Your Body Has Blood

It is one thing to know, intellectually and rationally, that your body contains more than 100,000 thousand miles of blood vessels. It’s one thing to circle “C. Red blood cells carry oxygen to the tissues” and move on to the next question. It’s one thing to understand that your heart beats somewhere between 60 and 100 times a minute, and to appreciate that each beat causes a fractional portion of your blood supply to be forcefully ejected from the left ventricle into the aorta, where it exerts a given amount of pressure as it pushes around the rest of your blood supply.

It is one thing to know it, but it is an entirely different thing to see it.

I had clinicals last week in the cardiac catheterization lab. I was looking forward to it, because a friend said it was “cool,” but I didn’t know what I was in for. I knew they ran catheters up into the heart, but my brain’s little mental picture was more akin to something like running a PICC line – I thought I’d spend a couple of days watching people stick tubes in patients.

In the procedure room, actually, that’s really all there is to it. You stand around, cold and uncomfortable in a heavy lead apron. You watch some cardiologist’s back as he and a scrub nurse fiddle with a complex network of tubes connected to a smaller tube which is jammed into someone’s femoral artery like a McDonald’s straw is jammed into a medium coke. There are monitors with pictures of dude’s insides, but when your little student-nurse ass is standing at the back of the room, they’re too removed to be any more meaningful than Fig. 6-3a in your A&P textbook.

The procedure room is cool, but the monitor room is where it’s at. In the monitor room, you’re up close and personal with the images. If you’re in there with a good nurse, you can really learn about what’s going on. It is incredible. The nurse says, “Yeah, this is what we call an aortic runoff,” and then the doctor hits some switches, and then everything you’ve ever read about the circulatory system suddenly becomes real.

The machines thump and whine, and on the monitor someone splashes india ink into a glass of icewater. Your jaw hits the floor as the ink spreads, and a living human’s very essence blooms and fades in a matter of moments. The mesenteric arteries shoot off the aorta like downtown exits from a busy freeway. The kidneys blossom; you can see not just their shape, but their internal structure. Who could possibly imagine that the grumpy, farting old man on the table was wrapped around this fractal tracery of blood vessels? Who would dream that we could look straight through the pasty wall of his chest to see an unimaginably complex network of gossamer arteries woven into this beating heart?

Who would ever dream that our truly miraculous power to reveal the awe-inspiring complexity of the human body might be paired with the timeless majesty of Bel Biv DeVoe played on a decrepit thrift store-lookin’ boombox?

Certainly not me.

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