The magical human body

The magical human body

All too often, we look at our bodies as a white-elephant
offering rather than as a treasured gift. We’d happily pass to
someone else our varicose veins, oversize nose, frizzy hair,
extra-wide feet. We’d swap in a minute our pokey metabolism, our
allergies, our bellies that hurt when we eat dairy products.
All too often, we look at our bodies as a white-elephant offering rather than as a treasured gift. We’d happily pass to someone else our varicose veins, oversize nose, frizzy hair, extra-wide feet. We’d swap in a minute our pokey metabolism, our allergies, our bellies that hurt when we eat dairy products.

Yet whatever we might think, the body is, indeed, a gift. Hair and skin, blood and bones, crooks of elbows and knees, it is connections and pathways, a puzzle and a patchwork quilt.

It is a symphony and a souffle, a sunrise and sunset. Without each instrument, each ingredient, each interspersing of light and shadow, it falters a little; its magnificence a bit shriller or flatter or darker. Yet with each, it moves and heals; it rests and breathes and grows.

Dr. Tom Shires knows more than most about the intricacies and awes of the human body, and day after day he revels in them. He gave up his dream of being a rock star to become a physician. The rhythm of the human pulse has replaced the beat of his beloved string bass and trumpet – ever steady, ever true. Several times each day, in his role as chair of surgery at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, he makes gigantic as well as microscopic cuts into these masterpieces. He removes what shouldn’t be there, and helps strengthen that which belongs.

Each time, he balances knowledge with mystery, putting into practice what he has been taught and what he has learned, continually struck again by enigmas that may never be answered.

“The body talks to itself,” Shires says, taking a break in one of the hospital’s fourth-floor waiting rooms. “I operated on a patient’s 60-year-old liver recently. It had grown as he grew, and stopped growing in his adolescence. When it got a little cancer on it, I removed half of it. Somehow the ‘on’ switch gets turned back on and it starts growing. How does the body perceive it’s only half there, and when it’s fully grown it stops growing? Take 80 percent of the liver out and in a couple of months, it’s back.

“It’s God; it’s magic. It makes you religious. Who in creation planned you’d need to grow a liver back?”

Shires talks quickly, in part because his beeper could go off any second and he’d have to leave, yet also because he seems hardly able to contain his excitement.

“This is something different every day,” he says. “It’s like fishing in the ocean. You cast your lines, but until you pull it up and look, you don’t know what’s there. What’s real is what we hold in our hands, what we see with our eyes, what we smell.

“We’re born and we die, and all things conspire to get us through the journey.”

For most of our lives, during much of that jaunt, we tend to take our bodies for granted. We don’t think to stop and marvel, though well we should: A cut that bled through a paper napkin last week is glass-smooth skin today. A baby is born, each finger and toe a perfect creation.

Floss, and you’re less likely to get heart disease. Lose weight, and your body rejoices with a chorus of lowered cholesterol, brighter mood, reduced risk of diabetes. Quit smoking, and almost immediately your lungs are clearer. Get one massage and your immune system becomes more resilient.

Snap your fingers. Swim a lap. Sleep. Stand on a street corner and watch marathoners run by. Each moves forward, yet each body is different; each pace, each form, each landing of the feet on concrete. What makes one run faster than another, or a basketball player jump higher, or a piano player’s fingers move in staccato steps? How do the body’s parts work together to make that happen, or falter to prevent the simplest of movements?

Sometimes, it takes a breakdown in this system to draw attention to how wonderful it is. Since the end of August, my father has been in and out of hospitals and rehabilitation centers. At 83, his body has endured congestive heart failure, a broken back; one surgery was to insert a pacemaker, another to remove a melanoma. With age, his skin has become thin – not in the way his sensitive daughter’s is, but quite literally. When I see him, he frequently has a new place on his arm that’s bleeding.

Yet neck-and-neck with his health issues is his determination to strike back at what his body is hurling at him. Until he went to rehab, he never understood the appeal of exercise. Yet he looked forward to and excelled at the physical-therapy sessions that still help strengthen his body, and which helped get him home.

I sat in on some of them, watched a group of people brought together by fate and circumstance: The man with the half-spiral of stitching encircling his shaved head, the young woman in the electric wheelchair, the older woman on oxygen. They held tiny weights no heavier than a box of cereal, made moves however slight.

Yet their bodies responded; I could see my dad getting stronger. At the end of each three-hour session, he’d say, “Honey, that felt great.”

Dad will never run a marathon; he may never walk more than a block or two. But he does what he can with what he has been given. His accomplishments – manipulating his wheelchair, rolling into bed without twisting his back – are every bit as successful as my son’s when he hurls a volleyball over the net at nose-breaking speed, or triple-jumps a few inches farther than he did a month ago.

We’re entrusted, each of us, to make the most of this gift which we are granted. I will never look as young, weigh as little or be as tall as I might like. My nose won’t be as cute as my best friend’s, my teeth straight as my son’s, my feet small as my mom’s.

Truth to tell and for the most part, that’s OK by me. What matters is that I am able to tie my shoes in a double knot, and to pull the warm red cap my father gave me over my ears. I can start running, because even if I don’t go as fast or far as I would like, I will do it, simply because I can.

It’s just my way of whispering – once I get started I don’t have much breath for anything else – thank you. For this most precious of gifts.

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