It all started innocently enough. I was listening to National Public Radio, running errands and picking up kids.
The interview was with author Mary Roach, and she was discussing her new book “Gulp.” As I jumped in and out of the car, sometimes pausing at a location for one of those “driveway moments” that NPR brags about, I heard her say that the book takes the readers on a journey of food after you eat it.
This is where I must insert a warning for those of you reading while enjoying your breakfast as this topic is one that some consider “gross.” You may want to skip on over to read the sports section for now and come back when you’re through eating, although I can’t promise there’s nothing cringe-worthy in that section.
For me, it all started long ago, when I was in grade school. I liked to look at everyday things and find the humor in it (this was pre-Seinfeld). I would tell stories about banal commonplace happenings from a perspective that usually made my friends laugh.
One day I was telling a funny story about a typical experience in the bathroom and instead of being met with uproars, I was stonewalled by blank stares followed by looks of concern. This is when I realized that what was a “normal” bathroom experience for me was not necessarily normal.
This marked the beginning of my fascination with our large intestine and all of its wonders. You can imagine my heightened interest as I pulled into the carpool line to listen to the rest of the interview.
Roach was discussing, with enthusiasm and excitement, a procedure called a fecal transplant. I found this conversation so riveting it must be shared.
It’s the simple process of transplanting fecal bacteria from a healthy individual into a patient suffering from Clostridium difficile infection, which can cause symptoms ranging from diarrhea to life-threatening inflammation of the colon. Imagine a procedure that is relatively simple and very low cost that in some cases has a success rate of over 90 percent. It is inspiring for a person that struggles with a chronic condition, especially one that no one seems to want to talk about.
I gushed to everyone that would listen about the stories from the interview as we headed for spring break. Why weren’t these revelations being shouted from the rooftops?
Later, sitting poolside, my son, who is far too aware of my enthusiasm for this topic, asked whether he could borrow my Kindle and then returned it with “Gulp” downloaded for me. Imagine my delight looking through chapters titled “Inflammable You: Fun with hydrogen and methane” or “I’m All Stopped Up: Elvis Presley’s megacolon.” Learning should be fun.
A few years ago when I had a colonoscopy, I elected to skip the anesthesia so that I could be aware of what was going on and was hoping to get an interesting lesson on what the colon looks like and the how mine “stacks up” with the norm.
As the video monitor showed the camera traveling through the pink caves I wanted more information about what I was seeing. Unfortunately my reluctant doctor seemed to prefer an unconscious victim and his fascination with the procedure had worn off long ago.
If talking about this weren’t so taboo, maybe we would still be listening to Elvis croon. Perhaps you weren’t aware that Elvis died in the bathroom.
And although his autopsy is sealed until 2027, we do know that he suffered from chronic constipation, had an enlarged colon and the body’s response to struggling with these issues can cause cardio-arrhythmia, which was listed as the official cause of death. Yes, I know, all of the drugs that he ingested could also have contributed.
There are many intriguing stories about Elvis’ struggles with constipation or colonic inertia theory in the book. I will spare you the details, but in essence unnecessary suffering had occurred because of the lack of research and treatment options. Elvis’s doctor George “Nick” Nichopoulos, who treated Presley in the 1970s, said of the colonic inertia theory “nobody knew about it back then.”
Given the history of research and treatment (or lack of) for gastrointestinal issues, I can say that we have nowhere to go but up. If we aren’t afraid to talk about it, treatment could improve exponentially.
“Gulp” is not a medical book, but it does offer a unique way to learn about the topic. If you like reading about science but find textbooks boring and journals tedious, this book is for you.
As Mary Roach states, she wants readers not to say “this is gross” but instead, “I thought this would be gross, but it’s really interesting. OK, and maybe a little gross.” Yes it is.