Tag Archives: Drabbles

Endemic! Week: Brain Parasites

Endemic! Week: an entire week of microfiction crafted around the word “endemic.” If you missed the introduction, read about it here.

They Always Land on their Feet

“Brain parasite Toxoplasma gondii infects rats through cat feces. It reprograms the rats’ brains. Make them fearless thrill-seekers,” Erica shouted over the plane engine. “They’ll dance between a cat’s paws after infection. Cats give people Toxo too. Freaky, eh?”

“Not really. Imagine losing your fear of death–sounds exhilarating. The ultimate adrenaline high,” Dave answered.

“Suit yourself. See you at the bottom!” Erica leapt from the plane’s open door. Far below, Erica’s parachute unfurled.

Dave gazed at the mountain peaks below. Like fang-rimmed jaws. “I’m going now!” He jumped.

The skydiving instructor grabbed for him, missed. “Wait! You forgot your ‘chute!”

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Hard at work producing brain parasites.
Hard at work producing brain parasites. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do you own cats? Then there’s a chance that you’re already infected with toxoplasma gondii. The bad news is that Toxo is endemic among people who clean cat litter boxes, eat raw or undercooked meat, or eat unwashed veg. The good news? Provided you’re not pregnant or immunocompromised, Toxo appears to be relatively harmless.

Toxo’s a versatile protozoan (not the same thing as a bacterium or virus). All felines, from housecats to tigers, act as its primary host. Inside the intestines of cats, Toxo undergoes sexual reproduction and forms packages called oocysts in the intestinal lining. These oocysts, filled with dormant Toxo cells, get shed when the cat poops.

Next, the oocysts lie in wait for another warm-blooded mammal to stop by the cat scat. Someone like Dave, perhaps, scoops out the litter box, forgets to wash his hands, and with his next meal he consumes a few oocysts. When those oocysts hit his intestines, they spring into action, infiltrating the intestinal lining, but this time their goal is to release invaders directly into the bloodstream. These bits of Toxo ride your blood all over your body, setting up shop in your organs, muscles, and brain.

Yes, it infects your brain.

Life cycle of Toxoplasma gondii
Life cycle of Toxoplasma gondii. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Toxo forms cysts in the areas it settles in, and congratulations: you’re now permanently infected with Toxoplasma gondii. You’ve got ’em for life, buddy. Fortunately, this is as far as the Toxo can go. It just hangs out, hoping you’ll get eaten by a cat so that the whole cycle can start anew.

Unfortunately for Toxo, humans don’t get eaten much by felines these days. Perhaps we featured more prominently in Toxo’s life cycle back when lions and bobcats were a daily threat. Nowadays, it’s mice and rats that primarily perpetuate the Toxo cycle.

Here’s the interesting thing: in rodents, Toxo infection causes behavioral changes. Rats with Toxo lose their fear of cats. They’ll attack cats directly, or just waffle around when a cat comes after them. Obviously this is to the Toxo’s advantage — it wants the rat to behave dumbly so it can get eaten by a cat, continuing the life cycle. There’s evidence that Toxo causes personality changes in humans as well, making us more likely to take risks.

How common is Toxoplasma gondii? It’s one of the most common parasites found in humans. Up to a third of the world’s estimated to be infected. If you live in the United States, your odds are one in four. So wash your hands, wash your vegetables, and don’t eat cat poop. Otherwise you’ll join the standing army of Toxo carriers all around us right now.

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Medical Microfiction: Hepatic

Drinking Buddies

Randy walked into the bar pushing a stroller.

“Well, whaddaya know? Randy, you look great!” Louis said. “How’d the surgery go? Let me buy you a round.”

Randy nodded. “I’ll have a bourbon. Scotch for my friend here.” He patted the stroller affectionately. “The transplant was a complete success. Never felt better!”

Louis peered into the stroller. Strapped inside was a dark reddish-gray meat blob wrapped in a blanket. Randy doused it with the scotch and sipped his bourbon. The blob twitched.

“My liver,” Randy explained. “They let me keep the old one. I never abandon an old drinking buddy.”

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1792 bourbon whiskey
1792 bourbon whiskey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve got a thing for disembodied organs. No really, I love disembodied organs! One of the best parts about working on a second degree in the sciences is getting to do dissections again. Over the last year, I did two eyeballs and a brain (all of them from sheep or cows). There’s nothing quite like seeing for yourself how such complicated biological machines are put together. I have to buy a new laptop every few years, and yet the wads of meat inside me somehow keep chugging along year after year with nary an oil change.

