Wednesday, December 22, 2010

On social networking and the brevity of life

A couple of weeks ago I committed social suicide by deleting my profile from Facebook et al. The main thought behind it was "Life is too short". Little I knew that I was to come across these two concepts (social networks and the brevity of life) in altogether different circumstances.

I was looking forward to my Forensic rotation as a great educational experience. Having said that, forensic pathology is not something I would like to do for a living. Interesting as it is, it can also be rather gruesome. One really have to be able to distance oneself from the emotional side of having to deal with death on a daily basis in order to be able to work there. Don't get me wrong, I like autopsy service and I had known what my future career might entail before I went into pathology. Having performed around a hundred of post-mortems by now I never felt squirmish about this part of the job. However, hospital autopsies are different in that they are usually performed on patients who suffered from one ailment or another, and death, while not always expected, is one of the possible outcomes of the disease. In contrast, people who end up in forensics are mostly cases of either unexpected or unnatural death, or both. Shootings, suicides and cases of sudden infant death syndrome - you really can't help wondering what these people's lives used to be up until the moment they lie before you on the stainless steel table. And then there was this guy...

In his late twenties, he was chatting to his acquaintances on Facebook while also snorting cocaine at 4 o'clock in the morning. He was found later that morning by his father who walked into the room for something. Pictures of the scene of death are taken as a standard, and these pictures were what struck me the most. A rather neat and tidy apartment, an IKEA computer desk like many other households surely have, a picture of a child atop the computer screen. It looked lived in, like if the person inhabiting it just stepped outside to buy milk and cigarettes. An unfinished line of coke on the tabletop...

His Facebook profile page was visible on the computer screen, with images of his Facebook friends. (I have to use some form of descriptor to distinguish Facebook acquaintances from, erm, friends; and since the terms are not mutually exclusive, I think enclosing the word in quotes would be too cynical.) I thought how they probably continued their status updates, flirting and whatnot while he was on the floor suffering a fatal arrythmia. How many of them will never be aware of the fact that that from now on they are one Facebook friend short? Ironically, one may have hundreds and thousands of Facebook friends only to be found dead by their father walking in to get a pair of socks.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What are eponyms and why do we need them?

An eponym is something named after a person - real or fictional. In medicine eponymous conditions are usually named after physicians who first describe them and, occasionally, after unfortunate patients who happen to suffer from them.

While most eponymous conditions usually have an alternative, non-eponymous name, there are several reasons why eponyms are likely to be around for some time.

Eponyms are convenient. Broadly speaking, all eponymous conditions can be divided into two major groups - ubiquitously common and painfully obscure. The first one includes conditions such as, for instance, Crohn and Alzheimer diseases. Indeed, so common they are that using the identifier "disease" has become optional, and they are often referred to as simply Crohn's and Alzheimer's. These are known by their eponymous names not just to healthcare professionals but to laypeople alike, and for this reason are likely to be referred to as such in the forseeable future.

There is also, in contrast with the previous group, a number of esoteric eponymous conditions with only a handful of cases of each described in the literature thus far. These are likely to stay too, even if for reasons quite opposite to the previous group. Most practicing physicians will most likely never encounter a case of Devriendt syndrome during their career. If they do, however, the eponym provides a convenient point of reference.

Eponyms are, as a rule, shorter than their non-eponymous counterparts. It takes significantly less time (and articulatory proficiency) to define a neoplasm as Evans tumor as opposed to low-grade fibromyxoid sarcoma. While it is considered a standard to include both names in published papers, in everyday practice using just the eponym would suffice to convey all the necessary information.

Finally, there is a small subset of eponymous conditions for which there is no non-eponymous counterpart, Ewing sarcoma being the most notable example.