This Is Going To Hurt

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 suppose.

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 was happening.

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 was over.

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 remedy.

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.

George Bush 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.

Remember that 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!

April 5, 2006