When was the last time you thought about swallowing? For me, it was a couple of days ago as I sat underneath an umbrella at a picnic table just outside the Lister Hill Medical Library at the UAB School of Medicine. A lunch time crowd of med students had emerged from their lectures and had broken up into groups of 5-8 to sit at the other tables on the patio in the almost idyllic spring weather. I watched them with some envy. One handsome young man regaled his friends with a funny story, all the while taking bites from his sandwich, smashing it into his cheek folds as he chewed, and gulping his Diet Coke. His friends laughed, similarly between biting and chewing – and swallowing.
I never thought I’d envy someone the act of thoughtless swallowing, but then, I never thought I’d have a robot plunge down my throat with a 3-D camera, pushing aside my tongue in order to cut the right tonsil free while trimming enough soft palate to establish clear margins around a cancerous tumor. Sure, I lost the tumor, but the process messed up the functioning of the “tensor” and “elevator” muscles in that soft palate, which has disrupted the reflexive closure of the nasopharynx. In other words, unless I concentrate, part of what I’m drinking comes out my nostrils which tends to distract people from my punch lines. It also precludes savoring a Sangiovese at a fine dining establishment as red wine running out one’s nostrils appears particularly inelegant.
The handsome med student managed his story without a single drop of Diet Coke squirting from his nose. That, of course, is no great accomplishment. All of us, before we learned to read, knew how to successfully complete a complex neuromuscular activity involving lips, teeth, tongue, salivary glands, pharynx, epiglottis, the aforementioned nasopharynx, forming a trough down the center of the tongue in order to move morsels posteriorly and down the esophagus instead of the trachea by means of perfectly coordinated opening and closing of the epiglottis so as not to choke. Next time you bite a french fried potato, think about how you do all that without a moment’s concern.
Stated simply, swallowing is a miracle! But for me right now, it’s an aspiration – no pun intended.
My doctors tell me that it’ll come back, that is, my thoughtless swallowing. Right now, though, I have to think intentionally about occluding the nasopharynx so as not to embarrass myself in public. I’m getting good at it. I’m up to about 10 swallows in a row without unintentional nasal emission. And each time, I feel a sense of gratitude for the marvelous intricacy with which we’ve all been created. You see, even though I have to be intentional about the sip in my mouth, I still haven’t given a second thought to closing the epiglottis. Even “damaged,” we benefit from a wondrously intricate bodily system.
The psalmist put it this way: “I praise you (O Creator), for I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14).” The marvelous capacity to swallow is wonderful and it’s truly fearful not to be able to do it. I sincerely hope that you never have to think about it, except to celebrate how fantastic it truly is to sit down at the table, bite into an incredible pizza, chew it up, swallow it, and go on talking.