Thursday, November 16, 2006

Scurvy of the Soul

Medical school is full of “That’s how that works?!!” moments. One I remember especially clearly was when I learned about scurvy:
Scurvy is a disease caused by a dietary deficiency of vitamin C (ascorbic acid). The disease has occurred with regular frequency throughout human history and prehistory in populations lacking fresh foods … Deficiency of the vitamin causes a breakdown in the binding function of these tissues, producing a series of characteristic signs and symptoms: weakness, lethargy, irritability, anemia, purple spongy gums which bleed freely, loosening teeth, the reopening of healed scars … and hemorrhaging in the mucous membranes and skin. In severe cases the mortality rate is high.
Up until then, I’d believed that scars were stronger than regular skin. When in fact they're weaker. Maybe this was something most everybody else knew, but it really shook me up. The mantra “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is so satisfying. “What doesn’t kill you leaves a scar that may weaken and rupture again if stressed” is kind of scary.

I got to thinking about this recently when I was doing a computer search to see if a paper I’d had published recently was showing up yet. Only one other person with my last name is published in the medical literature, so it was quickest to type in just my last name to look for my papers.

But it turns out that they’ve been slowly working backward in time to put medical articles into the citation system. Which is why the last time I entered my name into PubMed, two articles written by my father appeared.

My father was a statistician who collaborated with medical researchers, so it’s not surprising that he had some papers published under his name. But he died when I was five, and all I knew about his job is that it had something to do with computers. Seeing his name pop up without warning like that was painful; a reminder that he’s not here, and of how much he has missed. I had never even thought about the fact that we could have talked about my work.

People often say that you never get over a loved one’s death. When I was much younger, I hated to hear this. I spent a long time trying to convince myself that my father’s death didn’t really have an effect on me. It happened when I was so young, after all. But things did sneak up on me. When I was driving down a street one day I caught sight of a little girl learning to ride a bicycle, her father running behind her, his hand on the back of her seat. Suddenly I was so upset I had to pull over to the side of the road. Then I remembered that my father had just started teaching me how to ride a bike the summer he died. After he was gone I had to do it myself: there was a big pothole in our driveway, and if I climbed on the bike at the top of it and rolled down, there was just enough momentum to get me started. I did it over and over again until I had it.

Once glimpsed, the knowledge that a person who loves you and takes care of you can disappear in an instant never goes away. It can teach you to appreciate people, but it also makes you very wary.

The truth about what happens when something wounds you is that first there is pain and bleeding. Then you start to heal, and a scar forms. A scar is vastly better than nothing; at least the acute pain goes away, and you don’t bleed to death. But it’s never the same as it was.

I think that human interaction is like vitamin C for the soul: get too little, and your psychic wounds can reopen.

I guess that’s why I keep blogging.

22 comments:

Nichole said...

Could you be my doctor? Seriously? I may be full of pregnancy-induced hormones, but that post made me cry.

Country Mouse said...

Another beautiful and insightful post, DoctorMama. Thank you.

Glenda said...

I thoroughly enjoy your blog and am glad you keep blogging :-)

My husband and I especially appreciate your honesty about your experiences with depression. If more people were as honest, there wouldn't be such a stigma about taking meds for depression and anxiety.

ozma said...

This is such a fantastic analogy and a wonderful post. But it makes me wonder if the reason scars re-open is because they must be maintained in a certain way by the body. (Well, naturally!) I guess I meant, the body has to do sort of upkeep on the scar different than the upkeep on skin. (Dig my proficient use of medical terminology. Upkeep!)

I suppose what I meant is that we must be maintaining the mental scars and re-sealing them in some ways but we have these moments where that method doesn't work for one reason or other.

I'm so sorry you lost your father young. I had a loss as a child and I find it interesting that I did exactly what you did--told myself it didn't matter, sort of plowed forward--which is what people do, of course. But for all its advantages, I wonder if there isn't another way to heal or go forward. I don't know, I just wonder.

