Category Archives: Medical Microfiction

Medical Microfiction: Vomeronasal organ

“Darling, I’m afraid I’ve made a terrible mistake,” said James in a strangled voice.

Cynthia set down her purse on the kitchen table between two adders and a rattlesnake, taking care not to disturb the squirming mass covering the floor. “So I see. Care to explain?”

James colored pink. “Ordered something homeopathic online. For our anniversary. Something to bring a little… spice into the bedroom.”

She arched an eyebrow. “Such as?”

He winced. “Pheromones. Must’ve broken in the mail. I took a nap and woke up as you’ve found me.” James jerked his chin toward the python encircling his body.

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An Indian cobra in a basket with a snake charm...
He’s a snake, but I hear he’s a real charmer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Also called Jacobsen’s Organ (stop snickering!), the vomeronasal organ (a.k.a. the VNO) is a primitive and perhaps vestigial scent organ located at the base of the nasal cavity. In other animals, its primary purpose is to detect pheromones. Evidence is shaky on whether we humans get much use out of ours. Compared to other mammals that rely on scent much more strongly than us, ours is underdeveloped, and tends to shrink while we’re still in fetal development.

Snakes, however, undoubtedly get a lot of use out of their VNOs. You know that whole tongue-flickering thing they do? That’s part of their pheromone-sensing system. When they retract their tongues, they touch it to their VNOs, thus transferring the tasty, tasty hormones to their nervous system for sampling. Deeelicious! Moral of the story: you may not want to buy products with pheromones in them. You might attract the wrong kind of attention!

In writing-related news, I have been participating in National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, since the start of November, which has led to a drop in my blogging. I try to get at least one post out a week, but keeping pace with my word count quota has taken up all the writing time I can usually find in a day. The good news is that in December, I should be able to catch up on a ton of posts that I’m excited to share with you, so stay tuned!

Medical Microfiction: Glottis

Guardians

When the sunset is slanting, what keeps the ones who prowl at bay?

The guardians do.

There, just beyond that stand of pines, they’re waiting like a pair of hands to spring upon the spider, a noose to choke off hot breath.

Children linger in the fields. The sunset slants in, and the prowlers come running with quick little legs, their great big jaws a-gaping.

And just beyond the stand of pines, the guardians spring upon them, saying, This far you may go, and no further.

They do not relish their work. They hold the line and pray for mercy.

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Coronal section of larynx and upper part of tr...
A view of the larynx, or the voicebox. Can you spot the two “guardians”? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I always get excited when I write a blog post about something related to my happy little corner of science (namely, Speech Science). Today we’re talking about the glottis, which is found in your larynx, or voice box. It produces the buzzing sound that gives you a voice. If you place your hand on your throat and hum, you can feel it vibrating.

The glottis is made up of your two vocal folds (also called vocal cords) and the space between them. This area is the gateway to your lungs. Its responsibility is to make sure we don’t let anything liquid or solid down the wrong pipe. Think of them as the guardians in your throat, ready to snap closed and hold the line against bad things that want to enter.

Why might they be unwilling at the end of my story? This is to illustrate how they work when we’re speaking. While they can seal the throat during eating, the vocal folds don’t shut all the way when speaking. They’re in a state of flux, tensed just enough that the air pressure from your lungs can break through their seal, thus producing vibration and speech.

Of course, on another level, I think the reluctance of the guardians in today’s story is an illustration of profound goodness. Even when fighting something we all agree is evil, the best among us may feel a little sadness and regret that the evil exists to begin with. The best soldier may long for a day when war is unnecessary. The best doctor may hope to work herself out of a job by curing diseases.

Medical Microfiction: Diaphragmatic Aponeurosis

Making New Friends

Nolan had friends. Nolan had loads of friends. 1,224, to be exact.

Whenever he threw parties, he invited all 1,224 of them and received 1,224 RSVPs.

Of course, this always meant one hell of a grocery run. It took Nolan three trips to schlep all the 2-liters of Shasta, cocktail wieners, and pizza bites home in his hatchback.

8PM came and went, but nobody showed.

Later, Nolan brooded over his Facebook list of 1,224 disappointments.

Oh, well. Time to make new friends.

He clicked the “new account” button and got to work on Friend# 1,225. Maybe this one wouldn’t disappoint.

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I’m very excited about today’s medical term, because it’s an anatomical feature I learned about in my Anatomy of Speech class fairly recently. The diaphragmatic aponeurosis, also known as the central tendon, is a strong band of material located in the center of the diaphragm muscle. Together with the rest of the diaphragm, it forms a floor upon which your lungs and heart sit inside your rib cage, and plays a major role in pumping air into and out of your lungs.

