The Acute SCI of Climatic Change
In 1997, six months after I had bruised my spinal cord by falling asleep while driving, a machine held my paralyzed body upright to improve my circulation and bone density while a doctor stood at my shoulder, trying to prepare me gently for a bleak prognosis.
“Jim,” he said, “you had a one in a hundred chance of walking again, and I’m afraid you’d be walking by now if your chance had panned out.”
Outside the window at the Missoula, Montana rehab facility, Lolo Peak loomed high against the western sky. An avid hiker and life-long athlete, I shook my head and pointed at the mountain.
“You don’t understand, Dr. Stone, not only will I walk again, but I’ll climb Lolo Peak and take you with me.”
Brave but empty words. Thirteen years later, I’m still paralyzed, and my dreams are dust.
This unhappy picture has everything to do with climatic change.
When I first saw my MRIs after waking from a coma, I couldn’t believe the tiny dent in my spinal cord could shut down my entire body below the shoulders. I told myself my temporary condition was due to “spinal shock,” which would soon wear off, allowing me to dance out of the hospital and resume my active lifestyle.
Not so. I eventually learned the biological realities of acute SCI (the early stages of spinal cord injury) through years of studying Neuroscience and interacting with scientists.
The trauma to my cord had released free radicals (electrically unstable atoms and molecules), which caused blood vessels to contract (vasospasms), local tissues to swell (inflammation and edema), and cut off up to eighty percent of the cord’s blood supply in the crucial hours and days post-injury (ischemia). Deprived of the blood and metabolites, the cells of injured cord began to die or atrophy due to hypoxia (oxygen starvation), the loss of cellular defenses (mitochondrial impairment), ionic (Ca+) imbalance, and programmed cell death (apoptosis).
The above chain reaction, a cellular pin-ball effect that took place over time while nothing was done to stop it, resulted from damage so subtle my doctors missed it for twenty-four hours post-injury. My initial paralysis was due in fact to spinal shock, but secondary damage— the cascade of tissue loss and scarring (gliosis) set in motion by the initial trauma—produced the chronic paralysis that keeps me in this wheelchair today.
Like climatic change, acute SCI represents a quality-of-life devastation that degenerates out-of-sight slowly over weeks, triggered by chemical changes in the spinal cord’s ‘environment.’ For a very fortunate few, spinal shock will wear off, and they’ll return to interrupted lives, walking unsteadily but overjoyed to be on their feet. The other 99% will remain as I am, wishing in vain they had turned left rather than right, stopped for coffee, or done anything rather than whatever actions led to their ruined lives.
For those who think climatic change—like acute SCI—is inevitable since it’s already set in motion, consider the case of General Hugh Sheldon, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and think again. It is not too late. Now is not the time for climatic change paralysis through stubborn denial or needless despair to justify doing nothing. Now is the time to face unwanted truths and for resolute action!
Twice a surrogate ‘stem cells’ spokesperson for the GW Bush White House, J. Perry Kelly ended his biotech activism over the hypocrisy of worldview politics and Conservative eco-denial. Instead he wrote “Quantum Fires,” a thriller that unearths the psychological roots of climatic change.