I am amazed
at the way the human body can handle pain. There seems to be a device
built into our pain management system that shifts gears to allow
us to survive severe pain, yet also allows us to feel the slightest
discomforts. A while back I was shoving things around on our kitchen
countertop to make room for the dirty dishes. In my organization
efforts I managed to shove a glass tumbler over the edge and onto
the floor. Incredibly the glass did not break thanks to my foot's
misfortune of taking most of the impact. A kitchen countertop is
36 inches from the floor. One might not think that an object falling
three feet would have a lot of destructive energy but my foot would
disagree. Curiously, my pain center processed the result of the
impact almost before the glass hit. It was as if something said
"This is going to hurt!" before actual impact. Too bad
the "Move your foot NOW!" message couldn't get processed
a bit faster. If you have had similar experiences with items dropping
onto your foot, you know how it feels. It even forces people to
say things like "Darn!" or "Shucks!" or even
"Son of a gun!" On the bright side, there are secondary
gains to be had, such as a loving spouse who offers to finish cleaning
the dishes, or even massage a sore foot if the pain continues.
In my experiences
with pain I have found that certain injuries hurt like the dickens
while others seem to melt away over time. I guess that is because
of the gear-shifting in our autonomic nervous system. It has to
be auto-something because I do not seem to be able to control much
of it manually. Ever had a paper cut? Ever had one in the really
sensitive area of your finger near a joint or a knuckle? If you
have, you know how that tiny cut will sting and hurt for days. But
look what happens when we are seriously hurt. We adapt to the bigger
pain in very short order. I cut three fingers off once on a table
saw and was just flabbergasted that the pain did not knock me unconscious.
Yes, it hurt, but I was able to survive the experience. More gear-shifting,
I ran across
a term recently that has me thinking there is a lot about the human
body we do not understand. That term is apoptosis.
In plain English, apoptosis means programmed cell death. It is the
method the human body uses to eliminate unwanted cells. For example,
while we are in our mother's womb, apoptosis is responsible for
eliminating the webbing between our fingers and toes. The instructions
for this procedure are said to be in the actual cells themselves.
This got me thinking there are some interesting ramifications from
apoptosis. First, maybe there is significant intelligence located
in our body's cells. Surely we have all heard the expression "I
have a bad feeling about this," or "Something inside me
says this is not good." Maybe that something inside us sending
out the bad feeling is intelligence at the cellular level. The second
thought I have about apoptosis is metaphoric. Perhaps there is an
apoptotic process in our pain management system that purposely destroys
the cells that would have us screaming all the way to the ER when
we go adigital via a table saw. And maybe a similar process is at
work to lessen the emotional pain of some of our life experiences.
We say we will "Get over it," or that "Time will
help heal." Could this also be a form of apoptosis?
In the emotional
pain department, I wonder if there is such a thing as apoptosis
followed by reverse apoptosis. Here's the scenario for this: we
experience something that would (or should) cause us deep emotional
pain. A traumatic, non-physical experience that our body accommodates
for by shifting gears immediately, but keeps that memory in reserve
so it can be released in small doses at a safe time. I will share
an example to make my case for reverse apoptosis. As a member of
a Ranger reconnaissance unit in Vietnam, my job was to find the
enemy and report this information back to our "higher-ups"
(superiors) so they could decide where to send forces. We would
typically go on missions into suspected enemy areas looking for
bad guys. We traveled light, wore camouflage, face paint, carried
the enemy's weapons (AK-47) at times, and pretty much did whatever
it took to get the job done. We worked in five-man teams and were
incredibly successful in finding trouble. We often inserted using
helicopters and often in the dark. You might be thinking that a
helicopter makes so much noise that the enemy would know we were
there. You would be right some of the time, but not all the time.
In the dark, the choppers would fly without any lights and would
drop us off at a predetermined location. I believe we were successful
because the enemy probably thought that a helicopter was having
mechanical problems and that explained its brief landing. After
all, who would be crazy enough to start a mission in the dark and
with such a small force that only one chopper could carry? Amazingly,
we often walked right into bad guys who would come out to see what
One night my
team made an insertion and as the chopper lifted off, the blades
hit some palm fronds and it made a sound a lot like someone firing
a weapon at us. Two or three of the team instinctively fired in
the direction of the sound of the palm trees. Seconds later, someone
fired back at us. It turned out that there actually were enemy in
the area and we had practically landed on top of them. By chance
we had mistaken the sound of the palm fronds being hit by the chopper
blades for gunfire and had stirred some bad guys in the process.
So we were instantly in a gun battle though we had not seen anyone.
By now the chopper had lifted off and we were at the mercy of dumb
luck, the darkness, and two helicopter gunships that escorted the
Huey we had flown on.