Given that, if you ever get the chance to see one of your own organs outside your body, don’t pass it up. A great regret of mine is missing such an opportunity a few years ago. You can bet that I won’t make the same mistake twice! After all, how often do you get to look at one of your own organs and live to tell the tale?

Instead, we should follow Randy’s example. Randy’s a guy who knows how to pay homage to his excised organs. Today’s word “hepatic” means “pertaining to the liver”. Randy’s liver transplant would be a “hepatectomy”. This story was inspired by a piece of good news from the organ transplant world. Livers are historically difficult to transplant. A lot of them die en route to the patients that need them because it’s hard to keep an organ viable when it’s no longer hooked up to the body. That’s where this shiny new device comes in. It’s a liver habitat! Cool, right? At long last, we can finally take our livers out for a drink. Literally.

Treat ’em to the good stuff! They can tell the difference.

What beverages do you treat your liver to? Mine prefers Strongbow cider and stouts of all kinds. Rieslings are excellent, but my liver rebels when it’s not from the Rhine or Mosel River like all Rieslings should be.

Medical Microfiction: Leukocytes

“The Charge of the White Brigade”

“Rodgers, stand down!” I commanded.

Behind his gun, Rodgers sneered. An army of clones swarmed behind him. “Screw that. I don’t take orders anymore. The universe is mine. Surrender.”

I touched my insignia. Meaningless. I’d lost my whole army fighting Rodgers. “The clone multiplication’s destabilized the universe. Your rebellion’s destroying it. We won’t survive the next radioactive shockwave.”

“You’re bluffing.” Rodgers took aim. “Die.”

The universe spoke. Its booming voice threw us to our knees: One more round of chemo. Then the marrow transplant.

I understood. For the universe’s sake, the faithful and corrupt must perish alike. “Rodgers. Please… proceed.”

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Fighting Rodgers
Fighting Rodgers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Leukocytes (white blood cells) are your body’s military, responsible for defending the homeland against invaders. Leukemia is a cancer where immature white blood cells proliferate much too rapidly to the point where they crowd out other important cells. It’s a particularly vicious form of cancer. It’s a military coup, if you will. Rodgers is trying to call the shots, and the General’s outgunned.

Fortunately, many forms of leukemia can be treated with a bone marrow transplant. Leukocytes originate in the bone marrow, so if you can replace the marrow, you can stop the abnormal multiplication. It’s like doing a hard reset on your immune system. You nuke all the bone marrow in your body–the good with the bad–and receive bone marrow from a donor, which will regrow and return your leukocytes to factory settings.

There’s something inherently tragic about cancer treatments, in that they’re invariably destructive rather than constructive. Cancer’s hard for your body to fight because from your body’s perspective, the cancer cells look like they belong there. They contain the same identity markers as the other cells produced in your body. Treatments like chemotherapy kill off a lot of harmless cells with the harmful ones. This is why chemo often causes hair loss. The weapon that harms Rodgers also harms his neighbors.

From left to right: erythrocyte, thrombocyte, ...
From left to right: erythrocyte, thrombocyte, leukocyte (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today’s story is an homage to these innocent bystanders in the fight against cancer. Faithful, loyal, sticking to their jobs until the bitter end, these cells must die that the universe be saved. But their sacrifice is not forgotten.

A dear friend of mine will soon be undergoing another round of chemo for her leukemia while she waits for an update on a possible bone marrow match. This is cool: the doctors think they might have a match with someone on another continent! Amazing, huh? I never knew the network extended so far!

I recently joined the National Bone Marrow Donor Program. Please consider joining the registry too, if you meet the requirements. Leukemia is a terrible disease. Somewhere in the world, a much-loved man, woman, or child may be battling Rodgers, and reinforcements from your personal army might be the key to his defeat.

The odds of two people matching is roughly 1 in 20,000, which is why it’s so incredibly important to have lots people on the registry. If you’re between the ages of 18 and 44, the process is 100% free. Just click the link, fill out a short survey about your health, and they’ll mail you some cheek swabs to collect a few of your cells. After that, your data stays on file in case someone who matches you gets sick.

Donation is ridiculously safe and easy. It’s not often that we have the opportunity to help fight cancer in such a tangible way. This will help! Let’s join forces and fight off Rodgers.

If you or someone you know has dealt with/is dealing with cancer, I’d love to hear your story. Let me know in the comments section below!

