Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Return of the Cilia: a Former Smoker's Tale

Once upon a time, in a land far away called Vermont, stood a palace called Middlebury College. The very best and brightest children who did not get into their first choice university went to Middlebury for four years to be trained in many arts: writing, languages, filmmaking, painting, lacrosse, but mostly investment banking.

However, not everyone who went to Middlebury were sons and daughters of privilege. These peasants were called "international students." They came from far and wide, and were as different as could be. The South Asians liked to dance and eat and study computer science, economics, or biology. The Eastern Europeans drank too much coffee, sold weed, and scowled at everyone else. The Latin Americans attracted many admirers with their sexy accents and sexier dance moves.

The one thing that united these young intellectuals (hah!) was smoking. Together, they would huddle in the cold and draw comfort from the 4,000+ chemicals in their cigarettes. As a community, they ingested ammonia, arsenic, cadmium, formaldehyde, acetone, and other delightful household/industrial products into their bodies. With the gleeful abandon of youth, they absorbed carbon monoxide on a daily basis, which cackled as its tendrils stole oxygen from healthy cells.

At first, the heroic cilia of the bronchial tube and lungs held fast against the harmful smoke:

"Prepare for invasion!"

Alas, cigarette smoke paralyzes cilia, which exist to "sweep" the body of nasty foreign matter:


And thus the cilia died.


Without cilia, my lungs underwent a transformation during my years at college and beyond:

I was perfectly content with the situation. After all, I thought, I only smoke six cigarettes a day, at most! So what if I smell terrible? I feel good. And so it went on, through grad school, until I got a job and chose a doctor and she asked me if I smoked and I said yes and she said, "Why?" I stared blankly at her and she continued: "You're young and healthy. Why are you doing this to yourself?"

Good question! Well, for starters, for me it was a social activity. My friends in college smoked, so I smoked too. And then I guess I got hooked on the delicious, delicious nicotine, and that was it. Doooooooom.

After my doctor's question, I thought about quitting. And then I determined to quit! The great part is that smoking is so widely known to be a bad practice that there are a ton of products out there to help smokers quit: brochures, websites, nicotine patches, cat therapy (just kidding), etc. But I believed in the power of my mind: I didn't need no stinking patch. Also, the damn things cost sixty bucks! My Ilocana blood kicked in and I refused to buy anything that would help me.

The result: almost a year of struggling to quit. I'd tell myself: "not today, not a single one today... well, maybe just one!" And it was never just one. Le sigh. Or I'd toss an entire pack into the trash, only to root it out hours later and happily smoke the contents. Urgh. So then I started breaking the cigarettes before tossing them out, but then I would just go out and buy a new pack. ARRRGGGHHHH!!! Inconceivable!

And then one cold day in March 2009, I propped myself in the window of my room in our basement apartment, opened the window a tiny bit, and lit a cigarette. The smoke blew right back in my face, and at that moment I was so grossed out that I never smoked again.

This amazing artwork brought to you by MS Paint.
MS Paint: the last resort.

(The incident reminds me of my college professor's secret to quitting: sit down and chain-smoke two packs in one go. Holy crap! He made himself so sick that he never touched a cigarette again. Happily, I didn't have to go to such lengths.)

After that triumph, it took two years of regular running and cycling to get my lungs back to some semblance of proper working order. I was dedicated; I would get my sweet little cilia back! I went jogging at least twice a week, rode my bicycle to work, used stairs instead of escalators, all to wake up those tiny precious sweepers in my lungs. My friend who's a med student had initially warned me that I would never get them back, but later conceded that some studies suggested that they could be recovered. Sweet!

Of course, the real test to prove that my cilia, like Jesus, returned from the dead, is if I cough when I'm around smoke or other irritants. Uh, that hasn't happened yet, mostly because I avoid smokers -- if I'm walking behind one, I'll dart ahead of him/her. But I've passed a number of smokers in front of buildings. Not even a wheeze. Hmmm, maybe my cilia are still dead? Or maybe I don't involuntarily inhale enough second-hand smoke to trigger the outward sweep/coughing action of my cilia?

Or maybe: my cilia has become... SUPER CILIA!!!!


Happy Friday!!!