Thursday, February 2, 2023

Something was wrong. My nightgown was on fire

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In “Hyena”, a writing published in The New Yorker in 1996, chimpanzee researcher Joanna Greenfield described being bitten by a hyena in Israel. People attacked by hyenas, such as people whose cotton nightgowns catch fire, often die. They are eaten alive. But Greenfield succeeded. When she rinsed off her sizable wounds for the first time, she felt “no pain, but a tremendous sense of hurt.” She never felt pain, in fact, she reports – although she later suffered from surgeries and parasites. Instead, she felt inexplicably changed. It hit her when she first used a basin. “My life had changed. There is, after all, no simple dichotomy: intact and alive versus torn and dead.

She found herself on the other side of a primordial horror, a face-to-face encounter with a super predator determined to consume her. In the essay, Greenfield repeatedly ponders the hyena’s merciless speed: how her jaw, teeth, and esophagus chew and ingest in an instant. “Food instantly slides from the tooth to the stomach,” she wrote. She also considers a boy from Nairobi whom she had heard of, who died when a hyena ate his intestines. “I would have liked to ask him what he saw in the hyena’s eyes.

If Greenfield had been the food of the hyena, I had been, for a while, the fuel of the fire. Bedridden, I now sought to master the ways of my new enemy: fire. Torn and untouched was Greenfield’s difficult dichotomy, where mine was hot and cold.

Why on earth had the humans brought the fire so close? Sometimes only Wikipedia it will be fine. “Evidence of” microscopic traces of wood ash “as a controlled use of fire by Home erectus, which began 1,000,000 years ago, enjoys wide academic support. The birthday candles embedded in the cake are surely considered a “controlled use of fire”. In fact, the kindness of the company, my caricature of domestic flame, could have delighted my erectus ancestors. What could show a greater conquest of fire than taming it for this frivolity?

Early humans had warm-blooded mammalian bodies that both required heat and hated combustion. Contact with fire causes system-wide chaos for humans, in part because it explodes the body’s inflammatory response. A burnt body can lose fluid as it struggles to restore its balance with blisters to cushion healing skin and weeping wounds to cleanse it; the blood pressure may drop suddenly. At the same time, there is edema: a fluid trapped in the body. Shock can prevent oxygen from entering the lungs, heart, brain, and kidneys. Organs can be damaged or even fail.

Even more frightening things happen when flesh meets flames. On the one hand, after a burn, the veins can become permeable, compromising a range of bodily functions, from oxygenating the tissues to transporting lipids to immune surveillance. Cytokine storms, the dangerous hyperimmune response seen in about 4% of patients with Covid-19, also occurs in burn patients. Other phenomena with sinister names – “burning delirium” and “burning amnesia” among them – can also emerge from the smoke.

From images, my doctor identified my injuries as partial thickness burns, here and there severe, but not deep enough to require transplants or a visit to a burn department. It was a relief. To assess fluid requirements and hospitalization time, battlefield medics and paramedics assess burns very roughly, using Wallace’s rule of nine, which separates the body into parts, assigning each a different percentage: head, chest, abdomen, back, groin and four limbs. One leg is 18 percent. Since half of my right thigh was burnt, I put my Wallace measurement at around 4.5% of my body. Having learned that the skin of an average adult, at 22 square feet, fills a little more than a standard doorway. I calculated more accurately that my 48 square inch burn was 3.3% of me.

It was useful data. As limitless as my perception of pain was, the damage to my body was contained. Perception and reality followed markedly different paths.

The wounds were blisters, but the blisters, while destabilizing the bodily systems, have distinct local benefits, as they protect, like bubble wrap, wounds that are badly needed. To me, all light bulbs seemed precious to me. No doctor or startup could make something as strange, beautiful, and healing as an amber-colored light bulb the size of a garish costume jewelry.


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