The diaphragm. Under surface. Quadratus lumbor...
The diaphragm. The white part’s the aponeurosis. Not pictured: Nolan’s 1,224 friends. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While most other tendons in the body connect muscle to bone, the diaphragmatic is unique in that it connects a muscle (the diaphragm) to itself, allowing it to form a roundish shape while still allowing for several large passageways through the middle, so that you can both eat and breathe without the two interfering with one another.

Have you figured out how Nolan factors into this picture?

Much like the diaphragmatic aponeurosis: he only connects with himself.

*Rimshot*

Get it? Get it…? Hey, why aren’t you laughing?!

I hope this finds you better connected than the central tendon, and without a car filled with Shasta. Later this week I’m hoping to have another “Anatomy of a Sentence” feature out, so keep your eyes peeled!

Medical Microfiction: Pogonotrophy II

The Mo-Keepers

In the weeks following the conquest, politeness meant averting one’s eyes as we adapted to the new status quo. Tacitly we agreed to carry on with our iPhones and cappuccinos like we weren’t all infested with parasitic hair.

The luckiest acquired one parasite only, affixed above the lip according to custom. More commonly, two or three dotted one’s face.

But for others, it’s hellish. Yesterday, I passed a man writhing in a ditch, positively lousy with the things. Despite his swatting and shrieking, they skittered along his flesh until nothing showed but moustaches.

I averted my eyes and hurried past.

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Français : Général Emiliano Zapata - 1914 lice...
Why does this guy look so unhappy? It’s because the moustache is calling the shots! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Did you catch Pogonotrophy Part 1 a few weeks ago? Today’s piece comes from the same series that some friends and I have been writing on the Drabblecast forums under the heading of The Moustache Mythos. Eventually we plan to record the whole run and release them as a mini-podcast series, hopefully in time to commemorate Movember.

Today’s story gives a bird’s-eye view of what the world is like after the invasion of alien moustaches intent on world domination. I came up with the concept while thinking about Wookiees from Star Wars, and deciding it would be hilarious and a little disturbing if they got that way because they were colonized by evil moustaches.

The title “The Mo-Keepers” is an homage to Drabblecast episode # 39 – The Beekeepers, which is also about an invasive alien species. While I didn’t have this story in mind while writing today’s piece, after the fact I noticed the resemblance and decided to pay my tribute.

I realize my posts have been spotty this month. I much appreciate you guys bearing with me as I struggle to keep pace with school and work. This has been compounded by some other good news on the family side of things – my mother-in-law recently got a kidney transplant after spending years on the waiting list, which meant an emergency (and happy) day trip up to Atlanta to see her at the hospital.

What’s going on in your neck of the woods right now? What have you been writing about on your blogs? If you leave me a link in the comments, I promise to check it out during my study breaks!

Medical Microfiction: Terminologia Anatomica

Dr. Howell tapped twice on a white band of ligament, directing his students’ attention to the cadaver’s belly. “The abdominal aponeurosis. Covers the rectus abdominis and compresses the viscera.”

Pencils scribbled. Heads bobbed.

“Moving on… Larry, switch to a deep view, please.”

“Sure thing, Doc!” With both hands the cadaver wrenched back another layer of muscle, exposing his innards.

“Note the positions of the internal viscera,” Dr. Howell continued. “The large intestine is especially good eating on a live human. People make a big deal out of the brains, but I say go straight for the guts. Less competition.’

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Steaks on a grill
Your organs from a zombie’s perspective.

I think lots of people could benefit from learning more about human anatomy – I’m writing this blog, after all! – but no one could benefit more than our friends the zombies. I mean, if you’re going to spend your days hunting down tasty, tasty humans, you could save yourself a lot of time and effort on the eating if you know how to bypass that pesky ribcage to get to the tasty bits within.

Terminologia Anatomica, which literally means “Anatomical Terminology,” is the book that sets the international standards for medical terminology. It’s where many of the definitions on this blog came from. This illustrious volume was published in 1998, and has allowed countless students, medical professionals, and amateur writers to confuse the general public when we say things like, “Serratus anterior’s assisting the external intercostals in respiration by forcing air through the larynx and causing the vocal folds to oscillate, producing phonation.”

Yeah. We talk real good.

Happy Friday, wherever and whenever this finds you! It’s been a good week here in the Jones household, as my mother-in-law received a long-awaited kidney transplant just two days ago and is recovering nicely. Organ donation saves lives, folks, and if you’re not already a donor, I’d encourage you to join up.

