The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Skin of Our Eyeteeth

The Human Spirit’s Capacity for Cleverness Is Surpassed Only by Its Inextinguishable Kindness

From time to time, I am reminded that I live in an age of miracles. Last night, I received two such reminders. The first came as I listened to NPR’s All Things Considered, as I rode home on the bus. It was the story of Sharron Kay Thornton from Smithdale Mississippi, a woman with a tooth in her eye.

Thorton went blind over ten years ago as the result of a rare genetic disorder that caused extensive scarring of her corneas. Her family’s search for a cure led them to the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute at the University of Miami. Thorton underwent a series of innovative procedures there, including stem cell treatments, without success. Then, Doctor Victor Perez decided to try a rarely used surgical procedure, called modified osteo-odonto keratoprosthesis, which he first learned about in Italy.

The surgery involves cutting a slit through the scar tissue and inserting a narrow tube to let in light, analogous to a telescope. However, the tube needs something to hold it in place within the eye, something the eye would not reject as foreign matter. The best candidate for that was another part of Thorton’s body.

As it turns out, tooth bone and ligament can thrive quite nicely in eye tissue. Doctor Perez began by removing remove a tooth and part of Thorton's jawbone. He shaped the tooth and drilled a hole through its middle to hold the tube. He implanted the amalgamation into Thornton's chest for several months, allowing its components to bond. Finally, he made the incision in Thorton’s cornea and implanted the tooth/tube over it.

Three years after surgery, Thorton has one of the most peculiar-looking eyes you can imagine but experiences 20/70 vision with her prosthetic. Eventually, Doctor Perez believes her eyesight will be almost normal. The surgery is so rare that doctors have performed it only about six hundred times worldwide. This marked its first use in the United States.

Coincidentally, the tooth chosen by Doctor Perez, due to its shape and size, was one of Thorton’s upper canines – commonly known as an eyetooth.

This story struck me as miraculous partly because it exemplifies how human beings have used our cleverness and technology to set nature on its head. We peer inside our bodies using (ultra)sound. We play music on CDs using laser light. Now, we can see with our teeth.

We have all heard the famous dictum by science fiction writer Arthur C. Clark that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” We can use technology to accomplish things formerly attributed to magic, like making blind people see again. Of course, our old stories of such acts do not refer to them as magic but as miracles.

Paul of Tarsus was no stranger to preternatural physical experiences, given the purported nature of his conversion to Christianity. Yet he consistently maintained in his teachings to judge acts as miracles not by their ability to astonish but rather their ability to increase faith.

Perhaps what I found so miraculous in Thorton’s story was the way it refreshed my optimism and faith in our ability as a nation and a species to find a better way. Surely, if doctors can discover such an extraordinary means to save a person’s sight, they can come together with politicians, insurance companies, and lobbyists to figure out a way that anyone and everyone who needs healthcare can afford to get it.

The second reminder came when the bus arrived at my stop – a strip mall parking lot about a mile or two from my house. Bob got off the bus with me. Bob is a soft-spoken but friendly man, about fifteen years older than I am. As we walked along the sidewalk toward our cars, we came upon a bottle that someone had smashed. Several large, jagged hunks of glass lay on the sidewalk.

Bob’s face twisted in a grimace when he saw them.

“Those look nasty,” he remarked.

“Yes,” I said. “Someone could cut themselves pretty badly on that.”

Bob reached down and scooped up the worst of the pieces, placing them in an outer pocket of his briefcase.

“I’ll throw these away when I get home,” he explained.

Sometimes it is hard to keep optimism and faith refreshed. This is particularly true at present. The use of “hope and change” as a partisan political slogan has generated a counter partisan political movement that cynically holds them as well as those individuals acting as their agents to be foolish and naïve.

Thorton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Skin of Our Teeth, examines whether the human race ought to look at itself with cynicism or optimism. The main characters are a seemingly typical contemporary family and their maid but, as in the earlier Wilder play, Our Town, they are archetypes for broader, basic ideas. The characters go through a series of avant-garde adventures, in which they repeatedly just escape disaster, only to try again.

The play suggests humanity repeats itself across history, often plagued by both natural and man-made adversities. Wilder marvels at humanity’s ability to continually re-invent and even improve itself but also questions how many more catastrophes we can survive. He also ponders whether we even deserve the opportunity, since our basic nature – and our capacity for good and evil – remains fundamentally unchanged.

It is easy to see how the Great Depression, the rise of totalitarianism, and the advent of the Second World War caused Wilder to begin doubting the folksy optimism in humanity expressed by Our Town. Yet for all his doubts and all humanity’s repeated tragedies, Wilder still seems to side with thinkers like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. that the arc of history “is long but it bends toward justice.”

This is what I found so reassuring last night. Healthcare reform may pass as meaningless drivel or fail to pass altogether. The ideological stubbornness, greed, and hubris of our leaders may cycle around again to doom it. But even if it all comes crashing down around us, there still exists within the human spirit an inextinguishable, unselfish kindness that will cause enough of us, like Bob, to pick up the jagged pieces so the future can pass through unscathed and try again.

An age of miracles, indeed.

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