Thursday, March 19, 2009

Thoughts on Brains

This is Brain Awareness Week, an internationally recognized week of celebrating the human body's sexiest organ. The final frontier is how I refer to it, as we still know so very little about how it works and how it evolves as we age. It's a 3 pound factory of chemicals and electricity changing with every thought and action, every breath and bite of food ingested to nourish it.

It's a solid jelly protected by a hard shell and a layer of liquid which accommodates for limited movement and cushions from sudden jarring. It detects no pain inflicted upon itself - how ironic that this mass of neurons has no pain receptors - but can signal changes in blood pressure within its shell, indicating a simple headache or deadly aneurism.

Two events over the past week have given me reason to really think about life and my brain. Last Friday morning, a helicopter with 18 people aboard was flying from St. John's, Newfoundland to an oil rig in the North Atlantic. About half way to its destination, the pilot radioed that he was returning to base because of mechanical problems. 20 minutes later, the chopper crashed and sank, killing all but one passenger.

In 20 minutes 17 people lost their lives, 17 families have to cope with the loss, and countless friends and co-workers have to deal with the aftermath.

On Monday, actress Natasha Richardson suffered a fall and subsequent head injury at a ski hill north of Montreal. An hour later she wasn't feeling well, lapsed into a coma, and two days after that was taken off life support. The world is still waiting to find out exactly what caused a seemingly benign injury to become fatal.
In both cases, the outcome was sudden loss of life.

In the chopper incident, all the people on board had been through extensive training on surviving a helicopter crash in the ocean. I've been through it myself, though the one day course I took was just to give me a taste of it after having met the guy who owns the training school in town. It was the single most terrifying experience of my life. But what a rush! To know I cold hold my breath, push out a window, undo my seat belt, and escape to the surface, while upside down and under water. Most of the bodies recovered from the chopper showed the victims didn't have a chance to undo their belts, it was that fast and hard an impact, so no matter how much training they had received or how experienced they were, the outcome was not going to be good.

In the ski incident, Ms. Richardson, who was not wearing a helmet, was attended to by ski patrol medics and advised to go to the hospital. Even if she had gone straight to the hospital via a life flight, there's a pretty good chance she would not have made it. Would she have had a better chance had she worn a helmet? We don't know. (For what it's worth, I'm not pointing fingers or blaming the victim in this case. Very few people wear a helmet when they're skiing recreationally. More should.)
We can prepare for emergencies and still be unable to survive. We can say "See ya' later" to our loved ones in the morning and not make it back home that evening. These two accidents will hopefully improve the safety of helicopter travel and bring awareness to the benefits of wearing a helmet.

In my 3 pounds of jelly is a network of cells trying to make sense of horrific things.


1 comment:

Diane J Standiford said...

Due to the random nature of nature, my brain has decided some things will never be logical or ordered as we think they should, just too many darn variables. It seems the more we "learn" about our brains the less we "know" about them...maybe they laugh at us in "our" sleep.