Medical Microfiction: Lalopathy

“Snickers”

When I was young, kids picked on me. It figures; I lisped and enjoyed reading French philosophers. To cope, I made up Snickers: a deathray-shooting flying tiger who devoured bullies and spat out candy.

Eventually I outgrew Snickers, but not the bullies.

Years later, I joined the Navy and got my first submarine assignment. On my first day underwater, the red alert sounded. I rushed to my station just in time to witness my jackass commanding officer disappearing down the maw of Snickers!

“Thnickerth!” I shouted. “What giveth?”

Spraying a hail of gumdrops, Snickers roared, “I SINK, THEREFORE I AM!”

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Snickers & Mars 2
Snickers & Mars 2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know, I know. That was a terrible pun, wasn’t it? But did it make you… snicker?

A lalopathy is a general term for any speech disorder. I’m thrilled to feature this word today as it’s the first word that falls in my area of specialty. The narrator’s speech disorder results in a mix-up that brings his ridiculously absurd imaginary friend to life in adulthood. It’s a good thing he imagined something small enough to fit on a submarine, or there’d be a whole different set of problems!

One of the reasons I love my little corner of science is that our speech has such a profound ability to make or break communication. Normal speech promotes understanding; abnormal speech interrupts understanding. But maybe on the rare occasion, a little misunderstanding could be a good thing. Like when the bullies come after you.

And then, beware of Snickers!

Did you have an imaginary friend when you were a kid? Does said friend ever visit in your old age?

Medical Microfiction: Rigor Mortis

“I’ll Explain It One More Time”

“So you see, Honey, zombies just wouldn’t work in the real world,” Jason explained. “Dying cells flood your muscle fibers with calcium ions, causing myosin-actin cross-bridging, which makes all your muscles contract at once. Y’know, rigor mortis. Without ATP, your muscles can’t unclench, and of course a dead body doesn’t make ATP. When your muscles finally start to relax, that’s because the myofilaments are decaying, and by that point you won’t exactly be able to chase anyone for their brains, will you?”

“GRAAAAAAAHH,” his wife moaned, clawing at him as she strained against the ropes holding her to the shed.

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English: Biohazard Placard
English: Biohazard Placard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My husband and I had a discussion similar to this conversation, so I promised to immortalize him in this Drabble. Of course, this is entirely a work of fiction, firstly because you can guess who REALLY explained myosin-actin crossbridging, and secondly because the real Jason and I have a longstanding pact to put each other down if one of us gets zombified.

That’s true love, folks.

In the meantime, fictional Jason did a dandy job explaining today’s medical term, rigor mortis. Calcium signals the first step in muscle contraction. Usually your body keeps that calcium stowed away inside cells and carefully controls its release, but in death, cell walls explode willy-nilly, causing calcium to flood your system. Jason and I agree that this should logically prevent any would-be zombie from doing much of anything except staring longingly at your retreating brain. But Jason also pointed out that while this nixes “science zombies”, it doesn’t rule out “magic zombies”, which would of course be animated by a mysterious blue glow, thus avoiding the whole calcium problem.

So there you have it: when the zombie apocalypse happens, don’t look to the CDC for answers. Look to Hogwarts.

Since I live a short drive away from the locations featured in The Walking Dead, I know what NOT to do to survive a zombie apocalypse in Georgia. But there’s always the chance I’ll be traveling when it happens. So I want to hear about your zombie escape plan! Tell me about it in the comments section below.

Medical Microfiction: Myeloencephalic

“Lisa’s Pony”

Lisa danced from foot to foot beside her mother’s bed. “Mommy, I can’t sleep.”

Olivia stirred. “What’s wrong?”

Lisa showed her a pink, squashy, pony-shaped pillow. “Buttercup’s tag itches me!”

“Just pull it off,” mumbled Olivia.

“I can’t.” Lisa pointed to the tag, which read: DO NOT REMOVE UNDER PENALTY OF LAW.

Olivia took the pillow from Lisa. “That’s nothing. We can ignore that, sweetie.”

She ripped out the tag. With a sick gurgling sound, the pony jerked and stiffened, a black fluid oozing from the rip.

Olivia screamed. From the tag dangled eighteen tiny vertebrae and a pulsating brain.

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Cautionary Tales (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Cautionary Tales (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When is a pony pillow not a pony pillow? When it’s myeloencephalic, of course! This is a fancy word that simply means, “Pertaining to the spinal cord and brain.”

This story, like yesterday’s, was written for the Drabblecast’s weekly microfiction contest. The prompt was to write a story where following directions is a good idea. I got to thinking about all those horrible cautionary tales of old, such as the hilarious and terrifying German storybook StruwwelpeterI wanted to write something like that to explain why we shouldn’t rip those tags off of our pillows., even if they’re annoying us.

