September 2, 2015

Dr. Thomas Lewis wrote a series of 31 essays for the New England Journal of Medicine in the early 1970s. They were eventually collected and published into a book entitled “The Lives of a Cell”. Lewis was a physician, poet, dean, immunology researcher, and essayist – he wrote a column for the NEJM for 10 years without pay because he was captivated with his voyage as a student of medicine. A Jesuit in my high school had our class read Lewis’ book for a class.   As a physician in training it is easy to understand why Lewis wrote with such conviction.

Studying medicine can be likened to a fantastic journey into the medical sciences, navigating in a submarine streaming throughout the body, peering out a periscope. Pick any organ system and you realize you possess a box seat ticket at your own Symphony Hall. The observer can take in the impressiveness of star performers with their instruments finely tuned to work collaboratively with other instrumentalists. They perform countless movements.

A cell can be compared to a concert hall showcasing instruments that imitate organelles – the basic parts of a cell. A Steinway Grand Piano becomes Endoplasmic Reticulum that shuttles us up and down the ducts of the cell via the tickling of the keys. A Stradivarius Violin morphs into Golgi Apparatus, packaging musical notes to produce a high powered protein. A Bach Trumpet emerges into a Mitochondria blaring full bodied energy, while DNA acts like Seiji Ozawa conducting all the movements via a template to produce a magnificent piece. Our bodies are that composition. We are that magnificent piece. Yet we are oblivious to the beautiful music our cells are making. The Jesuit Poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ, articulated it best in his 19th Century poem, God’s Grandeur:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

The recitals within our bodies, if one takes the time to pay attention, are mind blowing. They leave the audience members astounded that all of these performances occur 24/7 for our benefit. If one allows oneself, the viewing can deeply stir the soul at how it all happens effortlessly without our purposeful involvement and often times in spite of us. You can not help but stand after the show and silently whisper to yourself, “Bravo”. Then you realize you’re the only one attending the performance and you desperately want to tell someone. It really is that good. Pope Francis seems to be echoing a similar bravo in his encyclical, Laudato Si. A clarion call to have all of us bend before the Creator of the Universe and care for our bodies and our environment, he channels Hopkins: we are failing to “reck his rod” (take notice of His Creation).

Pope Francis may have taken a cue from Thomas Lewis, who may have been nudged by Hopkins. The theme is nonetheless timeless: our lives are remarkable yet we are not taking heed.

Viewing the daily news can spoil the fun. What is observed is a great deal of cacophony with plentiful Shakespearean theater. There are no symphonic performances, no stirring music nor cooperative movements. Our cells are busily working to keep us breathing and our hearts beating. Our outward behaviors, those we largely control, Pope Francis might argue, are destroying ourselves and each other.

Studying the renal system is like walking into a concert theater. The kidney is the grand hall divided into multiple compartments, then into smaller partitions, with groups of players fielding their kettle drums (glomeruli) and trombones (nephrons) to perform a final outcome – excretion. Unlike the behaviors the daily news reflects, our bodily systems are largely conducted via auto-regulation. Internally we are constantly being repositioned, reassessed and being readied to pivot. Our body is programmed to shift to rectify whatever dissonance occurs so that it can restore harmony. Our behaviors could take a few cues from our cells.

As I forge ahead with my studies I survey the environment and wonder what percentage of the patients and audiences to whom I will attend will realize their illnesses were self-inflicted. Physicians largely follow algorhythms that guide them with the most efficient and evidenced based data treatment paradigms to heal the sick. While the Christian Scriptures indicate that Jesus Christ instantaneously removed fevers by imposing His Hands, physicians aren’t quite as fortunate. They must use ordinary methods while their patients routinely undermine their internal strings, percussions and horns to return to the physicians for more.

“And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!” 

Edgar Allen Poe

It doesn’t have to be this way. If we took note of the symphonies playing inside of us we might find a bit of wonder. Perhaps we would even applaud ourselves, protect our instruments and play beautiful music outwardly. The raven wouldn’t have an opportunity evermore.

 

References:

Hopkins, G. M., Thornton, J. F., & Varenne, S. B. (2003). Mortal beauty, God’s grace: Major poems and spiritual writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Poe, E. A., & Allen, H. (1965). The complete tales and poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York, NY: Modern Library.

Pope Francis. (2015). Laudato si’ : on care for our common home. Vatican City: The Catholic Church.

Thomas, L. (1982). The lives of a cell: Notes of a biology watcher. New York, NY: Penguin Books.