Doing the doable--present, past, future

May 1, 2002

By Greg Freiherr, Editor, gfreiherr@cmp.comThe uncertainty of modern medicine bothers me. With all the technology we have, the precision it provides, why is anything still a

By Greg Freiherr, Editor, gfreiherr@cmp.com

The uncertainty of modern medicine bothers me. With all the technology we have, the precision it provides, why is anything still a mystery? We don't have to ponder the great medical mysteries, such as Alzheimer's, to get frustrated.

Last week my 8-year-old was pushed down while playing. His pinky puffed up so much he couldn't move it. Off we went to the doctor's office; into x-ray; back to the doc.

"Is it broken?" I asked.

"Could be," was the reply. "We'll put a splint on it just to be sure."

Aaagghhhh. Why can't we nail anything down? I wanted answers. And there didn't seem to be any.

Then I stumbled on a Reuters story: "Cracked skull shows Neanderthal rage and mercy." A bony scar, detected with CT, indicated that a Neanderthal had been hit by a weapon and that the crack had healed. This fact was established "during computer-assisted reconstruction of the skull," the Swiss researchers wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Considering that bone healing is visible only two to three weeks after a traumatic event, it can be concluded that the individual survived the injury for at least some months," the team wrote.

To survive that long, opined an expert on Neanderthals, somebody had to care for him. CT had detected a 36,000-year-old sign of compassion!

Knowing that today's imaging tools could provide insights into the earliest beginnings of human society somehow made me feel better. I recalled visiting an Egyptian exhibit in which radiography established that a tiny sarcophagus contained not a child but an adult whose legs had been broken so the body would fit inside. (Obviously, ancient Egyptians were great at embalming but not so good at measuring.)

CT has unwrapped numerous other mummies, I have since learned, revealing the illnesses and injuries leading to their deaths. Three-D reconstruction put the face on a mummy's head found in an Italian museum and plumbed the rib cage of what some believe are the remains of 3000-year-old Ramesses.

These were simple truths. Lost in time; found by modern technology. And while another way might have uncovered those truths, they would have come at the cost of destroying what was being studied.

Imaging provided an elegant solution. I liked that. And I wondered: What will imaging technologies of the distant future say about us?