Tag Archives: Conditions and Diseases

Link Roundup 8-12-13

A multicolored Perseid meteor striking the sky...
A multicolored Perseid meteor striking the sky just to the right from Milky Way. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve conquered my first day of the semester with no problems, so I’m taking the suggestion of a reader and writing a little nightcap article. That means it’s time for a link roundup! Here’s some interesting reads that caught my eye around the interwebs this week. What’s happening on your blog? What fun or thought-provoking articles did you run across?


When you hire that poet on Craigslist to mock you, good things happen. I want to hire this guy for my birthday!

Author Cat Rambo shares some advice on the topic of wordy prose. When can you get away with it, and when should you just say no? It’s a longish read, but trust me it’s well worth your time.

I discovered a tool called Submissions Grinder this week that has been a treasure trove of information. It lets you search for fiction markets by word count, genre, and style, and additionally provides some interesting data on response time and percent rejections. I’m a bit of a data junkie, so this kind of thing sucks me in.


Cool things afoot in the world of epidemiology as scientists test out a vaccine against malaria. My other favorite anti-malaria solution involves weedkiller.

This chemist writes an excellent rebuttal to a fear-mongering list that made its way around the ‘net about allegedly dangerous food additives. I love this article because it puts into words both our fear of all things “artificial” and “chemical” while showing why there’s no need to be so afraid.

Tiger cubs! Tiger cubs! Tiger cam!

One Awesome Video

Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy brings us time-lapse footage of the sky over Australia during an eclipse.

Podcasts I liked:

 Drabblecast #97 – “Daydream Nation”: Ever wondered what the dating scene would be like if we could share our dreams when we met each other? This episode notably had one of my favorite pieces of 100-word flash fiction I’ve ever heard. It made me want to stand and applaud, and stayed with me for days afterward.

Drabblecast #99 – “Sarah’s Window”: a haunting little tale that explores the difference between how parents love their children and how, in turn, children love their parents. Reminded me of this E.M. Forster quote: “A wonderful physical tie binds the parents to the children; and — by some sad, strange irony — it does not bind us children to our parents. For if it did, if we could answer their love not with gratitude but with equal love, life would lose much of its pathos and much of its squalor, and we might be wonderfully happy.”

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.


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

Medical Microfiction: Hypothyroidism

Recess on the Moon

At noon, the teacher summoned her students to dress for their daily run across the moon’s surface. They piled into the locker room and pulled on their jumpsuits, gravity boots, helmets and oxygen tanks. Lori lagged behind.

In her absence, the other girls huddled around Lori’s boots. “Who’s got the screwdriver?” asked Violet. They made the usual adjustments.

“Slow Lori!” the children chanted as they lapped her around the crater again. Lori choked back sobs. Every day, she ran a little harder. Every day, she clocked a slower time. Lori ran with the weight of another world on her shoulders.


English: Moon view from earth In Belgium (Hamo...
Would you go for a run on the moon? I know I would! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hypothyroidism is an insidious and frustrating medical condition for those who suffer from it. It famously causes weight gain, lethargy, and a host of other symptoms that start out faint and grow increasingly more severe with time. Because the symptoms come on so gradually, it’s also an extremely underdiagnosed condition: many people whose thyroids are producing abnormally quantities of hormone won’t know it for years until the symptoms grow more pronounced and troublesome.

Since thyroid hormones thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) govern metabolism and energy levels, a person whose body is deficient experiences life much like Lori does with her gravity boots. To perform at the same level as the other children, Lori has to in exponentially more effort, and the problem only escalates over time. She has an unfair disadvantage that is entirely invisible from the outside but is very, very real on the inside.

What causes hypothyroidism? The single biggest culprit is iodine deficiency, which is especially a problem in countries where iodine is not abundant in the local diet. It can also be caused by stress, radiation, certain medicines, and complications related to pregnancy.

Fortunately, the fix for hypothyroidism is very simple. Sufferers simply take a daily dose of synthetic thyroid hormones to bring their bodies back to normal. From what I’ve heard, it often takes some experimentation to hit upon the right dosage for the individual, but once the balance is struck, a person’s energy will return and the symptoms will abate.

In other words, just recalibrate the dang gravity boots!

English: Slow Loris in Sabah, Borneo
A clue about today’s hidden pun. Hover over this photo for the answer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Conditions like hypothyroidism demonstrate why, in a world where obesity is increasingly a problem, it’s important to exercise kindness toward people who struggle with their weight. We never know what level someone’s gravity boots are set to, or how they’d perform if the boots were calibrated to be in line with a person’s peers. Besides, recent research demonstrates what common sense told us all along: that cruelty causes people to gain more weight, not lose it.

Bonus points if you caught the hidden zoology pun in this story. Let me know in the comments below if you found it!

