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The art of autoimmunity

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NOVEMBER 08, 2021

There is nothing glamorous about blood work.

As I sit under the harsh fluorescent lights of Quest Diagnostics, I attempt to distract myself from the needle in my inner arm. I stare up at the popcorn ceiling and engage in a series of calculated, drawn-out breaths. In less than a minute, the practitioner informs me she’s done, and I let out a sigh of sudden relief. 

I don’t necessarily look forward to my biannual blood work. I spend more time worrying about it than I do actually sitting with a needle in my arm. Yet, as I gradually draw my eyes down from the ceiling, I find myself oddly fascinated by the dark red vials on the table to my right. It is strange to think that the small molecules of my interior will be processed and analyzed. From the results, my endocrinologist will make some sort of meaning out of my ever-fluctuating T4 and antibody levels. Then, in six months, I’ll repeat the process all over again. 

As I fumble for a gluten-free granola bar to relieve my early morning hunger, I can’t help but think that those small, transparent tubes contain the story of my silent life. Otherwise invisible health problems will assume some semblance of a shape; my blood will relate a story that only it is capable of telling. At the very least, maybe it will tell me why I’ve felt like garbage for the past month and a half. 

I’ve always held a certain fascination for biology, but especially so since my diagnosis with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. From then on, the abstract concepts I learned in class carried much more weight. Phospholipids and physiology became exciting topics that led me to a greater understanding of myself and the world around me. 

Naturally, when I tell people about my passion for biology, they are confused by my decision to pursue a degree in English. To many, there exists a rigid division between STEM and the humanities, and my love of both subjects does not quite fit into this binary. Nevertheless, I continually find myself questioning whether English and biology are really so different after all. 

The study of English teaches us the importance of closely reading a piece of literature. I thoroughly enjoy zooming into a text and deconstructing individual rhetorical elements until I arrive at some higher meaning. I attempt to disconnect and rearrange each moving part, gleaning information from a strategically placed comma or inverted syntax.

How is analyzing those dark red vials that much different? Tiny molecules that evade the human eye get pulled in and centered. My daily experiences — both felt and unfelt — come together as quantified forms, presented in rigidly delineated graphs. There is a certain beauty in the rapid increase of my T4 levels, even if it is cause for concern. My lab results all coalesce to form a more holistic portrait of my life beneath the surface

Reading requires close attention to specific details. The placement of a semicolon or metonymy can illuminate secrets of the passage, guiding the careful reader to a greater understanding of literary themes. I would argue that my endocrinologist does the same: She detects minor irregularities and interrogates them. Instead of writing off my symptoms as normal — just another feature in the text of my life — she investigates them in their entirety.

Stories continually circulate through our veins. They touch our very hearts — in through the pulmonary vein, out through the aorta. In our daily lives, we receive dozens of embodied clues that potentially point to something larger. Through careful study and close attention, I seek to better understand the language of my veins. Then, perhaps, I will better be able to piece together the silent narrative of myself. 

In life, we confront a series of invisible battles. While Virginia Woolf instructs me in the struggle against time, my lab results shine light on the conflict between my immune system and thyroid. Literature and biology are both important for the way I understand the world and my position in it, and they allow me to look at life from all angles. Maybe my English courses will not prepare me for a career in medicine, but I appreciate the lessons I learn nonetheless. 

For the time being, I will continue to embark on those biannual journeys to Quest Diagnostics. Though the situation is not ideal, I am eternally grateful that I found such an elegant, attentive close reader in the form of my endocrinologist. Under her guidance, I am better equipped to live a happy, healthy — though gluten-free — life. 

Lauren Harvey writes the Monday A&E column on the relationship between art and the unspoken. Contact her at [email protected].
LAST UPDATED

NOVEMBER 29, 2021


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