Otherwise, the zombies’ll get you.

Medical Microfiction: Ecdysis

Dear John

By the time you read this, you will have found my body.

Don’t grieve. I’m not dead. I’ve just moved out.

It’s not anything you did. It was the right time.

I’m worried about you, though. You don’t have many friends apart from me. So someday I’ll visit. I’ll knock, you’ll invite me in for coffee, and after a long chat, I’ll explain everything and we’ll laugh.

But you won’t recognize me in my new skin. I could be old or young, male or female, Greek or Israeli or Japanese. Better offer coffee to anyone who knocks. Just in case.

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molting (moulting) dragonfly
Is she dead, or has she just moved out? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ecdysis is a word to describe the molting of an exoskeleton in certain species, particularly insects. Usually this shedding of the old skin happens at a time of developmental transition, when you’re moving from one stage to the next.

People don’t molt, of course. Not like insects do. So it’s interesting to think what this process might look like to us if someone we loved underwent ecdysis. My heart is with poor John, who has found a note and a body and must make up his own mind what to believe. Is his loved one dead, or merely transformed?

This story came from a personal place, after several late-night talks with my husband following the sudden death of one of his young students last week.

What might happen to us after we die? Is death a final end, or is it a sort of ecdysis, a shedding of one body as we move to a new stage of development? Like John, we have no way of knowing. We can only make a choice on how to live, given the possibilities. John can live in hope, and treat strangers with the utmost love, or he can live in despair, and ignore the door.

And if he’s wrong? I guess he’ll hand out a lot of free coffee for no reason other than human kindness. But I can think of worse ways to spend my life.

I’ve shared this video before, but it is such a great illustration of ecdysis that I hope you won’t mind me resharing it: the incredible life cycle of cicadas! Set the video to HD and make it big for best results!

I hope your weekend is wonderful, and full of coffee shared with friends and strangers alike, my friends!

Medical Microfiction: Stromatolites

The architects that built the world are long gone. Many aeons ago, they lived, labored, and died in mats in the shallows. Their offspring, architects also, plied the family trade atop the graves of their forebears, until they too passed. And so one biofilm atop the next, strange, striped stones emerged.

We remember them for the rocks, but the architects left something greater still. Together those venerable microbes spun sunlight into atmosphere, shaping the very air into the element which gives voice to speech and song.

We stand not on the backs of giants, but on the bones of bacteria.

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English: Stromatolites growing in Hamelin Pool...
Stromatolites: they’re rocks, but they deserve a little respect. They oxygenated the atmosphere! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Stromatolites are not technically “medical”, but they’re certainly a nifty piece of science, and one I was dying to share with you! First, let’s dissect the word. “Stroma” comes from a Greek word meaning mattress  or bed. “Lite” comes from the Greek for stone. As the story describes, stromatolites are fossilized stones that were formed by thin layers of bacteria dying off atop one another over a huge period of time. Think of them as something like coral reefs, but far older.

One of the most important ancient sources of stromatolites were the cyanobacteria responsible for transforming much of the methane in Earth’s atmosphere into oxygen, thus allowing creatures like ourselves to live, love, and breathe. We owe a lot to these little guys, and I wanted to take a moment to remember their inestimable contribution to our lush, green Earth. Those of you who have been reading my blog from the very beginning may recall that I’ve mentioned the Great Oxygenation Event once before, but I thought they were interesting enough to bring up again. I think it’s important to remember that while human beings dominate the planet now, all our accomplishments rest on the shoulders of those that did the work before us. Even the air we breathe is something to be grateful for; it came from somewhere.

What other parts of the natural world deserve our gratitude? What tends to get overlooked in our day-to-day shuffle?

Medical Microfiction: Cardiometer

Measure the Immeasurable

It was a problematic calculation, to be sure. Some might say impossible. But the real headache lay in finding an appropriate unit of measurement. Amperes, Kelvins, parsecs — inadequate alone, but each needed for the answer.

To the books, then. He dredged up old science and new, eventually delving into sources that some might call pseudoscientific.

What of it? The point was to build the device, and he did.

He called up the one who’d first posed him the question, invited her to his lab, and knelt on one knee.

“I love you this much,” he said, and pushed the button.

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I love you
This candy loves you, but how much? (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

A nice, sweet little story for you guys today. A cardiometer, as its name implies is a device used to measure heart activity. There are several devices that fall into this general category, and mostly they use electrical impulses to make their readings. Heart-measuring devices include electrocardiographs (ECGs), cardiac monitors, and Holter monitors, to name a few.