I’ve heard people riff on this before, and usually the joke’s that the police will show up at your door with handcuffs because they’re secretly monitoring pillows everywhere for violators. However, I wanted a sci-fi twist.

English: Spanish Walking Stick (Leptynia hispa...
English: Spanish Walking Stick (Leptynia hispanica), Le Caylar, Languedoc-Roussillon, France (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve noticed how pillow tags are always on the animal’s butt, if attached to a plushie of some sort. That suggests it’s attached to the terminal end of the spinal column, right? In my story, the pillow (and its tag) is a mimic of some sort, like one of those bugs that looks like a stick, but isn’t. Maybe it’s an alien life form that feeds off of human delta brainwaves while they sleep. Maybe it peacefully grazes on bedbugs while we’re out and about during the day. Either way, the tag’s just a clever gimmick designed to keep us from taking too close a look!

Now that you’ve all gotten a look into my slightly twisted sense of humor, let’s hear from you! Got a favorite cautionary tale, or a theory on what those dang tags mean?

Motley Microfiction: The Last Temptation of Ginger

“The Last Temptation of Ginger”

On the rooftop, Satan sighed. By contract, he had to do this with anyone claiming godhood, but this was getting ridiculous. “Ginger,” he said, “if you’re God, throw yourself from the rooftop.”

The feline washed her paws.

“You’ve got to pick one. Either jump or refuse,” Satan explained.

Ginger ignored him. She never followed directions.

Satan glanced surreptitiously at the sky, then produced a laser pointer. Ginger leaped after the red dot. “MRRRRRROOOoooooowwww!” She plummeted twenty storeys down.

Satan chuckled. “Works every time.”

But behind him, he heard a sound. A meow. He turned. His eyes widened. “Oh my God!”

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English: A picture of my orange tabby cat Ging...

Today I’m taking a break from the medical-themed pieces to bring you this little story, written for the Drabblecast’s weekly microfiction contest. The theme was “Test of Faith”, and this is what I came up with.

Cats, as we all know, believe they’re divine. Given the sheer number of cats in the world, the odds are that for one cat out there, it’s got to be a fact and not just narcissism. The test of faith is not the cat’s; the cat already knows it’s divine. It’s poor Beelzebub who must confront his own presuppositions.

Then again, maybe cats are just really, really good at throwing themselves off of rooftops. Satan needs a new litmus test.

Having tested the patience of the divine with that nasty laser pointer trick, I have to wonder what happens next. What do you think the punishment’s going to be? More importantly, has anyone else’s cat performed a miracle or two that we should all know about?

Medical Microfiction: Anoxia

“Name That Extinction Event”

The researcher marveled at her discovery. It was all so elegant. The equation made perfect sense. Water plus carbon dioxide–in conjunction with sunlight–would yield all the food they needed. World hunger would end overnight. One simple gene splice and everyone could make their own food on demand.

Her colleague tapped the end of the equation. “There’s a problem. The food will be infinite, yes, and practically free. But what about this byproduct? Technically it’s poisonous, and it could lead to global cooling.”

The researcher waved him off. “Oh, I’m sure a little extra oxygen in the atmosphere won’t hurt anyone.”

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Cyanobacteria
Cyanobacteria (Photo credit: Argonne National Laboratory)

Did you guess The Great Oxygenation Event? If so, you’re right!

“Anoxia” means a lack of oxygen. Medically, this could mean a lack of oxygen in the blood, brain, or in the muscles. If you rely on aerobic respiration (which, if you’re human, you do), then anoxia is a Very Bad Thing. But lots of creatures out there feel the same way about oxygen as we do about carbon dioxide or methane. Hidden away in the most extreme environments on Earth, we find these extremophiles, creatures that thrive under conditions that seem hostile to life. For example,  anaerobic bacteria that live in our bowels are responsible for the, ahem, methane we expel.

These anaerobes used to rule the world. Back in the day, the Earth’s atmosphere contained practically no oxygen and tons of methane. Like carbon dioxide, methane’s a greenhouse gas, but it retains even more heat than carbon dioxide. If carbon dioxide’s a light jacket, then methane’s a parka. This really wasn’t a problem for the extremophiles since they thrived in these conditions.