Medical Microfiction: Phantom Limb Syndrome

Redrawing the Map

He had a full tank, a thousand in the bank, and a newly acquired degree in psychology. With nothing to lose, Arnold hit the road for Canada. He dreamed of an expatriate lifestyle: getting drunk abroad, meeting exotic women, and other Hemingwayesque fantasies.

But when he reached the border between Montana and Saskatchewan, he found a steep cliff abutting an endless ocean. Where had Canada gone? He sped up and down the unknown coastline looking for a clue. As the sun set, Arnold found a solitary billboard overlooking the place where Canada had been:

Dear America,

Sawed off!




Canadian flag.
Canadian flag. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s a terrible, terrible pun at the end. I apologize for its sheer awfulness. Or is it awesomeness? I’ll leave it for you to decide.

Phantom limb syndrome is a perception of feeling in a limb that has been amputated. A person experiencing this syndrome may feel as if the missing limb is still there and functioning normally. Most commonly, the person will experience pain, often severe.

English: Author: btarski Date: 6/23/06
The sensory homunculus shows how the brain organizes input from your body parts. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It happens because the brain rewires itself after an amputation to make up for the lack of nerve signals that usually come in from a particular body region. Unfortunately, the regions of the postcentral gyrus responsible for collecting signals from the limbs are located near the regions for the face. That means for people with phantom limb syndrome, touching different areas of your face can make you feel sensations on your phantom limb.

Today’s story is an illustration of phantom limb syndrome from the brain’s perspective. Arnold has never been to Canada, but he’s certain it’s right where it should be. After all, he’s still getting signals from the region. It’s not until he drives all the way to the border that he realizes the truth: that Canada has been gone for a long time, and somehow he never got the memo. In the same way, a person who has experienced amputation will receive nerve signals that make the limb seem like it’s present, but in reality it’s gone.

Moral of the story: if you’re going to Canada, call ahead first.

Medical Microfiction: Coremorphosis

Apt Pupil

“Mommy, the doll in my eye hurts me.” Cora rubbed her tearful eye.

Amanda knelt and examined the little girl. “What do you mean, sweetie? You don’t have a doll in your eye.”

“Yes I do. You have one, too. Everyone does.”

Amanda opened her makeup compact and gazed at her pupils. Her reflection in miniature stared back. “Don’t worry, Cora. It’s just your reflection”

But the child rubbed her eye. “It’s hurting me!”

Amanda checked again. In Cora’s left eye, a dark figure oozed from the pupil. It seized the miniature Amanda and held a knife to her throat.


English: Kewpie doll.
It’s cute until you get one in your eye. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Coremorphosis is the surgical formation of a second pupil in the eye. The Greek root for “pupil” is core-, which means “doll” or “girl”. The ancient Romans applied this word to the eye because they thought the little reflection you see when you look in another person’s eye resembled a tiny doll.

Incidentally, the name “Cora” comes from the same root.

So this is a story about a natural doll and an artificial one. Cora’s eye contains a double image: the true reflection of her mother, and an unnatural figure whose intentions must surely be bad. I for one don’t trust any reflections in my eye that don’t belong there!

Ever wonder what causes red-eye in your photographs? It’s your pupil’s fault .The pupil of the eye is actually an absence. It is the hole in your iris that allows light to enter, which through an astonishing process gets converted into nervous impulses that your brain translates as sight.

English: Glaring Red Eye
Red Eye, or vampire? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I used to think the pupil was an actual object that made up your eye. After all, it’s solid black! In reality, its dark appearance results from the fact that all the light entering it has been absorbed or reflected inside the eyeball itself. Red-eye happens when a sudden flash of light bounces off the back of your eyes too quickly to be absorbed. The camera captures the color of your blood coursing through the choroid behind your retina.

There are some conditions that will make your pupil change color. Leukocoria gives the pupil a whitish appearance, sort of like an animal’s eyes in the dark. Leukocoria is usually a symptom that something is malfunctioning in your eyes, so if you notice this symptom, make sure to get it checked by a doctor.

Happy Friday, everyone! What was your best accomplishment this week? What’re you looking forward to this weekend?

Medical Microfiction: Trypanophobia


In dark alleys and back rooms, in bars and clubs, the kids have invented a new thrill. They’re lining up for miles to experience the rush.

The ritual goes like this. There’s a man with a needle. The silvery point hovers in the air, just over a bulging blue vein. The audience stands at attention, hushed. The needle touches skin. It digs in. The onlookers feel it: a rush of chills, a tingling, bells in the ears and clouded eyes. Knees buckle, breath releases, and they’re out cold.

They’re not looking for a chemical high. They’re seeking their own terror.


Fear of needles
Fear of needles (Photo credit: david anderson : da-photography)

In the past, I’ve written about using what your body already produces to save lives. There’s always a demand for blood and bone marrow donations, which save lives in a way so straightforward that I feel no embarrassment in using the cliche. Such activities are easy, international, and cost you nothing.