Of course, on a more general level, this story’s about the formidable task of measuring things. Measuring gives us a way to make sense of the world. We measure oceans, and they lose their limitlessness. We measure mountains and depths and the distance between stars. We calculate the speed in which we’re all hurling through space, and estimate the age of our happy green rock.

But how do you measure something like love? I have no idea, but that hasn’t stopped me or anyone else throughout human history from asking that impossible question: “How much do you love me?”

Happy Monday, friends, and while you may never know the measure in which you’re loved, may that love always feel endless.

Medical Microfiction: Pogonotrophy

Monsieur’s Moustache

Friday night at the pub and he’s caught me staring again.

“Do I have something on my face?” He wipes his spectacular whiskers, so carefully cultivated into a proud handlebar.

“Nah, you’re fine.” I quaff some beer to disguise my expression. Thank God I ordered the stout. It blocks out that monstrosity. Nearly. I can see its hairy tips protruding on either side of the glass.

“Are you sure? Because you keep giving me funny looks.” My friend looks cross.

How can he just ignore it? It’s right under his nose! The moustache rubs its whiskery ends together and hisses.

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Example of the English Moustache
Example of the English Moustache (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pogonotrophy is a fancy word for the art of growing that thick, coarse facial hair that men first get around puberty. Another name for this sort of hair is terminal hair, which also includes armpit and groin hair on both sexes.

Hair gets more complicated than that, though. Before we have terminal hair, we’ve got vellus hair, which is the fine, light hair found on children’s and women’s arms and legs. And before that, waaaay back when we were still in utero, we had lanugo, which is a downy and dark hair whose name means “wool” in Latin. Generally, this hair is shed before birth, or for some babies, in the weeks right after birth. In rare cases, something goes wrong and the child ends up stuck with her terminal hair her whole life, making her look kind of like a Wookiee.

Die Gartenlaube (1874) b 061
Die Gartenlaube (1874) b 061 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What are your feelings on moustaches, my friends? Do you participate in Movember, that glorious celebration of all things hairy-lipped? Or are you, like me, more of a patron and appreciator of the Follicle Arts?

Medical Microfiction: Pleura

Tar Pit: A Love Story

This is a love story about a tree and its hole.

From the beginning they seemed made for each other. They hugged each other’s curves, matching bend for bend — a union which grew more perfect with each passing year.

It came to a sudden end one day when a ravenous Apatosaurus tore up the whole tree by its roots and devoured it.

The hole doesn’t forget, though. Far from it. Nursing its vendetta, it gapes wide, deepens, and fills its heart with black tar. It waits for that murderous, leaf-stuffed bastard to return.

Given time, it can devour things too.

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Apatosaurus Louisae, Carnegie Museum.
Apatosaurus: the longest murderer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The pleura are two very thin membranes that shrink-wrap your lungs, walling them off from the rest of your body. The visceral pleura wraps the lungs directly, while the parietal pleura lines your chest cavity. Between them is a small amount of fluid that keeps them from sticking to each other.

English: Left-sided pneumothorax (right side o...
The arrow points to the pleural cavity, in this case formed by air trapped between the layers. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now here’s where it gets interesting: in anatomy, we refer to the space between the two membranes as the pleural cavity, but it’s a bit of a misnomer because normally, no such cavity exists. If you’re healthy, those two layers stick close together like a pair of sheets on a well-made bed. The term “pleural cavity” refers to a potential space: it only exists when something’s gone wrong: when air or fluid has leaked between the layers and caused them to separate.

I’m fascinated by this idea of potential spaces, and that in some situations, an absence of something can be a presence. The relationship between the pleura and the pleural cavity is much like the relationship between tree roots and the space they create as they burrow into the soil. The tree’s hole doesn’t really exist until the roots are no longer there, but when the tree is gone, its absence leaves a presence: a hole that remembers embracing a tree once upon a time.

Apatosaurus by Yamada Katsuhisa
Apatosaurus by Yamada Katsuhisa (Photo credit: dcbaok)

In many ways, presences as absences are also a metaphor for grief. The death of something or someone we love, be it a person, animal, relationship, or even an object, can leave a void that feels like its own presence. Like a stab wound, we feel it. It makes itself known by its wrongness. In my story today, I wanted to explore how grief itself might seek to rectify the injustice caused by the void left when love is gone.

I also wanted to write about dinosaurs. Sue me.

I owe some special thanks to Drabblecast forum member The-hest-of-hale for helping me polish up the language choices in this story. Thank you, friend! Constructive criticism is hard to come by, especially on a story this short, and for your help I am very grateful