Sarah said...

This post tugs at my heart... I like the scar analogy (physical vs. mental). I have one significant one of each (physical scars from my daughter’s delivery, a c-section and uterine rupture repair, and emotional scars from her death) and sometimes it is hard to separate them in my mind. I've thought about both and how they are related and similar, but haven't found words as elegant as these to describe my thoughts.

Thank you for writing...

Cecily said...

Ah, this post really got me. My dad didn't die until I was an adult but he wasn't in my life and I often have the same pangs when I see a father/daughter pair doing things like bike riding. It's very hard--I often describe it has having a dad-shaped hole in my heart.

Congratulations on getting a paper published. And if it's any consolation, seeing your dad's name in research archives is better than on the sex offender registry--which is where I once found my dad (long story. Not a good one, either)...

kate said...

Sent over here by Sarah...and i have to say that was a beautiful post.

bryan torre said...

One of your best of a lot of good posts.

magicdrgn said...

Amazing post.

grad007 said...

I'm crying too.

Larki said...

Write a book? Please? You are so good.

Also, I am so sorry about your father. What a big loss, at such a young age.

Kim said...

A very touching post. Thanks for sharing with us. I'm very glad you blog.

Orange said...

If human interaction is like vitamin C for the soul, then blogging must be like chicken soup for the soul.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post.
Sarah

Sugar Pixie said...

*hug*

Kimberly said...

I finally got around to putting on makeup this morning and now I am crying it off. Really good post.

B.E.C.K. said...

"Once glimpsed, the knowledge that a person who loves you and takes care of you can disappear in an instant never goes away. It can teach you to appreciate people, but it also makes you very wary."

Well said. I'm sorry about your dad, even after all these years. *hug*

Liza said...

I come from a very emotionally screwed-up family. A lot of bad things have happened to both my parents, and their parents, and so on back several generations.
Still, when I found an old DSS file on my father's family from the 1920s detailing heart-wrenching trauma in the lives of my five-year-old father and his nine-year-old brother, when both of them were in their eighties and neither of them very sympathetic "characters," I was shaken. The first-hand familiarity with what such things are like for children coupled with the fact that my father and his brother are two very mean, cynical old men who have been the way they are now since long before my birth...I have only known my father and his brother as an already-retired and sick old men, but in the file he and his brother were described in the file as cheeky little boys who started out happy in the earlier notes, and ended up the way they stayed for the rest of their lives in later assessments...ouch.
Did you read the papers? By the time I was learned enough to appreciate and discuss his scholarly field, my father was senile enough that he could not. I haven't had the courage to order his dissertation from his alma mater, although it can be done online. Part of my sees no reason in the world why I should, and part of me would really like to read it, and I keep telling myself I'm too busy or broke or that I'll do it later...I'm interested to see what you did!

E. said...

Beautiful post. I love this metaphor.

emjaybee said...

Funny. I have been thinking about my dad a lot too, lately. He died 15 years ago when I was just 20. His birthday is today, though I didn't remember till my Mom mentioned it.

Maybe it's that my little boy has his lopsided grin (so do I) and because my dad loved his other grandkids so. I wish he were here to meet this one, because they would get along like gangbusters. My dad wasn't always a great dad, but he rocked as a grandfather.

I think of missing him a bit like an injured leg that never healed correctly; you learn to cope, but you always limp a little.

Betty said...

On my mother-in-law's 70th birthday, she came upstairs with tears streaming down her cheeks. I was really frightened that she must have fallen or something. Instead she said, "here I am 70 years old and I still can't get over the fact that I never knew my father." Her situation was due to abandonment, which I've only ever heard her discuss matter-of-factly. She is an awesome, worldly woman who has raised a wonderful family and has a great life, and yet her pain is obviously still so raw. Time does not heal all wounds.

ALG said...

Beautiful post. Thank you for writing it! I wrote about something similar, but from a slightly different perspective, on my blog recently.