AIRS maps the distribution of carbon dioxide i...
AIRS maps the distribution of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Enter some enterprising cyanobacteria. These little guys pioneered the art of photosynthesis, harvesting the power of the sun to make food. As the cyanobacteria pumped out oxygen like a boss, the methane in the atmosphere converted to carbon dioxide, and gradually the oxygen levels rose as well, causing a drop in global temperatures. These conditions led to global freezing and mass extinction of many forms of anaerobic life.

If cyanobacteria were sentient, you have to wonder if they’d think about the ramifications of inventing photosynthesis. Would they believe their small actions could have such a big impact on the world? Would they hold debates on climate change and weigh the benefits against the costs? Would they have any pity or regret for driving the anaerobes to such hard times, in some cases literally living in crap for survival?

But I’m sure a little extra oxygen in the atmosphere isn’t going to hurt anyone.

In the wake of last week’s historic high benchmark of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, this is worth thinking about. What questions should shape our ethic for how we treat our environment?

Medical Microfiction: Necrogenous

“Zombie Appleseed”

A bird must’ve crapped that appleseed onto the moist, organic matter of his rotting brain. It took root, nurtured by the sun and the putrid decaying tissue of Johnny’s body. Soon it blossomed into a fine apple tree. You couldn’t tell where the tree ended and Johnny began!

He shambled westward, scattering apples behind him. When he reached Boise, we whooped and broke out the cider press. Time to get drunk again!

Usually we brained zombies, but Johnny produced the finest cider ever made by a human mind. So we set him free.

Anyway, sorry about the outbreak in Sacramento.

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English: Drawing of Jonathan Chapman, aka John...
English: Drawing of Jonathan Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Necrogenous” means originating in dead or decaying matter. In a medical sense, this is nothing but bad news. But in a literary sense, the idea might have a seed of hope in it (pun intended).

This time of year puts gardens on my mind. I’ve got a container garden on my back porch, and with Georgia being so temperate, there are already tomatoes forming on the vines. In the case of a zombie apocalypse, there’ll be a lot of mobile dead matter out and about. And what likes dead matter? A garden! All it would take would be a well-timed bird poop, and bam! Meals on Wheels! Don’t you think a human skull would make a great planter, with all the little drainage holes? …not that I know from experience or anything.

Remember, folks, always brain your zombies.

What’s your favorite cider? Would you ever try produce grown in a zombie’s brain?

Medical Microfiction: Opisthotonos

“Mixed Media”

You could recognize the sculptor’s exquisite golden nudes by their unusual pose: arched back, body balanced on the tips of the fingers, toes, and the crown of the head.

When asked what inspired him, the artist would grin enigmatically and reply, “Each piece undergoes its own unique transformation.”

Back in his studio, the sculptor returned to work. He approached the cages with a sharp, rusty nail. Each contained a model in progressive stages of the disease. Some already showed signs of lockjaw.

“This won’t hurt much,” he promised, puncturing the sole of each foot. “The gilding process… now that’ll hurt.”

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Painting showing opisthotonos in a patient suf...
Painting showing opisthotonos in a patient suffering from tetanus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A lot of medical terms are words for things you hope you’ll never experience in real life. Things you don’t want ANY human to experience. But it’s disturbing to think that if the word exists, it probably happened to someone. And it happened to enough someones that it was worth a physician’s time to make up a word for it.

That’s what I thought when I learned about the tetanic spasms. The condition of tetanus arises when a bacterium called Clostridium tetani infects your central nervous system and produces a neurotoxin. This neurotoxin causes your skeletal muscles to contract without releasing, which means that your body twists and arches into weird positions without your consent. You’re frozen in that position for minutes at a time. Lather, rinse, and repeat for a month, if you don’t die first.

Interestingly, the ancient Greeks gave names to the three unique positions that tetanus sends the body into. There’s opisthotonos, where your back arches and your feet dig into the ground so that you’re sort of a human table, balanced on your head and toes. There’s emprothotonos, where your body arcs to the side. And finally, there’s orthotonos, where you stretch out in a straight line.

Tetanus bacilli (clostrium tetani)
Tetanus bacilli (clostrium tetani) (Photo credit: Sanofi Pasteur)

It’s terrifying to realize that these spasms turn your body into an object of sorts. Your muscles are no longer under your control. You’re human furniture, at the will of the neurotoxin until it fades, or until your muscles give out under the strain. That’s horrifying. And so that’s the angle I took with today’s story: a creative madman turns a disease into art, to the detriment of his human models.

Moral: keep your tetanus boosters up-to-date!

What’s the price of art? Do you believe the old saying that you have to suffer for your art in order for it to offer something genuine?