I was one of
two team members with a radio and could hear the chopper pilots
trying to figure out how to get us out of there. The transport chopper
was not willing to set back down in the middle of a firefight, so
it was up to the gunships and our team to make it safe enough for
an extraction. A gunship pilot radioed that he could see a bad guy
standing near us and tried to get us to fire in the correct direction.
It was too noisy and chaotic to accomplish this task, however. The
gunship even flew over to drop smoke on the enemy but we still could
not see him in the total darkness. Seeing no other option, the gunship
instructed us to get down. We dropped immediately and the gunship
put on a searchlight for a second to illuminate the target. Then
the gunner in the gunship opened up with their mini-gun. A mini-gun
is a modern multiple-barreled Gatling
gun capable of firing hundreds, if not thousands of rounds per
minute. They fire so fast you don't even hear the normal sound of
a machine gun. It sounds more like a woman's high-pitched scream
or cry. Every ninth round was a tracer which glows as it travels
to its destination. In the dark, it appears as one stream of liquid
bright orange light due to the high rate of fire. If you are a "good
guy", meaning one of us, you get a tremendous feeling of relief.
If these things are being fired at you, it has to at least relieve
all symptoms of constipation.
What we saw
in the moments the gunship had its light turned on has never left
me. Near the base of the palm trees a man was holding his weapon
in one instant and was literally sawn in half from the mini-gun
in the next. The gunship flipped his light off and disappeared in
the darkness. In a matter of seconds, we had been inserted on top
of the enemy in complete darkness, had our lives threatened by enemy
gunfire, could not see the bad guy to take care of him, and watched
as a gunship lit him up just long enough to cut him in half. It
was suddenly quiet except for the pounding of our hearts as we processed
what had just happened. We were safely extracted and the mission
At the time,
we all managed to calm down and by the time we were back at our
base I would say we all had normal pulse rates, normal blood pressures,
and were ready to change the subject. So my example illustrates
the body's ability to handle what could reasonably be grounds for
an emotionally traumatic event. The shifting of gears kept us safe
from ourselves. Well, I wonder if that was meant to be a permanent
There are times
when I get to re-visit the events of that night. It happens that
my backyard neighbor has some palm trees in his back yard. Sometimes
when I mow my lawn, as I drive my mower around the corner of my
house, I get a glimpse of that bad guy getting cut in half as the
palm trees come into view. Not every time, but occasionally I see
him all over again.
Hence, my theory
or my metaphor of reverse apoptosis: The original experience of
this event was just too much to bear when it occurred so my body
shifted gears at the time and put it under wraps. Over time, the
wraps come off one onionskin layer at a time until the event gets
peeled crystal clear. Then I guess something in me puts it back
under wraps for safekeeping. Instead of apoptosis which would remove
this event one cell at a time, something is putting it back so I
can view it over and over. Maybe in these smaller doses, my body
is supposed to be able to handle it.
I was recently
reminded of the timeless Thomas
Paine quote: If there is a sin superior to every other it
is that of willful and offensive war. Too bad the cloven-hoofed
monsters that invent wars and send others to do the fighting can't
have a few of my memories. Or at least let them see a video of what
I see at the strangest of times. I recently saw Curious
George as he addressed a military group. The event should be
played when we click on the word "disingenuous"
in our online dictionary. He claimed to know how hard it is to go
to combat. He also swore that he would not send his military into
harm's way if he were not so sure that we were doing the right thing
by shoving democracy down Iraq's throat.
has no idea what war is and neither does almost
every other person he has chosen to surround him. He has no
qualification or business being a war
president. Yet if you listen to the news you can hear the same
war drums rolling over Iran that we heard in our run-up to the Iraq
war mistake. He continues to send more Americans to their deaths.
Or he sends them to their most painful experiences in their lives.
I see the events
as they unfold surrealistically. We are told that America is already
making bombing plans for Iran's nuclear facilities. The strategists
are already figuring out how to invade this country. And they now
have between twelve and fourteen bases in Iraq to use as launch
points. I imagine the same sources of intelligence we used for the
Iraq fiasco will be used on the Iran campaign. Yet he tells us he
would not put American lives in harm's way.
knowledge that "this is going to hurt" even before the
glass hit my foot? Well that applies to Bush's plans to invade yet
another Middle-Eastern country in his quest for world dominance.
This one is going to hurt, and as my granddaughter would say, it
is going to hurt real bad!
Woolley [send him mail]
is a disabled Vietnam veteran living in Miami, Florida. He served
with the 9th Infantry Division in The Mekong Delta in
a Ranger unit doing reconnaissance 1968–69 where he received
a gunshot wound to the head leaving one side severely paralyzed.
He is a father of four grown children and grandfather of seven,
including a set of triplets.