Human Anatomy at Colby

Rachel Bird: The End of My Gymnastics Career

February 23rd, 2015 · Comments Off on Rachel Bird: The End of My Gymnastics Career

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I used to be squeamish. I was the kid who’d cover their face during movie fight scenes and feel nauseous at the sight of a bloody hangnail. Then I hurt myself — badly — during gymnastics practice, and I realized that as queasy my innards made me, it was worth it to understand them. When I fell on the trampoline during a routine in April 2012, I shattered my left radius and ulna. The repeated bouncing after the initial fall damaged the soft tissue and left the bones in a compound fracture, puncturing my skin halfway up the forearm. Although the initial reconstructive surgeries were able to salvage some of the bone and repair the structure of my arm, the massive soft tissue damage made my arm swell under the surgical dressings. My fingers grew so puffy with edema that they pressed together, despite the dressing that kept them spread as wide as physically possible. My elbow swelled to the size of my knee, and the staples holding the skin on the inner side of my forearm split open and the wound started oozing.

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Eventually, the doctors diagnosed me with compartment syndrome, a condition that is common in crush injuries, but not frequently found in the type of break I had. Because of all the damage to the muscle tissue, my arm had swelled so much that the blood vessels were squeezed almost shut, preventing oxygen from getting to the nerves and muscles in my hand. Unfortunately, by the time I was diagnosed with compartment syndrome, the damage had already been done. The typical treatment for compartment syndrome is a WoundVac, which is essentially a vacuum that attaches onto an opening in the dermis and sucks out all the excess fluid before it can cause a problem. However, by the time the nurses had removed my surgical wraps and determined the cause of the swelling and burning sensation in my arm, the swelling had already begun to subside. Initially, the doctors believed that the nerves would be able to regrow, and most of the damage could heal on its own. However, after two months of daily occupational and physical therapy, I still had no sensation in my wrist, palm, or fingers. Even worse, the build-up scar tissue had cemented my fingers into a fist, and I only had roughly 15 degrees of mobility in my elbow and even fewer in my wrist. My hand was so stuck that I was unable to open my hand to trim my fingernails, so they were starting to grow into the skin on my palm. I didn’t even notice until it started bleeding, because I had no functioning pain nerves in my hand. I also had no proprioception, so when I wasn’t looking at my hand, I would have no idea where it was. This led to some funny encounters, because I would all-to-frequently end up with my hand in my food, or touching a stranger’ back!

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After visits to numerous specialists, Dr. Barth, an orthopedic surgeon who specialized in hand and foot injuries suggested an unusual fix. He planned to surgically open up my forearm and scrape the scar tissue off of the joints and tendons in my hand. He would also remove the dead muscle tissue, but leave the muscle bellies (the central portion of a muscle), in the hope that the few remaining muscle fibers would be able to grow. Hopefully, without all the scar tissue blocking blood flow, some of the nerves in my arm would be able to grow back.

Luckily, the surgery was mostly successful, and I was able to open my hand. Less than two weeks after I was discharged from the hospital, I was able to feel deep pressure in my wrist and in parts of my palm! Nerves regrow at approximately five millimeters per day for larger nerves, so as my median nerve inched up my palm, my occupational therapist could track its growth with touch charts and a photocopy of an anatomy textbook. However, so much muscle and tendon was removed, that even though I was slowly able to feel the proximal areas of my fingers, I didn’t have the strength to move them. My arm was so weak that I had to wear a sling for most of the day because I couldn’t support my hand. Even worse, because I couldn’t feel scratches or cuts, two small paper cuts on my fingers got infected.

Dr. Barth proposed another surgery. He wanted to transfer a tendon from my upper arm into my forearm, in the hopes that I could “retrain” my brain to use one tendon for a different purpose. The surgery transferred the brachioradialis tendon and attached it to my extensor pollicis brevis, so when I wanted to move the distal joint of my thumb, I would have to think about bending my elbow. He also transferred the flexor carpi radialis and attached it to the flexor digitorum superficialis, so when I wanted curl or flex my fingers, I would use the muscle that had previously bent my wrist.

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Although the process of recovering from this surgery and relearning how to use my hand to nearly two years, I am now able to type this paper using both hands (admittedly, it’s kind of awkward)! Unfortunately, having blood flow cut off to my nerves for so long had left me with permanent nerve damage, and I deal with chronic nerve pain and pretty limited strength and mobility. However, I can tie my shoes, dress myself and function in a classroom setting in ways that I couldn’t have dreamed of in the months following my accident, and I am so thankful to modern medicine for that!

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Tags: Human Health · Personal Story

Rebecca Gray: Substance Abuse Isn’t F*cking Funny

February 23rd, 2015 · Comments Off on Rebecca Gray: Substance Abuse Isn’t F*cking Funny

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I swear like a sailor around my parents. And I always have. Because my parents pick their battles, and the battle they picked was substance abuse. Substance abuse is not a joke to them. To them, impersonating the voice of a chain smoker is not funny, and the incoherent ramblings of a drunk friend are not comic storytelling material. My mother lost her brother to a drunk driver when she was thirteen, and my father lost all four of his grandparents to tobacco-related illness. Thus, they’ve always been strict with me, and the overwhelming message under their roof remains: the use of alcohol, tobacco, and other illegal, mind-altering substances is absolutely, positively, unacceptable. They spent so much time enforcing this rule and communicating its importance. Not only did I never get away with drinking in high school, I never had the inclination to; I knew how hurt my parents would be if they were ever to find out, and I couldn’t put them through that. And so, in return for 100% sobriety and transparency about where I was, who I was with, and how I was getting there, they let me swear.

I am glad this was the hill they chose to die on; I believe that I am a healthier and happier (as cheesy as that sounds) person for it. That is why Colby surprised me. The idea of drinking to the point of memory loss every weekend freaked me out. Did my friends not get that when their blood alcohol level rose too high, their brains actually couldn’t form long term memories? That when they woke up feeling like they couldn’t remember the night before, their brain in fact hadn’t truly experienced it at all? I couldn’t believe how many people my age smoked. Did they not know their skin was yellowing, wrinkling? That their lungs were turning black and their bodies becoming reliant on nicotine to function comfortably? I’ve had many a conversation with a fellow Colby student who is not familiar with the physiological effects their substance use has on their body. It is surprising and saddening to see.

Specifically, I recall a weekend last spring, during which a friend drove home with me to meet my family. That Friday, she consumed a lot of alcohol–too much– and vomited. A lot. Saturday morning, she awoke, hungover as all get out, and we trudged through the March sleet to my house. As my mom served us some soup, we chatted and caught up. It was around this time that I swore. My friend audibly gasped. “You can say that in front of your mom?” she asked.

Yeah. I can. My mom doesn’t care. What she does care about is that I don’t try a cigarette, that I don’t use marijuana without first understanding the side effects it might have on my psyche, that I don’t drink more alcohol than my liver can handle, and that I don’t rely on any mind-altering substance to feel happy. This brings me to BI 265. Having learned about the intricate system that is my body, I am even less inclined to mess around with its equilibrium. While cigarettes never tempted me before Jan Plan 2015, my newfound knowledge of arterial disease has made sure I will never get near one. I wish more parents choose to battle substance abuse with their kids, because it is so important and valuable. But even more so, I wish more people would choose to know about how their bodies work. How the things they put in their bodies, the things they do with their bodies, the things they let their bodies get near, affect their mental and physical health. Because only with this knowledge can we change substance abuse culture, both on Mayflower Hill and in general.

 

Tags: Human Health · Personal Story