Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Heartbeat, it's a lovebeat

I'm telling you, this internet thing just might catch on!  It's a never-ending fountain of knowledge that I like to stand in up to my knees, wading in information and metaphors.

There's a site I love called Mental Floss; they have little features, mini-essays and the occasional quiz.  The other night, I stumbled upon an article there that shared the history of the stethoscope. That's the device with two earpieces and a long tube connecting them to a flat disc that your doctor keeps in the freezer until two seconds before it's placed upon your chest, allowing him or her to hear what's going on in the complicated plumbing of what medical science calls your "ticker."

The science of listening to the sounds of your body is known as  auscultation.  (The version practiced by sixth-grade boys is called "flatulation," although not all of the notes produced are flat.) Auscultation allows the trained ear to listen for muted sounds in part of the heart that are normally sonorous.  This might indicate a fluid buildup or tumor, both situations not to be taken lightly.

But until Dr. Rene Theophile Hyacinthe Laennec, over in France in 1816, came up with a great idea, the only way a doctor could hear what was going on in there was by putting an ear right there on the chest.  Dr Laennec (not to be confused with Dr Rumack, who did groundbreaking work much later in the field of airborne medical care) was a bachelor and a mighty shy one at that.  His patient was a zaftig lady, and he wasn't about to nestle his melon up against her... chest.  Thinking fast, he rolled up a piece of paper and placed one end on her chest and the other in his ear, which allowed him to keep his ear a respectable distance away from the mademoiselle's mammaries, and he proceeded to make his diagnosis.

His records reveal that he then called a local cardiologist for advice in the present case, a theory which comes under suspicion, owing to the fact that the telephone had yet to be invented.  Nevertheless, she was charged for the extra consultation, and while she had to do with a few less baguettes to pay off the bill, Dr. Laennec perfected his invention and named it the stethoscope ( from the Greek stethos, meaning chest, and scopos, meaning freezer.)

Today, Sears and WalMart offer a fine variety of chest freezers, and very few of us who keep our BirdsEye frozen broccoli spears in them realize the deep debt we owe to a bashful Frenchman from the year 1816.

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