Physiology

[I’m feeling sentimental, so here’s a little something that I wrote four years ago shortly after I met my husband, KJ. Free time and internet connectivity are both sparse right now, so I won’t be writing anything new for a couple more weeks.]


We are just chemistry, the Wilderness First Responder instructor said repeatedly. Oxygen in, carbon dioxide out; the blood becomes acidic and basic, its pH signaling the brain to monitor the drive to breathe. Oxygen transported by hemoglobin, exchanged through narrow capillaries to perfuse the organs. The vital signs are a window to the critical systems. They tell us the status of the respiratory, circulatory, and nervous systems, the processes necessary to sustain life… 

If a patient has no pulse after a sudden trauma or fall, we are not required to begin CPR. This means the aorta has been ripped from the heart, its one-and-a-half-inch diameter emptying the body’s entire volume of blood into the interstitial body cavity in seconds. Death is instantaneous… 

The body is built to protect itself. The organs most susceptible to bleeding are protected by the ribcage—lungs, heart, liver, spleen. But there are exceptions: a little lobe of the liver hangs down below the ribs unprotected, where a sharp jab or well-placed blow can cause fatal internal bleeding… 

The first time we kissed, I felt KJ’s heart pounding rapidly in his chest. I was aware of the adrenaline surging through his sympathetic nervous system. My heart was pounding too, but his was more exposed, an offer of vulnerability, and it calmed me. I rested my head against his shoulder and watched the buttons on his shirt dance like puppets on the strings of his heartbeat, a rhythm so intense that it echoed through me.

The next night I lay in his arms, his cardiac muscle thumping gently below my ear at 70 or 80 beats per minute. It gave me immeasurable comfort, this pulse of life, a glimpse into his critical systems. I wanted to disappear into the curve of his sternum, my hand captured there between his hand and his heart. His fingertips stroked my shoulder as our feet touched gently, sending sparks to my limbic system. The tender lobe of my liver felt more and more exposed.

We are just chemistry. What are these rivers flowing through me, painting a strange and beautiful landscape? They take my breath away, altering my respiration unconsciously. When I think of KJ, my blood becomes acidic from too little carbon dioxide. I don’t realize it until my brain kicks in automatically to correct my breathing.

Exciting, but scary. To hand myself to someone, the unguarded lobe of my liver at his mercy. How can he not be scared? How can he open his heart to me, that tender juncture of smooth cardiac muscle and aorta so easily broken and spilled? Be gentle, I want to say. I am tender through and through.

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