28/7/96 Is biology destiny?
|Sunday, July 28,1996
The Sunday Times, Page 4
Is biology destiny?
What is so amazing about Dolanm, 20, is that he has a congenitally-narrow windpipe that reduces his breathing by 20 per cent and further complicates his asthma which is brought on by exercise.
According to a New York Times report, most of the drugs, that could help him are banned by swimming officials because they contain performance-enhancing stimulants. Swimming is both his biggest strength, and his biggest weakness. he never knows when the asthma will attack and he will begin to hyperventilate or black out as he has done several times.
"You can go through one workout and not notice it and not finish the workout the tnext day," Dolan was quoted as saying.
"I've learnt to accept that aneldsnow I can control only what goes on in the water. I'm not thinking, 'Is it going to be all right? Am I going to be able to breathe?' I'll either breathe or not. I'm not worried about it."'
A USA Today report said he had been bothered by allergis since he was a child and began having exercise induced asthma attacks since he was13. The harder he trained, the more often they hit. Yet he persevered.
To prepare for the Olympics, he put himself through an exhaustive training regimen lifting weights and swimming up to 20.8 km a day in the pool, which is a half mararathon on dry land. During Christmas he went to the national swimming training centre in Colorado Springs for workouts at altitude.
But by the New Year, he was overcome by chronic fatigue. He felt his energy drained like water from a pool. When tests showed there was nothing wrong with his heart, only his training load, he resumed training but with a mileage cap put on him.
"It's definitely a path that probably wasn't the easiest to get where I am today," he told the New York Times. "I've kind of got used to the hard route and suffering more than my competitors. I was in the best shape of my life. Unfortunately, I did cross that line and broke down a bit. Fortunately, I was able to recover. The harder it is, the sweeter it becomes when you look back."
In a separate interview with CNN, he said: "There's definitely a fine line that you walk when you train at a high level, in terms of conditioning your body to the best of your ability, and pushing it too far where it collapses.
"It's just another adversity that I have to overcome with my asthma. It's definitely helped me focus more, not only on swimming, but also in my life outside of swimming."
Last week alone, three other Olympic participants showed the world how they conquered pain to win or just to finish a race.
* American gymnast Kerri Strug, 18, had two vaults to give her team the gold medal.
She tore her ligaments in her ankle and fell on the first then limped back to the start line and did it once more. "I will, l will, I will," she chanted as she pounded up the runway in searing pain to clinch the first Olympic gold ever won by a US women gymnastics team.
* Australian rider Wendy Schaeffer rode to gold with a broken leg held together by pressure pads and screws, since she broke it two months ago.
* Another Australian rider Gillian Rolton remounted from a fall to finish the cross-country with two broken ribs, a broken collarbone and no feeling in her right side. "It was sheer bloody-mindedness," she said afterwards.
It was much more than that, surely. But you may well say: a case of mind over matter really, which science can easily explain. The brain releases endorphins, which is like having a shot of morphine, to block out the pain.
But you'll be wrong. Cross-cultural findings by anthropologists, extensive psychological research in laboratory settings and recent advances in neuroscience cannot yet explain adequately how the body and brain process pain.
As Dr Melvin Konner professor of anthropology and associate professor of psychiatry at Emory University concludes in his essay, Minding The Pain (from his 1990 collection Why The Reckless Survive), after he has covered all explanations: "Ultimately, there must be some element of will, some attempt on the part of the victim to exercise control some decisive assertion of individual freedom in the face of a restricting, sometimes terrifying pain ... There must be something at the centreñ deep within the person who experiences the particular hurtñthat can only be described as courage."
D. H. Lawrence may not be speaking only about pain, but he put it more dramatically in his essay, Climbing Down Pisgah: "It is the joy for ever, the agony for ever, and above all, the fight for ever... The vast demon of life has made himself habits which except in the whitest heat of desire and rage, he will never break. And these habits are the laws of our scientific universe.
"But all the laws of physics, dynamics, kinetics, statics, all are but the settled habits of a vast living incomprehensibility, and they can all be broken, superseded, in a moment of great extremity."
I DEVOURED with great comfort the medical reports of President Clinton and his challenger Bob Dole which The Straits Times carried on Wednesday. Both have to take medicine for heartburn. For Dole, it is 150 mg of Zantac, a potent inhibitor of acid secretion in the stomach that is also probably the world's bestselling drug, twice a day; and for Clinton, it is Prilosec, a strong antacid.
Dole has also to take 20 mg of Pravachol and 500 mg of niacin to control his cholesterol, which at 154 is very good, especially for a 73year-old; metamucil once a day to add fibre to his diet; and ibuprofen when needed for aches and pains.
Clinton takes Claritin D, a prescribed antihistamine for allergies and also gets an allergy shot every seven to 10 days. Clarintin D, if I'm not wrong, because I take a variation of it, is for people with a sensitive nose, which may explain why he did not "inhale" when flirting with marijuana. The smoke would have plugged up his nose.
There was a time in my 20s when I used to lie sleepless in bed with a clogged nose because of allergy. Those were the nights when I thought enviously about all those blessed beings out there who were fast asleep, their nostrils clear, breathing evenly, and who, come morning, would get up and draw in a deep breath and go charging out to take on the new day.
Now in my late 40s I have come to see that the body is mortal and the disgustingly healthy chap today can become pathetically sick tomorrow. I am consoled by the fact that most people live with ailments of one kind or another, some throughout their lives, others at one time or another in their lives and they just have to manage as best they can, often with the help of medicine.
There is no one out there who has never known pain. A few individuals are incapable of experiencing pain but theirs is a tragic defect which can lead to fatal injury. Investigations of their brains have yielded few clues as to what the defect is.
Biology, alas, is perhaps destiny. Your genes are strings of pure digital information and if encoded in that information is a predisposition for asthma, there is nothing you can do about it. At some point in your life that bit of information wili be switched on and you get asthma.
We distinguish ourselves from animals by our rational faculties but in recent years artitical intelligence has duplicated a number of those faculties. So we say we are not machines because of our emotional faculties, which are precisely what we have in common with animals.
What religious people think of as the soul or spirit can be fairly said to consist of just this, to quote Dr Konner again, "the intelligence of an advanced machine in the mortal brain and body of an animal".
Yet, how then do we account for someone like Dolan, or the courage of the three other Olympians I mentioned earlier? How do we account for the millions of people who bear pain in their own heroic ways, often unseen by others, and otherwise unrecorded except illegibly in medical files?
In The Tangled Wing, Biological Constraints On The Human Spirit (1982), Dr Konner argues that biology is not exactly destiny but it does set limits on human nature.
The thing is to understand these limits and yet to recover the sense of wonder of the joy and order and beauty of life and the natural world, which is the hallmark of our species and the central feature of the human spirit, if we wish to have a human future, and not perish like the dinosaurs which ruled the planets for over 100 million years, at least 100 times longer than our brief tenure.
"At the conclusion of all our studies," he says, "we must try once again to experience the human soul as soul, and not just as a buzz of bioelectricity; the human will as will, and not just a surge of hormones; the human heart not as a fibrous, sticky pump, but as the metaphoric organ of understanding.
"We need not believe in them as metaphysical entities... but we must believe in them as entities- not as analysed fragments, but as wholes made real by our contemplation of them ... We must stand in awe of them as unassailable, even though they are dissected before our eyes."