Before I go, I have something to say

The Visible Woman

A really cool invention hit the market in the 1960’s. Called the Visible Woman Model, it was a bizarre cross between a toy and a physiology lesson. Although I never had one, I saw them at friends’ houses, and found them both compelling and creepy.

This anatomically accurate model sported plastic depictions of the female body’s major systems – skeletal, digestive, excretory, nervous, endocrine, circulatory, and respiratory. Removable major organs were included, and, since this was a woman, the kit included parts to represent pregnancy.

Though she was about the same height as Barbie, this was no doll. I preferred a female model I could dress up to star in stories I made up with my friends. I didn’t even have the game “Operation,” mainly because it was too hard to remove the body’s parts without setting off the buzzer. (It begs for a counterpart: “Lawsuit.”)

As a student, I was much more attracted to literature than science. Still, I lived inside a body, and like anyone else’s, mine would occasionally break down, break out, or just break. When a chronic headache moved into my head in 2006, showing no inclination to ever move out, I became even more beguiled by the ways in which a body can go awry.

It didn’t hurt that by then I was working for a hospital, first as its publications coordinator, writing newsletters, media releases, and anything else requiring finesse with the English language. My principle task was to interview people whose bodies had gone haywire, with knees or hips wearing out, hearts beating erratically, or brains enduring electrical storms. Then I would explain the wonderful things my hospital’s medical team had done to make them all better. In other words, I got to explore other people as if they were Visible Men and Women.

Eventually, I became the hospital’s librarian, providing research for all sorts of medical and clinical staff. I scan copies of articles, some of them accompanied by photos that are graphically Visible, especially those in full color. First I turned away; now I look more closely. After all, as the poet Sharon Olds wrote about her dying father, “The body is just a body.” We all have one. So why not look?

Parents, especially, find themselves learning all kinds of things about the human body and its various systems. Somebody has to change that diaper, and somebody has to check that fever. When both my children developed asthma, I learned to differentiate the sound of a normal breath from the dangerous wheeze of an incipient asthma attack.

One day my daughter, then just a toddler, tripped and fell on a furnace grate unwisely installed in the floor, slicing her knee open with its sharp metal grill. Even as I wrapped her leg in a dish towel and rushed her to the nearby hospital, I couldn’t help but notice, with a bit of wonder, the layers of skin and fat that had suddenly been revealed. So that’s what it looks like under there. I was furious when the ER team wouldn’t let me hold my wailing girl while they sewed up her wound. By that time, I was faint-proof.

Sometimes I bring home stories from work, either from people who request my help or from the articles I find for them in medical journals. To me, it’s enthralling, but I have to remind myself that my dining companions might not agree. A friend whose wife was a nurse instituted a No Talking About the Surgery You Assisted With at Dinner rule.

But it’s so fascinating! I want to protest. Am I the only person who thought it was way cool when the doctor who performed my first colonoscopy handed me copies of the photos he’d taken? At first I had the expected reaction – eww – but then I had to look. It was my body, after all, and how often do you get to look inside at those organs (not all of them removable, and none of them outwardly Visible) that do their work, day after day, keeping you alive and well?

I find myself drawn to books about illness and death, or morbidity and mortality, as we say in the healthcare field. The health memoir, as I call it, is one that appeals to all sorts of readers. I should know: I’m the librarian who checks them out to hospital staff. Maybe it’s the life-and-death nature of these stories. Maybe it’s the way the reader can identify with the writer. Do you wonder how you would cope with sudden paralysis? I’ve got jut the book for you. There but for fortune go you, go I.

Now that the entire human genome has been sequenced, companies are sprouting up to offer anyone who can afford it a look at their own genetic code. I’d been considering one company, 23andMe, for some time, and finally ordered their test kit a few weeks ago. What the heck, I thought. I might as well know.

The knowledge they offer, by email, focuses on ancestry and health, including a laundry list of diseases that have a genetic link. I already know which conditions my family is prone to; I just want a little more information, from a company with more scientific insight than a Magic 8 Ball.

23andMe was threatened with closure by the FDA a week after I sent them my spit sample. I could be destined not to know, doomed to remain the clueless Invisible Woman. In the meantime, I’ll try to embrace that elusive “healthy lifestyle” to fend off whatever diseases might be lying in wait. But I’ll also keep checking my email to see if my genes have sent an urgent message my way.