a frequent topic here at Medical Microfiction because it’s a disease that may touch all of our lives at some point, whether it touches one of us directly or a loved one. We find it in our deepest fears and embedded in our books and movies.

Although we hear about cancer often, it’s rare that anyone bothers to explain how cancer works, its treatments, and the words used to discuss it. This is a problem because the unknown holds greater power over us than the known. We’re afraid of the monster under the bed.

In the past, I’ve written about leukemia, bone marrow donation, and graft-versus-host disease to  help clear the waters. Today we turn our attention to a general concept related to cancer: metastasis.

English: The Hesston, Kansas tornado of March ...
The ultimate zombie-dispersal mechanism. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To explain it, let’s take breast cancer as an example. It begins when cells in the breast tissue multiply at an abnormal rate. These cells create the stereotypical “lump” in the breast that’s the first tip-off that you’ve got a problem. That’s bad. Metastasis ups the ante. Cells from the cancerous tumor break off into the bloodstream or lymphatic system and use them as highways to spread to other parts of the body. What was once just breast cancer is now also liver cancer or bone cancer.

Think of this process like the zombies in today’s story. As long as the zombies are contained to Area 52, you’ve got a lid on the problem. They’re easy to exterminate. But when the zombies take to the sky and rain down all over Kansas, it’s going to be much, much harder to control the outbreak. The zombies have metastasized.

Explains my recurring zombie nightmares, I suppose.

Monsters Inc
What does the monster under your bed look like? (Photo credit: Cyberslayer)

I know cancer isn’t the most cheerful of topics, but I want to demystify it so that you know exactly what the invisible fear looks like. I’m shining a flashlight under the bed. The monster may be there, but once you see it, you know exactly what you’re dealing with, and you can pick the right tools to combat it. Maybe it’s a little smaller, a little less scary than you expected.

For anyone interested in the practical approach, remember that you can personally become a cancer-slaying zombie hunter by joining the Bone Marrow Registry. I mention this program a lot on my blog because it’s both an easy and practical way to do something. Each of us has within our own bodies the potential to be someone’s unique cure for cancer, but there’s no way you’d know it unless you sign up.

What sorts of things scare you? Do you think the unknown is scarier than the known?