X-rays of the soul

July 24, 2006

Radiography doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Not only did it revolutionize the way physicians approach patients, today it exposes many facets of our world, revealing it for what it is.

Radiography doesn't get the credit it deserves. Not only did it revolutionize the way physicians approach patients, today it exposes many facets of our world, revealing it for what it is.

Last week veterinarians used x-rays to identify and then guide the removal of an electric blanket from the innards of a 12-foot Burmese python that had mistaken the gizmo for a hot lunch. X-rays have found a 13-inch serrated knife in a Saint Bernard pup; unveiled what some have dubbed an "alien face" inside a dead duck; and, in a series of fluoroscopic images, showed how cardinals sing. (The bird changes its vocal tract from a narrow tube to the shape of flower vase.)

It is in human medicine, however, that x-rays are most revealing, demonstrating character - or the lack of it - as much as the presence of physical things. Batteries and bed springs are disclosed in the digestive tract of a prisoner incarcerated in Raleigh, NC, who hoped to receive medical attention at a hospital outside the prison. Inside a dead man in Brooklyn, PVC pipes are discovered in place of bones, which were stolen as part of an alleged body parts ring.

But these barely hint at the dark side of people that may be revealed by radiography. Several years ago in Vienna I had the misfortune to come across a poster presentation of the role played by radiography in documenting child abuse. I was unprepared for what I saw.

Much like radiologists piece images from multiple planes into a mind's eye volume, writers reconstruct events from individual facts. This is how it was for me in Vienna. Walking past the images of tiny broken bones, I saw the horror these children endured. It weighed on me, each step, each new image until, finally, I turned away.

But I was glad that radiography had been there for those kids, because it showed more than broken bones. It revealed the monsters who had broken them. And I hoped that, because these images appeared in that exhibit, their significance was appreciated, and they had been used to stop the horror.

While MR, CT, and PET battle disease, radiography battles evil. It is a noble calling for a technology that, despite its century-plus age, goes beyond what the most modern technologies can see - it shows the human soul, if people can bring themselves to look.