What’s The Diagnosis

I was listening to RadioLab on the way into work the other day. This episode was about diagnosis. Let me recap a story they told then I’ll share some thoughts.

Back in the early 1900s, like today, people wondered what caused SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). Healthy infants would die in their sleep for no apparent reason. Some doctors decided to perform some autopsies. They discovered the infants who died had enlarged thyroid glands. Seriously enlarged thyroid glands. They hypothesized that because of the proximity of the thyroid to the windpipe these kids if were laying the right way would be suffocated by their thyroid gland.

So they came up with the idea to shrink the thyroid glands in kids by exposing them to radiation. So every good parent did this and the result was thousands of cases of thyroid cancer dozens of years later.

Lets rewind a few hundred years back to just after the revolutionary war. Medical schools were popping up in the US and there was a huge demand for cadavers. This demand was so large that a new job was created, the resurectionist. These people were grave robbers who typically dug up the bodies of the poor who were easy to find and easy to dig up. As you can imagine this created quite the uproar when people found out someone was digging up their loved ones.

This uproar was so big that countries in Europe passed laws so that anyone who died in a poor house, their body would be donated to a medical school. The demand for cadavers now had a large supply to meet the demand. And the job of resurectionist faded away. 99% of all cadavers came from a poor person.

It wasn’t until in the 20th century that someone raised the question, “What physiological impact does poverty have on a person?” People in poverty are focused on survival and have high stress levels. Years of high stress levels can cause the thyroid to shrink.

The infants who died from SIDS didn’t have enlarged thyroids. They had healthy thyroids. The doctors had only seen thyroids that had shrunk because of years and decades of stress. The basis for their diagnosis was wrong.

As a church, are their areas we think are sick but are really healthy because we’ve only seen sick “glands”? It’s too easy to do something “just because that’s what we’ve always done.” Where are we taking our cues from history or culture instead of the Bible?

Can’t say I have the answers yet but it got me thinking so I thought I’d share.

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January 29, 2009. Personal Growth.

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