Faced with mindless duty, when an audio book player slips into a rear pocket and mini buds pop into ears, old is made new again.
Kevin Fong, a physician, believes exploration and extreme medicine are linked. Fong’s book, "Extreme Medicine", links exploration and medical advance with real-life stories of adventure, discovery; failure and success. He argues that exploration of the unknown transforms medicine.
Fong begins with a story of frostbite in the early 20th century. The two edges of subzero weather are revealed; one edge destroys while the other preserves life. Fong recounts the life of a mariner that dies from frostbite that slowly saps life from his limbs, his brain, and finally his heart. Then Fong tells of a skier’s accident in freezing weather that leaves her clinically dead for three hours. The skier lives even though 20 minutes without an operating autonomic system means death.
Ethics come into issue in a doctor’s sale of extreme medicine to desperate patients. Life is always, to quote a previous book review, a matter of “me before you”. Doctors are human. Money, power, and prestige affect their decisions just as they affect all human decisions. The difference is that the patient has more to lose than the doctor.
This is not to deny the theme of Fong’s book. Living life is, by nature, an exploration. Human beings who choose to explore extremes do advance knowledge. Knowledge drawn from exploration does transform medicine. Knowledge transforms everything in life. Life on earth is finite. With exploration, life is potentially infinite.
Mary Roach explores everything from sex to bowel movements in her outer space travel guide, “Packing for Mars”. Roach participates in some NASA training to get a first hand experience of what it takes to be a space traveler. She experiences weightlessness in 22 second intervals. She floats like a butterfly while some of her space mates puke breakfast and lunch.
Roach does use humor to explain what space travel takes but looking past the humor one is overwhelmed by the gap between current science and technology and human travel to other planets.
Those born after 1945 take anti-bacterial medicine for granted. Before 1932, approximately 100,000 people died from pneumonia in the United States; an estimated 2,000 mothers died from “child birth” fever. There were no effective treatments for syphilis or malaria. Sore throats, commonly referred to as “strep throat”, were notorious killers. The spread of germs from poor hygiene and contaminated surgical procedures killed as many surgery patients as it saved. With the advance of WWI, wound infection became as great a danger to survival as combat.
Thomas Hager tells a terrific story that resonates with today’s complex societal relationship with the drug manufacturing industry. On the one hand, huge investment is needed to discover patent-able new drugs; on the other hand, millions of people cannot afford new medicines that are manufactured and controlled by drug companies that seek better return on their investment. The opportunity for a manufacturer to hide behind patent law to unreasonably dominate a critically important drug is as possible today as it was in the early 1900s. One wonders how much rising medical costs are a function of greed.