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    Lively and Engaging Miscellany

    The title of James Hamblin’s book is a little misleading. It isn’t an overview of the human body that imagines what key organs would say about their functions and advise you to do in order to keep them healthy (if they could talk). It is a sort of medical miscellany in six sections, each of which answers a series of questions. Some questions are about how parts of our bodies look or work. Other questions are about topical issues (for example, about tattoos & tattoo removal or the emerging specialized field of transgender health.) Still other questions concern more curious medical conditions or procedures--such as rare “orphan” diseases like epidermolysis bullosa or Rasmussen’s encephalitis. A few years ago, Hamblin, a trained M.D., left a radiology residency for a career in medical journalism. He is the editor of the health section of The Atlantic's digital magazine and, as such, he is committed to increasing public health literacy in an age of “alternative facts.” Early in his book, Hamblin acknowledges the work of Stanford University professor, Robert Proctor, whose academic interest—believe it or not—is the history of ignorance. According to Proctor, ignorance is actively cultivated through marketing and rumour. Consider the tobacco industry, whose members were well aware (even in the 1960s) of the science linking smoking and cancer, but nonetheless proceeded to make claims to the public that there were “experts on both sides of the debate.” Now, powerful agencies have a multiplicity of media vehicles to spread lies, hence the need for encouraging a critical stance. Hamblin provides brief answers to approximately a dozen questions about the body or medical procedures in each of the sections of his book. Some answers are as short as a couple of sentences; others are a couple of pages. There are also line drawings and other graphics to assist the reader. Topics range from skin (the average person has six pounds of it), dimples, and phases of eyelash and hair growth, to more serious matters, such as kidney cancer and heart arrhythmias. Hamblin varies his tone with the topic. Sometimes he’s matter-of-fact; other times, bemused or sardonic. Apparently aware of fractured attention spans, not only does the author keep his explanations brief, but he also includes some sexy bits to spice things up (e.g. a comparison of male and female genitalia and a bizarre, but increasingly popular kind of plastic surgery: labiaplasty, likely influenced by the prevalence of internet pornography). All of this is well and good, by turns informative or entertaining. However, Hamblin goes further. He encourages readers to look more critically at the practices they engage in, erroneously believing they're doing something good for themselves--like consuming dietary supplements which have not been submitted to any rigorous testing and are churned out by a largely unregulated industry. He also casts a critical eye on the modern funeral industry, particularly the practice of pumping a dead body full of a known carcinogen, formaldehyde, only to place that body in an expensive padded box, which will then be buried and eventually release dangerous contaminants into the soil and water. Playfully or pointedly, he includes plans and a diagram, supplied to him by a North Carolina handyman, for building a coffin for under 200 dollars. Hamblin urges his readers to exercise healthy skepticism towards media. He refers to TV hospital dramas, which give viewers misleading ideas about medicine or medical procedures. For example, the hit television show E.R. depicted CPR saving lives at about four times the rate it actually does in real life. Furthermore, TV patients who experience the procedure (upon cardiac arrest) seldom walk out of the hospital with any degree of brain damage. In actual fact, however, only 2 to 16 % of people who receive CPR from a stranger will live, and the majority of them will endure some form of neurological impairment. I believe Hamblin’s most important observations, cleverly inserted between the lighter tidbits, concern the state of healthcare in America today. How is it, he asks, that the U.S.A. can spend more money than any other country on healthcare, but rank 43rd in the world for life expectancy? The fact is: there are huge inequalities in access to healthcare (and even to certain procedures by region). Some of them are related to socio-economic status; others, to the amount of melanin (dark pigment) in human skin. Hamblin doesn’t shy away from noting the role naked greed plays in healthcare either. He notes that there’s no money in preventative medicine. Hospitals, insurance companies, and doctors themselves gain from illness. But patients are part of the problem, too. They prefer a quick fix, a procedure, over taking responsibility for their bodies and their diets. If Our Bodies Talk is a lively read whose segmented format lends itself to being dipped into at spare moments. I hope it will gain wide readership.
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