Science is a way to create order from chaos

I haven't always been fascinated by blood. That's probably a good thing. Oh, I grew up with animals that we raised and butchered for food. We hunted and fished, and always ate what we killed. Hunting and fishing provided exciting outings, but they were also a major economic contribution to the family. I don't do so much of that anymore.

Of course, I didn't like anything to do with my own blood. Same goes for sickness, pain, and hospitals. In fact, medicine and health rarely occupied my thoughts much as a child. I do remember when my mother had cancer. I didn't like that.

All that changed when I was drafted and made a medic by the wise officers of the United States military. Some would say there is no such thing as "military intelligence." I know, however, that, there are plenty of "wise guys" in the military! Anyway, they wisely made me a medic. That has made all the difference.

Once, while serving in the military, I held a soldiers' broken leg while my partner put a splint on it, so we could move the guy. It was a bad break, and the ends of the bone were sticking out of his skin. I was on my knees, bent over, trying to hold the leg steady, and the broken ends were right in front of my face. Drops of blood were oozing out of the broken bone and dripping onto the sleeve of my uniform, and I thought, "That is so cool! The bone really is alive, and it has its own blood supply!"

I didn't try to point this phenomenon out to the guy with the broken leg. Sometimes we can't really teach effectively unless it is just the right moment. I knew that bones were alive and all that. It was just interesting to observe the fact for myself.

My wife thinks this is a sick subject for a column. She's probably right. She usually is. But it is October, and one's mind sometimes turns macabre in the fall. I don't know if that is the fault of fall, or the fault of cultural superstitions. Maybe it's a problem with my mind. My wife says, "Maybe."

There is a fascinating bit of science associated with blood. Platelets are tiny little packets of chemicals in the blood, that are surrounded by a membrane but with no nucleus. The "chemical cocktails" platelets contain are complex, numerous, and significant.

You might already know that platelets are important to the coagulation of blood. But in the process of coagulation, another chemical is formed called Bets Lysine. OK, it's called 3,6-diaminohexanoic acid if you must know. Interestingly, it is directly antibacterial and causes the lysis of gram-positive bacteria. It acts like a specific detergent that disrupts the unique cell wall of gram-positive bacteria.

Now, gram-positive bacteria are perhaps one of the most common bacteria in soil, and many of these can cause serious infections. So, isn't it cool that, if you are bleeding from a compound fracture, which is undoubtedly contaminated by dirt and gram-positive bacteria, that the act of coagulation immediately releases an anti-gram-negative-bacterial compound to protect you?!

After we got the splint on and moved the soldier to a stretcher, I was chatting with him while we waited for a helicopter to transmit him. I was explaining all this to him, so he wouldn't worry about getting an infection. Finally, he looked at me and through gritted teeth said, "McCallister, shut up!"

I wasn't particularly offended by this. In the military everyone either goes by their last name or a nickname. I wasn't cool enough to have a nickname, or at least one anyone used in front of me. I really don't think he was paying attention anyway. Sometimes we really can't teach effectively unless it is just the right moment. But you must admit, blood can be pretty fascinating.

Gary McCallister, gmccallister@bresnan.net, is a professor emeritus of biological sciences at Colorado Mesa University.

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