Friday, November 2, 2007

The Body as Ecotone - Part 5 - Jeannine Hall Gailey

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made; or, How Am I Like the X-Men?
- Jeannine Hall Gailey


We all start out as children wondering if we are special, unique. We secretly believe we are not like anyone else; that, like Superman, we are orphans from a different planet, with phenomenal superpowers, being raised by "regular" humans. Sometimes these beliefs come true, but not in exactly the ways we had hoped.

There's a verse in Psalm 139 that goes something like "I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; I know that full well." When I studied biology for my undergraduate degree, and had the opportunity to do some real life dissection of the human body (a rarity for an undergrad, usually reserved for med school students) I did marvel that everything turned out so well: the layers of fascia, the bones beneath the sleek muscles, the fascinatingly complex eye and heart. I remember the professor saying, "None of your cadavers will look like the pictures in the text books; every body has a little abnormality - an enlarged liver, for instance, in this person, or a collapsed lung in this one. Some people have too many vertebrae in their spines, or too few, or an extra dozen feet of colon in their digestive tract." It was a wake-up call for me as I worked on the cadaver with my scalpel, not to take anything for granted. Maybe an organ was hiding beneath another organ, or it was on the wrong side, or it had a different shape and color.

My little brother and I read the X-Men comics together in the mid-eighties, a comic that focuses on characters who, through genetic mutation, have developed powers (like spontaneous healing or controlling the weather) that make them extremely helpful to the human race but also make them outsiders who have to battle bigotry against "mutant kind."

Recently, my hematologist, the kind of doctor that everyone should hope to have (caring, smart, dedicated, and a persistent detective) asked me to come in to her office to meet a few other doctors who were experts in the research of their respective fields, visitors at the University of Washington, where my hematologist teaches. One of the doctors, a woman about my age who looked like someone they'd cast as a doctor in a show like Grey's Anatomy (I think she was a pathologist, an expert in rare infectious diseases - now there's an interesting career!) was asking me about my various genetic and congenital abnormalities and health problems: an extremely rare genetic bleeding disorder called PAI-1 Deficiency, a "horseshoe" or single, long kidney hugging the front of my abdomen, a "twinned" uterus, an abnormal heartbeat, asthma, an enlarged thyroid, an allergy to sunlight (blisters and flu symptoms when I go out in bright sun for too long) and alcohol (I pass out after less than half a glass of wine.)

"Wow," she said, "Genetically, you've got to be one out of, like, 50 million. Have you noticed yourself developing any special powers? You know, like the X-Men?"

"Not yet," I responded, "but I'm pretty sure they're going to manifest any day now."

I know I am unique. Different. Special. Fearfully made, yes. Wonderfully made? I'm still working on coming to terms with that. A sense of wonder. Wondering.

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