Recently a group of X-ray technicians were given a series of radiographic images of skeletons. They were then asked to identify, by comparison and contrast, which skeleton represented a man who was fit, a man who was overweight, and a man with chronic back pain. The specialists conferred and selected the images they thought best represented those categories. The results weren’t exactly accurate.
The skeleton they chose represented a man with chronic back pain was the athlete, who had no such pain. And the image they chose represented an athlete was not an image of a man at all.
It was a gorilla.
Similarities in skeletal structure between the ground-dwelling, predominantly herbivorous species of primates we know as “Gorillas” and the ground-dwelling, usually omnivorous species homo sapien notwithstanding, it’s a tough pill to swallow to know that such mistakes can be, and often are, made.
In prenatal care, the newest “test” in a series of screenings (following in the footsteps of the triple screen, or AFP Plus test) is called the quad marker test. The purported purpose of the quad marker test is to check for things like Down’s syndrome and open neural tube defects like spina bifida. You can also observe the sex of the child. According to some opinions, what the quad marker really serves as, in plain terms, is a way to determine if termination is going to be a consideration.
There is a couple who are in my family who had two children and were expecting their third. During one of the screening tests, the parents were told that their developing infant was having some major difficulties. The ultrasound suggested that the child’s lungs and kidneys were not developing properly. It was a heart problem, really, with the budding arteries not unfurling enough for the lungs to fully form, or the kidneys to descend. Things were not on track, and it was anticipated that the child would not live beyond a day outside of the womb. Several other doctors were consulted and agreed based on the ultrasound data. The parents, strong in their faith and love of one another and their child, unconditionally, chose to carry the baby through to term.
Shortly before birth, the last ultrasound was performed. This time the doctors stepped back and gaped at what they saw, but could not explain. Now the child appeared healthy. Indeed, he was born to overjoyed parents and is doing well and pooping up diapers as babies tend to do.
An acquaintance of mine shared with me a similar story, how her screening tests indicated the strong possibility that her son would be born with Down’s syndrome, along with other, possibly even more major complications. Today, though, her seven year-old, aside from a bit of ADD, she tells me, smiling, is perfectly healthy, with no Down’s or anything of the kind.
There has been over recent years, vast improvements in the prenatal world. And over the centuries, great improvement as well. None of this should go overlooked. To have gone from treating pregnancy as a malady which needed curing to an age where we in the West are finally coming to see childbirth for what it is – a natural, mysterious process – is a very good thing. In general, induction rates are down in the country, and so infant mortality is down. We are still terribly high in infant mortality for a developed country, ranking pitifully among our national peers, but the cycle of intervention seems to be waning. And we seem to still think we can outguess mother nature.
What’s really interesting is how we put such trust in our machines, especially our newest ones. I’m afraid we’re doomed to repeat certain mistakes time and again. For some reason, we have this unflappable faith in science and technology. If we have a machine we can ooh and ahh over, it seems like it’s proven its worth simply by existing. Yet, throughout history science is essentially a chain of this-guy-improving-on-that-guy, or this-guy-proving-that-first-guy-dead-wrong. Likewise, each machine outdoes the last only in terms of its promise, and soon we find we are right where we were before.
I love technology as much as the next person. Science is fun and exciting and I’m always reading up on the latest breakthrough or gizmo. But I have yet to consider any scientific advance or technological solution to a problem a panacea. We have to use our discernment and always keep in mind that just because something is there, and it’s impressive (going to the OB with my pregnant partner makes me feel like being in a spaceship), doesn’t mean that it’s infallible. Rather than get tripped up trying to outguess nature’s course because of a machine (or its human counterpart’s interpretation of its data, really) we would do well to keep things simple and remember that trying to exert control over everything can cause as many problems as we attempt to solve.
Just ask the guy who was thought to be a gorilla.