Saturday, November 3, 2007

21st century festering wounds-tertius

I was sitting in a seminar watching a new researcher present their findings. Clumsily, sloppily, forgetting the background and assuming we all cared about every detail this person was working on, I did what I always dreamed of doing--I blurted out and screamed, "What is your problem?!?!? Do you think we really care about your meaningless experiments that will probably never even be published???"

He looked at me, lips quivering because he knew I would be evaluating his performance at his Ph.D. defense, and started to cry.

Suddenly I was standing on a beach with the head of the lab that competes directly with me, and she softly whispered, "It's ok--we'll get off this island some day. I'm sure our loved ones are doing everything they can to find us."

Twelve minutes after hitting the ground, I awoke to find my senior graduate student standing over me, repeating my name. My hopes of silencing the bothersome chatter of an annoying student, and my fears of being stranded with my scientific archenemy were all that--dreams, nightmares, aspirations, and worries. Where was I? Oh yes, back in the office, dealing with the wound that would not heal itself.

Poor Samuel Vespucci was speechless, but not as unnerved as I had been from hitting the ground. Regaining my equilibrium was difficult but manageable. To think, I hadn't even seen the wound whose smell had knocked me off of my feet! It was then that I realized that another aspect of my personality that had kept me from medical school; that is, that seeing real people in pain was far too much for me to tolerate. It's much better to speculate about death and disease on the molecular level, after all.

Nonetheless, I apologized for such the interruption, and took as deep of a breath as possible as to feel calm, without imbibing the strong stench of the wound.

"Mr. Vespucci. You must forgive my weakness. I see you are carrying a styrofoam box. Presumably this contains the biopsies of your cells and the bacteria that are growing around them?"

He nodded, hands still trembling, and set the box on my desk. I did not fall to the ground this time. No, the excitement of starting a project that would put my knowledge of the cell to use had me as giddy as a schoolboy, or so the saying goes. Personally, I was never giddy as a schoolboy, but that is another story.

"OK, Mr. Vespucci--we have everything we need to get this search started. Our goal here is to identify any cellular or genetic anomalies that may underlie....sorry sorry sorry, I do that all of the time with laypeople. This is what we are going to do, Sam. We can tell when a cell looks strange, and we can tell when a gene looks strange. If anything is the matter, we are the ones to find it. I know exactly what a happy healthy clot should look like, and all of the cells that work on building that clot. We don't know who is not doing their job, but when we get to it, we will. You hang in there, and I'll get back to you as soon as I can. Now, do you have any questions?"

"Yes, um, where is the bathroom?"

With that he left, and for some reason, it was clear that he did not share my enthusiasm about the chance to find out what was wrong.

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