I talk about this stuff a lot because I hope by getting the word out, a few more people might consider giving it a shot. Recently, a friend pointed out a problem with my advocacy: some people refrain from donating blood or joining the marrow registry because they suffer from a paralyzing phobia that renders it impossible.

Trypanophobia, or the fear of needles, is quite widespread in the populace. In the United States, roughly 1 in 10 people suffers from this phobia. Unlike many other phobias, the most common type of trypanophobia induces a physical response that can lead to wooziness and fainting. To put it another way, if you’re afraid of spiders and you see one in your shower, you’ll startle and try to squish it or run away. If you’re afraid of needles, your vasovagal syncope will kick in and you may pass out if you see or even think about needles.

മലയാളം: വെള്ളിലത്തോഴി എന്ന ശലഭം
This was going to be a close-up of a needle, but I decided to be nice. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What on earth is “vasovagal syncope”? If you’ve ever jumped out of bed after a hard sleep and found yourself feeling a little dizzy, then you’ve experienced it yourself. Your heart rate fails to provide enough blood to your brain, so you feel weird and woozy until your heart catches up.

People with trypanophobia can experience this reflex just from thinking about needles. So what’s a needle-phobic person to do? Fortunately, there are some ways to deal with it. Doctors can numb the area with different anesthetics before they use the needle. They can also make use of some of the new needle-less drug injection methods, which are very cool indeed. A third option is behavioral therapy, which aims to desensitize you to the stimulus through gradual exposure. Trypanophobics can also take anti-anxiety medications which help prevent the sudden drop in blood pressure.

All this talk of phobias makes me think of horror movies, and how we watch them even though they scare us. Or because they scare us. Thus, today’s story: where teenage trypanophobics deliberately seek out vasovagal syncope just for kicks. It’s no dumber than huffing aerosol from a plastic bag, and probably a good deal safer!

Are you afraid of needles? What tips or tricks do you use to deal with it?

Medical Microfiction: Autonomic


Thank you for installing AutoNoggin3000. Your personalized brain optimization report is now loading.

Franklin clicked on the report’s Background Processes tab. Breathing.exe, digestion.exe… OldTaxReturns91.exe?! It took up 25% of his working memory. Franklin closed the program.

The clarity of his thought increased instantly. Curious, he reloaded OldTaxReturns91.exe. His processes dulled again as the ongoing sex tape in his head came back online.

Excited by this discovery, Franklin skimmed the report for other unnecessary processes. Like this one with a turntable icon: DemBeats.exe. That must turn off the earworms. He terminated it.

The coroner’s report called his death a heart attack.


A Turntable!
Crank up DemBeats.exe!

The autonomic nervous system is the part of your nervous system responsible for the things your body does automatically. These are processes that happen regardless of whether you consciously think about them or not. Things like breathing, digestion, salivating, heart rate, and yes, sexual arousal.

Heart rate’s an interesting one. Heart muscle, also called cardiac muscle, is the only muscle in the body that produces its own electrical signals allowing it to contract. To put it anther way, your heart is a completely closed system. If given a continuous supply of nutrition and oxygen, your heart will go on beating without you. Past experiments have kept animal heart cells alive in the lab for years without bodies. More recently, there’s research in the works that allows you to drop a “dead” heart into a chemical cocktail that’ll start it right back up. That’s why in the medical world, life and death aren’t defined by heartbeat alone (it’s a combination of things, but that’s a topic for another day).

If the heart’s a closed system, then what does DemBeats.exe do? The autonomic nervous system controls your heart rate. It’s a natural pacemaker. So if you were to shut down that program, the heart itself decides how fast it beats, which means Franklin’s gonna have a heart attack.

The information technology sector was a signif...
Ever wanted to overclock your brain? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What would happen if we could optimize our brains like we do our computers? I for one would love to turn off background processes at will that were distracting or inconvenient. And what if we could clean out and organize all those old files we’ve been collecting? You could forget bad memories and clear out room for new ones. You could rescue those old files you wish you’d taken better care of, like my terrible Italian language skills.

Hey, where did all these old episodes of Pokemon come from?

If you could optimize your brain, would you want to change anything, and if so, what?

Medical Microfiction: Remission

The Plague Cicadas

They came flying over the sea: horse-sized insects in battle armor. Eyes like red coals and hungry jaws. They chewed through our trees, our homes, our bodies. Anything the touched, they consumed, heedless of our misery.

But we drove them back in the end.

Victory! We have stacked and burned the bodies of the strange invaders. We have buried our dead and made songs for our heroes.

It’s time to put these dark days behind us. Tonight we celebrate victory.

Apart from the rest of us, one old warrior stands at the ocean’s edge, scanning the horizon with doubtful eyes.


