Food makes its way through the 30-foot alimentary canal at an average rate of 0.00023 miles per hour. Kind of slow. That’s about one-third the speed of a standard garden snail, if it could crawl for 24 hours without stopping, which is about the duration of an average trip down the canal. But snails usually don’t do that (they are ambitiously lazy), so – one assumes – food moves through you at about a snail’s pace.
After chewing, the first part of the digestive process along the canal is the protein enzymes carried by one’s saliva. In addition to the enzymes that begin breaking down carbohydrates, the mucus they produce helps facilitate swallowing. Although we each have thousands of salivary glands, there are six major glands that produce most of our saliva, and they come in three pairs:
- The Parotid Glands, which are wrapped around the mid- to aft part of the mandible (lower jaw)
- The Submandibular Glands, located just above the Adams Apple, each about one inch off center, to the side, sort of astride the chin area.
- The Sublingual Glands, which – as you might suspect – are under the tongue. They are toward the front.
These glands produce some 90-95% of our saliva. The submandibular glands produce about two-thirds of that; most of its juice is enzymes for digestion, not watery mucus for swallowing.
My wife and I just returned from a long out-and-back road trip to the Pacific Northwest. The primary reason was to pick up some of her mother’s furniture. Over a few days, we were able to visit with several dear friends and all her family who still live in the area. The weather was spectacular: we were able to really enjoy some typically Seattle touristy things: Lake Union boat tour, Pike Place Market, Elliot Bay and Snoqualmie Falls.
We also made a wide swing on the return leg to see Crater Lake. A place we’d never been to – but always wanted to – despite several previous vacation trips through Oregon. Simply stunning. Gorgeous. We had fantastic weather … again.
When a couple who are dear friends of ours (she arranged for Audrey and me to meet in 1982) found out where we were (thanks Facebook!), they made the three-hour trip from northern California to visit with us in Oregon. Hadn’t seen them since April, 1984.
I was reminded on this trip, yet again, how brief and fragile an individual’s life is here on our home planet. And not just because we made another trip to Tahoma National Cemetery, where we visited Audrey’s parents’ final resting place, and again walked the beautifully maintained grounds to look at various tombstones and enjoy quiet “alone time”, meditating and rolling thoughts around while on the sacred tracts.
Even considering that many of those buried there died in military service, or shortly thereafter, the average lifespan shown was only about 70 years. That’s only about 1% of the length of recorded history. Yet only about 0.1% of the duration of the Homo Sapiens Sapiens sub-species. And only about 0.000001% the age of the earth.
Life is brief.
Yet on a beautiful Sunday evening I was also reminded that life is fragile.
I’m in pretty good shape. Good diet. Extraordinary exercise discipline. Good BMI. Good BP. Solid core. Probably should drink a little less.
Yet on that Sunday evening I felt unusually tired and lay down for a short power nap. Short? I was down over an hour.
Upon awaking, my tongue felt thick and uncoordinated. Aside my tongue felt sore. I did the stroke test: smiled in the mirror. All good and symmetric. I went outside the house for a social gathering, greeted everyone, and took a piece of cheese from what remained on the snack plate. They had been waiting on me to commence with the meal. I felt awkward.
But I felt more awkward when the cheese would not go down my gullet. And some got stuck under my tongue. I suddenly felt difficulty breathing and talking, as well as swallowing.
I put my hand up to my throat – why? – to find that underneath the left side of my jaw was enormously swollen. Pushing painfully into the swelling I could discern a substantial hard mass. Lymph nodes?
When I showed Audrey – she who could see how large it was – she decided immediately: we are going to an Emergency Room. So off we immediately go to Overlake Hospital, Bellevue Washington.
As the swelling continued growing, the gentle yet attentive Doctor Chang told me that these things often get worse before they get better. As that would be life threatening, he gently suggested that I should spend the night in hospital.
I responded: Gee Doc, I don’t know. This is our first date.
He smiled, briefly. Then shot me a serious look.
“OK, if I need to.”
At first, he thought it was an immune reaction to a medication I have been taking for many years. Apparently common. But, as a precaution against a possible infection, he ordered a CT scan.
Over two hours later the results came in. Yes, I did have an infection (even though I had no fever). Right near the infection that nearly killed me after a dental procedure some four and a half years ago. I still bear the scar on my jaw, under tooth #18.
So … here’s what happened. The enzymes and such carried by salivary glands can crystallize into tiny, tiny stones. Which can block the duct. Which backs up. And then gets infected. That dang left submandibular salivary gland! Of course, I should have known (actually, I had no freaking idea; I had to look all of this up).
What causes this? Apparently, age is a big indicator: I’m no spring chicken. Also, dehydration. Well, it had been very hot and dry in Colorado recently, and I’d been working out … a lot. So, it all fits.
I had a very positive reaction to the IV anti-biotic and steroids. In a few hours I was released – well after midnight – to the care of my loving wife.
Now, suppose we had been driving through the middle of nowhere (as we often were on this trip) or on a long hike or backpack trip – without cell service.
That would have been very serious indeed.
On oral anti-biotics the swelling reduced to nil over a few days. A week of pills and it’s all gone. So, don’t worry about me.
I get my annual physical next week. Can’t wait to tell them about this one.
Life is fragile. Life is short. Hug, call, or write someone special in your life. I’m writing to you.
Wishing y’all get all your days, which are numbered at only about 29,000, on average. That’s not a large number.
Joe Girard © 2018
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9 thoughts on “Brief and Fragile”
Jeez Joe, they can’t take you any where!
Fragile indeed. Thanks for the story. Glad you are all better…
One of my favorite pieces.
I understand, Michelle
Sheesh, Joe. Like a Timex you are. Nice to follow your travails and travels. Life is short, proud of you making the most of yours. We just moved to Loveland, close on our new house next Wed and look very forward to making our winter trip again starting right after Christmas. I read always but comment seldom. You two dear friends know we think of you and pray for you often. Blessings.
Thank you Don. Good luck with the new house. Please do have safe travels … and share some travel stories.
Glad to hear you are well Joe. Your medical life has been interesting to read about since you’ve been posting your “adventures”. Say “hi” to Audrey and the boys.
That must have been scary Joe. I’m glad you feel better. Thank God you were with Audrey & your good friends. Your muse gives us all something to think about. Thank you!
While in college about 1975, I had a salivary gland swell slowly over several weeks. I visited the university medical center about 3 times; each time they wanted to continue watching it. At my mother’s suggestion I went to my family doctor (also a surgeon) who removed it that afternoon. I don’t remember which gland it was and have had not problems at that location since.
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