Thursday, November 17, 2011

System Breakdown

“It’s a wonder more things don’t go wrong; It’s amazing anyone stays healthy five minutes!” This was the observation of my brother, my only sibling, who recently suffered a significant stroke. This profound insight does not diminish the lingering stroke symptoms, but it does help us put the wonder of our normally functioning bodily processes in perspective.

There are nearly a dozen major organ systems in the human body including circulatory, digestive, endocrine, excretory, immune, lymphatic, muscular, nervous, reproductive, respiratory, and skeletal systems. In a healthy person they work together to create a smoothly functioning bodily unit. Stated another way, ordinarily we would describe ourselves as “feeling well.”

The circulatory system is primarily a network for blood distribution. Life giving oxygen, nutrients, and hormones are carried by the blood through arteries to every body cell. In turn, veins carry away waste products to be removed from the body. There are 60,000 miles of blood vessels in the human body, mostly composed of microscopic capillaries which touch almost every body cell. If a blood clot or other debris reaches the brain through one of the arteries leading to it and lodges there, lack of oxygen rapidly causes brain damage resulting in a variety of temporary or permanent adverse effects. This is the situation when a person suffers a stroke.

In any system, a single problem may cause breakdown even if the problem may seem minor. Lawn or garden watering ceases when a clog, kink, or break develops at just one location in the supply hose. Until the problem is remedied the watering process ceases. A flat tire on our automobile suddenly derails completion of a journey. And in 1986 the Challenger shuttle exploded because of a defective “O” ring. That inexpensive component failed because its sealing effect was slightly diminished in the cold morning launch temperature. Never mind that over 99% of the systems maintained proper function in the above examples. James 3:5 applies: “A tiny spark can set a great forest on fire.”

With respect to the hundreds of properly functioning components of our bodies’ circulatory system, we are remiss in not reminding ourselves often that our bodies are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). The New Living Translation declares “Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—and how well I know it.” Even as he still suffers from the residual effects of his stroke, my brother voices the sentiments of believers who, upon studying the dizzying intricacy and beauty of bodily processes for even one bodily organ system exclaim, “It is absurd and outrageous to suggest this is an (evolutionary) accident.”

We talk, read, and write far more about our personal body system failures than our body system successes. Even the person with science aversion experiences open-mouthed awe upon becoming even slightly aware of the multiple processes taking place in just one body organ system. The awe would multiply with an understanding of how the systems integrate. The sports-minded person may draw the analogy to an 11-man football team whose plays succeed only if every man performs his function correctly. The body, of course, is exponentially more complex.

The medical profession has produced hundreds of specialties focusing on diagnosis and treatment of these systems, or even subsets of one of these systems. Perusing a list of these medical specialties, one may think: “Look how many things can go wrong!” More realistically we should exclaim, “Look how many things are going right!” During his recovery process, my brother is able to voice this sentiment with even more conviction.