Thursday, December 6, 2012

This week in ranting: why is the pancreas so presumptuous?

Welcome to the second installment of "This week in ranting". Here is first installment: The lung is a noob .

A little background before we get started: today we had a small group session devoted to breaking bad news. Usually these small groups are a colossal waste of time. People sit around holding hands singing the kumbaya and nothing of any significance gets done. This small group session was an exception. Delivering bad news to patients is a critical skill and although teaching it this early might not have terribly important retentive value, at least they are exposing us to these things. Long story short, we were supposed to deliver a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer to actors pretending to be patients.

In the midst of this session, it suddenly struck me that the pancreas is a freaking presumptuous organ. I mean look at it. What other non-paired, singular organ in the body presumes to seem and sound plural?

Ever hear the heart calling itself the "hearts"? No! Because that would be stupid. And arrogant. How would you feel if the brain woke up tomorrow asking people to call it "brains"? The brain is a pretty important organ, right? Yet you don't see it letting all this important get to it. You don't see its ego swelling to the size of a dirigible.  Look at the liver - the humble little organ that could (well actually the liver is one of the largest organs in the body, but let's roll with it). It sits there patiently and meticulously filtering out all the toxins you and I brazenly dump in our bodies. But you will never hear it saying it prefers to be called the "livers."

Why the pancreas then? This gnarly (no, literally. The pancreas is pretty tortuous) piece of tissue with the texture and feel of a giant chicken tender is a fairly crucial organ. It spews out digestive enzymes and also releases important things like insulin and glucagon so your body doesn't all of a sudden go into a coma due to swings in glucose levels. But unlike the vital organs like the heart, liver or the brain, this punk slab of cells swaggers around wanting its name to seem plural. An obvious case of plurality envy, if you ask me. It is clearly jealous of the lungs, the kidneys, the testes, the ovaries, the eyes, the limbs and so on.

So I looked into this a little bit more. Turns out some ancient Greek idiot named it the pancreas (meaning "whole flesh"). The plural of pancreas is pancreases or pancreata (yuck). Here's probably what actually happened: some Greek anatomist was looking at this yet-unnamed organ and was preparing to call it something sensible and singular. But this punk probably threw a tantrum and threatened to dissolve all organs around it with its enzymes. Faced with such daring thuggery, the Greeks promptly called it the pancreas.

So here I am, seething with rage and incredulity, while the pancreas prances around holding us hostage.

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