Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Medical Symbols

According to Aristotle, followed by the Church with St. Thomas, our bodies are the matter informed by our souls. Scott Hahn makes a similar analogy when he says "our bodies are symbols of our souls."

There are a lot of medical conditions that speak volumes about our souls. Here are just a few. (Note: this is never to say that people with these conditions have the analogous spiritual state; some conditions are heritable or acquired by actions whose objective morality no outside person can judge.)

Heterotopic heart transplant
Donor heart on left; patient's original heart on right.
Occasionally, patients with heart failure are candidates for a heterotopic graft. This means that the patient's heart is not removed and a donor heart is hooked up next to it to share the load of pumping. The person has two heartbeats. This can be done in heart failure is due to severe lung disease, or when the patient's heart might recover (at which point the donor heart would be removed, and the person would have one heartbeat again).

You know when you're trying to acquire a virtue, but your heart just isn't in it? You get up when your alarm rings not because you're excited about being disciplined for God or for others, but begrudgingly. You think to yourself, "my emotions aren't aligned with the right thing, my nature is fallen. I'm trying to become virtuous by replacing the wrong thought (snoozing) with the right one (getting up) and whipping up my emotions artificially. Boy, does this feel fake."

Eventually, virtue grows as you acquire the habit of getting up. And eventually, maybe you'll be like Mother Teresa, whose emotions and will were so aligned with God's will (who so had the virtue of charity) that it pained her not to go and help the dying.

But until then, you fake it. Your disease is so severe that your heart can't agree with the right thing to do, and you're attracted to evil. But God helps you with actual grace, pumping you up to be virtuous until your own heart is so transformed into His that it beats in synchrony, and you want the good.

There is one other symbol that I find particularly striking: syphilis. This includes graphic pictures, but no explicit images.

Chancre on the finger
Syphilis is still around, for any who didn't know. It happens in stages. Primary syphilis is an extremely painful, round ulcer at the site where the person contacted the syphilis germ. This is usually on the genitalia, but at right is a picture of one on the hand. It usually appears three weeks after exposure.

This chancre regresses, but not because the germ is gone. Instead, the germ "goes systemic," or floods the entire body. This is secondary syphilis, and causes a rash everywhere about one or two months after initial infection. This rash is one of only ten known for spreading to the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. In other words: when I see a rash on the palms and soles, syphilis jumps to mind among a few other possibilities.
Rash on the palms and soles.

Gumma of forehead
The rash also regresses, but again not because the germ is gone. Instead, it penetrates even deeper, and causes tertiary syphilis. At each further step, the syphilis bacterium causes greater damage. Ten or more years after infection, tertiary syphilis can include damage to the main outflow vessel from the heart (syphilitic aortitis), damage to the spinal cord (neurosyphilis, which includes dementia), and disfiguring ulcers called gummas.

Worst of all, I think, is congenital syphilis, which occurs when a person with primary or secondary syphilis passes the infection to their unborn child. Symptomatic children with congenital syphilis are recognizeable by their early illness ("snuffles") and late "stigmata," such as deformed teeth (Hutchison teeth, mulberry molars), bones (saber shins), potential blindness and deafness, and a host of other symptoms.

Syphilis can be a symbol of sin. (Again note: this is not to say anything about people who have syphilis.) At first, might seem private to a particular member of the body of Christ, like the chancre of syphilis. It pains the whole, but that doesn't really show, and it can be hidden fairly easily. But it isn't long before every part is affected and it becomes obvious to anyone looking that there is something wrong, just like the rash of secondary syphilis shouts out "test me for syphilis and give me penicillin." And if not eradicated, it just goes deeper and deeper, altering the mind and heart of the Church and making any future children badly formed and spiritually blind and deaf.

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