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Vitals & Bits #19: The Kidneys

Deconstructing our federal government is pretty similar to dissecting one of the waxen cadavers from my college anatomy lab. Peel back the layers and you’ll find judicial brains, and military muscle, and convoluted channels funneling money, the lifeblood of government, to all its various parts.

If government were an organism, however, it might look like some freakish homunculus with an oversized mouth and a huge anus. The vitals parts, like the heart and the hands, would appear atrophied, leaving us with a system that’s incapable of doing much besides talking, eating, and squeezing out feces. What are we supposed to do with such an obnoxious patient? Is our government, like a cadaver on the table, already dead, or is there some kind of life support that would help reanimate the precious organs and return our system to dynamic, efficient functionality?

Perhaps we should take a cue from Mother Nature and invest in a beefy pair of kidneys for our dying system. In the human body, the kidneys have about a zillion hobbies, but their day job is filtering waste products from the blood and preventing a toxic overload of metabolic byproducts like urea. They also excrete or reabsorb water and electrolytes as needed in order to keep blood pressure normal. For instance, if a person is dehydrated, the kidneys sense the drop in blood pressure and begin reclaiming every spare water molecule in sight. As such, they play a major role in maintaining homeostasis, or the stable internal equilibrium of a living system.

The kidneys know that fiscal responsibility has more to do with sustainability and recycling than tightfisted, miserly budgeting. The kidneys never hesitate to spend, but they spend wisely, always keeping an eye on the wellbeing of the whole organism. They secrete the hormone calcitriol when they sense the body is low on calcium. They regulate the body’s red blood cell production via the hormone erythropoietin, and they manufacture a hormone called renin in response to dropping blood pressure. They reclaim important molecules, like sugar and protein, and return them to the body for reuse. They’re like waste management, recycling, manufacturing, and the EPA all rolled into one, or rather two, sweet little bean-shaped organs. They’re located towards your back, flanking your spine on either side just underneath your two lowest ribs.

The kidneys have always been my favorite organ. Like a good Sophia Coppola film, the kidneys have a kind of quiet, indie appeal to me. The heart thumps predictably, the guts squish and squirt without regard to decorum, and the lungs wheeze and rattle and cough. The music of the kidneys, however, is an ambient, internal whirr. And the pieces of the kidney have the best names, like nephron and glomerular tuft and distal convoluted tubule and minor calyx. Yesssss. Plus there are two of them, and who doesn’t like twins?

I think that our country’s founders tried to build a solid set of kidneys into the infrastructure of our government with a series of checks and balances. But, like human kidneys, disease and aging take their toll. Human kidneys are vulnerable to infection, injury, and the devastating consequences of systemic illnesses like diabetes or high blood pressure over time.

A diabetic patient in kidney failure must go to dialysis three times a week, sit in a chair for half the day while their blood is pulled from the body, filtered through the dialysis machine, and returned to the body via the largest, scariest needle you’ve ever seen. People often die on dialysis, awaiting a kidney transplant that never materializes. I think, in much the same way, cultural and social illnesses have disabled the homeostatic apparatus of our government, and we must wait on dialysis until the dead parts are removed and replaced with shiny new organs. What will the government’s new kidneys look like? Congressional overhaul? Economic restructuring? Massive investments in education and the environment? I don’t know. But I know we can’t sit here for the rest of time, with a damn needle in our arm and a body full of waste. Let’s clean this mess up before the grip of death turns our society into a cadaver, useful only for future generations to cut open and identify the diseased parts.

 

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