FORUM: Falling

Seven months ago, an endodontic dentist performed a root canal upon me to “cure” a parulis condition. When I arrived for the procedure an office worker called my insurance company and learned that only $200 of the $1,000 total cost of the procedure was covered. I paid the $800 difference and was told that the financial aspect of our relationship was concluded.

Seven months later the procedure had failed to eliminate my parulis condition. Last Monday I called the office and asked to leave a message for the dentist, asking if this situation after such a long period is expected and normal. Instead, the office worker told me that they hadn’t yet received the $200 payment from my insurance company so I had to pay the dentist $200, and I would be reimbursed if the insurance company paid the dentist what they were legally obligated to cover.

Naturally, this unexpected and in my opinion abnormal response to my question instantly induced a tepid rage in my mind, which rapidly accelerated into a class 5 cognitive hurricane. Suffice it to say, this condition engaged a large percentage of the floating-point operations available in my grey matter. My sensory acuity was therefore not at peak operating level.

I needed to walk to a store located a mile south of my apartment. The concrete sidewalks of the slum in which I live in are distorted by the alternating extreme heat of summer and extreme cold of winter, so they are cracked and uneven, with sections of concrete missing. Ordinarily, when I walk along this obstacle course, I keep my eyes focused on the next piece of pavement upon which I will tread. But with my mind preoccupied by my telephone conversation with the dentist’s office, I neglected to watch where I was walking.

Without warning—usually the case in my experience, I tripped. As the portion of my body beginning at my waist and extending to the top of my head bent forward, instinct took over and my feet involuntarily began to strut along, more and more rapidly, to get beneath my torso and thereby keep me erect.

Lucky for me, a sprinter my entire life, my feet started moving extremely rapidly—as if my DNA included a healthy dose of lizard.

Unlucky for me, no matter how rapidly I ran, gravity inevitably won the race.

I say inevitably, because in Chicago the acceleration of gravity is 32.2 feet per second-squared. Thus, falling for only one second, my feet would have to transport me 32.2 feet laterally to catch up with my torso, and 35.2 feet to make me stand erect. However, my falling behavior occurred over only 26 feet (the length of two parked compact cars), over an estimated period of THREE seconds. To mathematically challenged folks, this means that I was running much too slowly, and over a very inadequate distance, for my feet to catch up with my torso.

When the inevitable outcome was imminent because I was nearly horizontal, I reflexively lunged forward as if sliding into second base or home plate. No! Not safe! No run scored! Wrong, brain!

The silver-dollar-sized patch of missing skin on my right knee still has not scabbed-over. My hospitalist friend directed me in a broken (right) thumb evaluation protocol over the phone, and we decided there probably was no fracture. This morning I was able to use my right hand to squeeze a bit of toothpaste onto a toothbrush, but not for much more. The swelling is subsiding, and the magenta color of the flesh on my palm and the inside of my lower arm is starting to turn lemon yellow. As pain in the thumb and wrist abates, pain in the forearm, top arm, shoulder, and shoulder blade are a constant reminder that my 195-pound body took a high-speed dive onto concrete—transmitting energy through my thumb and along my right arm.

Déjà vu!

Clearly, it is time for me to construct a plan to circumvent the damage caused by my reptilian reflex to run as quickly as possible when I trip, and to rehearse the plan every time I put on a pair of shoes. I can think of two options: (1) limit damage inflicted by a trip, or (2) avoid damage resulting from a trip.

I hypothesize that limiting damage would result from minimizing my forward momentum (or speed) when I trip, because the faster I run trying to NOT trip, the greater the damage I sustain. Therefore, I must train my mind: the moment I detect a trip, just plop straight down to the ground.

I haven’t ever tried this, and I must recuperate from my present injuries before this is feasible. However, I have seen this tactic work one time. I was watching some boys in elementary school run a 600-yard race. Half-way through the race, one boy stopped running and plopped down on the track. It turned out that the youngster had to make a bowel movement and the cramp simply shut him down. He sustained no bodily damage. I suppose an appropriate mnemonic for such a strategy, upon detecting a trip, might be the word “poop.”

The other alternative, avoiding damage resulting from a fall, recalls one of my most memorable personal falls. I was a young Research Assistant Professor of Medicine at Northwestern University Medical School. An administrator in the Division of Hematology Oncology called my office and advised me that Professor Kwaan wished to meet with me. Earlier I had been told by senior researchers that Professor Kwaan created the field of Hematology Oncology, and he was one of first scientists to come to the US from Communist China—at the request of President JFK. This, of course, was terrifying and exhilarating, since—along with Professor Roy Patterson, Professor Hau Kwaan was one of the most influential scientists whom I’d likely ever meet in the field of medicine.

I came to Professor Kwaan’s office, and he asked me to have a seat in a chair. The first thing he said to me was: “Good news Paul, CIA says you are a good guy!” “CIA?” I asked. Professor Kwaan was a sitting on a lab stool, balancing on only two legs, leaning against a metal bookcase. He began speaking with me about how I could assist him via statistical analysis of laboratory data, but I was fixating on his leaning stool. I detected that the legs of the stool were slowly moving away from the bookcase. I imagined that if the stool slipped, Professor Kwaan would be injured or worse.

To my horror, the stool legs began slipping faster, and I *knew* that Professor Kwaan was going down! I jumped from my chair and dove in front of the stool, hoping to serve as a human cushion to minimize the effect of his fall. The tile floor exerted strong differential friction on my Doctor’s smock, turning me over and sideways as I skidded to a stop. My legs became wrapped beneath me, and I experienced muscle and ligament misalignments.

As this was happening, I watched Professor Kwaan jump into the air forward of the stool, perform a perfect somersault, and spring to a gentle landing on his feet. He approached me, as I lay sprawled on the floor like a cow on ice. He extended his hand to help me up, and said: “The trouble with Western Man, Paul, is that he has not yet learned to take a fall.”

Indeed! Perhaps I should learn tai chi…



July 21, 2021

Paul R. Yarnold, Ph.D.

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