Cicada (Photo credit: plounsbury)

You’ve heard the word remission before, probably in association with cancer. Remission means the subsiding or diminishing of a disease. Full remission is distinct from a cure because while the disease is no longer detectable, there’s always a chance it could reoccur. This is true of many types of cancer, and of some types of bowel disease. Still, even with that distinction, in cases of chronic or incurable diseases remission is great news indeed.

Today I’m happy to report that my wonderful friend, who has been battling acute leukemia since November, got news a few days ago that the leukemia’s completely undetectable in her body for the first time since the battle began. Full remission! And the timing couldn’t be better. Today she’s entering the hospital to begin prepping for her bone marrow transplant next week. There is no better time to do a transplant than when the disease has been so thoroughly beaten into the ground.

The cool thing about bone marrow transplants? When successful, they can actually cure leukemia. Not just put it into full remission; cure it. That’s why I’m so enthusiastic about the bone marrow registry and highly encourage you to consider joining it, or the branch in the country you live in.

I think cicadas make for a good metaphor for remission. Cicadas have a unique life cycle. They spend years and years living underground and only emerge to mate, lay eggs, and die. Then their grubs go underground for up to 17 years before they emerge again. As with any incurable disease, they’re likely to reappear after being completely gone for years and years.

This year marked the return of one cicada brood up and down the East Coast of the United States. They’re remarkable insects, cicadas. Check out this gorgeous video for a real treat. Make it big, and set it to HD for best enjoyment:

Beautiful. Have you ever witnessed a brood of cicadas emerge? I wanted to drive around and look for one this year, but just barely missed the window!

Medical Microfiction: Prosopagnosia

Brain Damage You Can Believe In

It’d been over a year since my racist grandma made one of her trademark comments about “those people” bringing down the neighborhood. Indeed, all our family get-togethers had seemed unusually civil lately. Great-Uncle Ernie hadn’t cracked a sammich joke in ages, and my horrible Aunt Louise actually complimented a rabbi yesterday.

Concerned, we took Grandma in for a full workup.

“I’ve been seeing lots of similar cases,” said the neurologist. “They can’t tell a stranger’s face from their own anymore. Damage to the fusiform gyrus in the brain. Turns out radiation from cell phone use isn’t so harmless after all.”


Perception: Prosopagnosia
Do you see one face, or many faces? (Photo credit: sbpoet)

Remember pareidolia, the human tendency to see faces in pretty much anything? Today’s word, prosopagnosia, is what happens when the portion of the brain responsible for pareidolia goes bad. Prosopagnosia, or face blindness, is the inability to tell one face from another, usually because of damage to the ventral fusiform gyrus. A person with this condition will not be able to tell one face from another. Your racist grandma won’t be able to tell “her people” apart from the “wrong sort”. She won’t even be able to recognize herself if she looks in the mirror! Prosopagnosiacs rely on clothing, voices, and other cues in order to recognize friends, family, and acquaintances.

I started composing this story several weeks ago, and in that time I’ve seen this rather obscure medical word pop up everywhere. First, Brad Pitt decides he’s got face blindness. It may very well be the case, but call me skeptical. Prosopagnosia is more than just being bad with faces and names. Honestly, I’m bad with faces and names. Terrible, in fact. I’ve been known to answer the door and cheerfully introduce myself to old friends I haven’t seen in years. But I can still recognize my own face in the mirror. I can tell my husband apart from my brother. People with true prosopagnosia can’t do that. I would want to ask Brad if he routinely mistakes his wife for other women, or has trouble telling his own face apart from his coworkers’ faces in promotional shots of his movies.

Otherwise, he’s just bad with faces. No shame in that, but it’s not face blindness.

A shaken Clark Kent, unconcerned about his sec...
Either everyone in Metropolis has prosopagnosia, or they’re a bunch of morons. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In other prosopagnosia-related news, I found this hilarious article speculating whether Superman induces face blindness in the people around him, which would explain why no one seems to see through his terrible Clark Kent disguise.

Finally, living at the intersection of face blindness and microfiction, the award-winning sci-fi author Ken Liu wrote his own 100-word story for the Drabblecast this week entitled “Prosopagnosia”. Go listen to the episode! The story’s unbelievably good, especially for its length, and best of all, it’s medically accurate! With the Brad Pitts of the world muddying up the definitions for the public, I always appreciate it when writers give a little TLC to scientific precision.

As an added bonus, listen for my 100-character story at the end of the episode. It’s under my forum name, Varda, but we’re the same person. Really.

Brad Pitt, if you’re reading this, I’m not the same person as Clark Kent. Sorry for the confusion.

Are you good or terrible with names and faces? Do you know someone or do you personally experience medical prosopagnosia? What’s it like?

Medical Microfiction: Brachymelia


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.”


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?