Normal Hearts and Normal Eyes: On Why I Chose a Life in Science
Every scientist has some reason for doing what they do. Some liked school and chose to stay (Jim March). Some had their loved one's rights trampled and needed to change WEIRD empathy to cover their struggle (bell hooks). I have my reasons as well.
In 1984, my brother Roberto Jose Arrieta Navarro was born. He was cool and special. To listen to his heart, you needed to put a stethoscope on the right side of his chest. He had mirrored organs. This mirroring is mostly unproblematic as most of our organs are symmetric. We have two lungs, two kidneys, and two hemispheres in our brains...
We have one heart, though, a fact that breaks symmetries and causes suffering throughout the world. RJ was darker than me, not because we had different parents. His heart was different. He had what is called Fallot's tetralogy. His heart missed a wall. Instead of four chambers, his heart had three. The missed wall cause cyanosis. Cyanosis being the failed oxygenation of his blood. RJ was blue because his lungs could not compensate for the hole in his heart.
Although, something the Lord made, Fallot's tetralogy is a tragedy. A personal, familial tragedy in my case. Roberto Jose died after 11 months of a glorious life. He left behind a hole in my parents' hearts and a gap we have kept in our memories throughout our lives. I never met RJ. In fact, if the legends are true, I might have been slightly hurt due to his fault. My great-grandpa, a fever RJ lover, dropped me when my parents told him I was "the Chichí". Alzheimer's aside, he was no fool. He saw I was way lighter than Roberto, and he dropped me. Not the best act of care but makes for a good story. Tito Chamino if you are reading this, your platanos maduros were the best.
What happened to RJ was not an exception. 400 in a million babies are born with Fallot's tetralogy. That means that 14 out of the 35k spectators are survivors of this disease during every home game played by the Costa Rican national team. Survivors.
One can survive Fallot's tetralogy now. It blows my mind but the epidemy of suffering behind this disease caused the invention of thoracic surgery. Doctors chose to learn how to fix the hearts of babies' hearts first. Heart surgery is often seen as something old people get. But it started with doctors trying to prevent children from dying young. Indeed, "total repair on infants has had success from 1981, with research indicating that it has a comparatively low mortality rate". Wait, 1981?
Roberto Jose was born in 1984. Even though in some WEIRD hospitals la maladie bleue was cured by human Gods, Costa Rica was not weird enough at the time. It was not hidden news, though. My parents had a chance to --literally-- put their child's life on a doctor's experimental treatment. A treatment that seemed most palliative at the time. But that, in reality, is just an act of God.
Today, Fallot's tetralogy can be operated on while the child is in the womb. Ultrasound can look inside babies' hearts and see how they develop. If three atriums are found, doctors can heal a baby's heart before birth and let the baby heal in the womb.
If you ask me why I became a scientist is because of this. Scientists built a whole research field to prevent the tragedy my family faced. Scientists dared to ask parents for permission to open up their babies' hearts to give them a better life. Science gave these human Gods certainty enough to trust their hands and their knowledge. Science, not God, not money.
In 1995, I got my first pair of glasses. I was 8. I had experienced a weird first year of school, and I was now a "cuatro ojos". It did not get better. I had astigmatism, the shitty eye correction. Near or far-sightedness can be corrected perfectly, astigmatism not. You get some level of help, but you live a life in which points of light look like 8s. It sucks.
I did not just have astigmatism. I had Keratoconus. the outermost tissue in my eyes was too thin and getting thinner. This is problematic as the thinning was not homogeneous. In the places where the cornea was thinner, the eye's inner pressure made it bulge out, and a cone forms. This gives the name to the disease: keratoconus meaning a corneal cone.
Astigmatism sucks, but there should exist keratoconus anonymous support system. It is just traumatic. Worse still, everyone on my mom's side of the family had it. I had it the worst. Keratoconus has the cute feature that it speeds up during adolescence. On 11th grade of school (the last one in Costa Rica), I started the year sitting in the last row. Three months in, I moved to the first row as I could not read anymore. A month later, I had to get photocopies and try my best to remember what was said in class.
Science came to the rescue. During the summer break, a Costa Rican human god exchanged my cornea with the cornea of a dead American, a citizen of Atlanta. Turns out that Atlanta is a nudging hipster and asked their citizens to opt-out of corneal donations. So an immense amount of corneas is available for any doctor who passes the Atlanta Bar. Dr. Carlos Mejia Leiva was, and so he exchanged my left cornea first, then my right cornea with the ones from some dead Americans. Not enough for a passport but enough for a life in academia. I try to improve my writing skills, but I know I will never be able to convey my gratitude to el Doctor Mejia, so I won't try here. I can just say that I would not be writing this if it was not for the miracles that inhabit the hands of Dr. Carlos Mejia Leiva.
A Life in Science
Science is a form of belief. A more active and testable form of belief. But not different than catholicism, Buddhism, or any other. Please note that Scientology is not science. By science, I mean the set of procedures developed first to fight scurvy. The idea that one can observe, theorize, and test different solutions to get closer to the truth. Science tends to be a trinitarian religion that believes in theories, data, and practitioners all at once.
As in other trinitarian religions, the logic is hard to follow. In science, we believe in the quality of the data. We build theories from this data. And more importantly, trust that it was gathered under strict moral codes. We allow scientists to marry but dare they not preregister their hypotheses, and we might excommunicate them.
I am not an apostle of science or moral authority. But I am a survivor of its miracles. Science gives us normal hearts and normal eyes in a world that takes the lives of our loved ones and the sight of our life. I have experienced mourning as a result of delaying the diffusion of science. For over 18 years, I have woken up to experience a miracle. I live in an alternative timeline in which I can read and write at close to 36 years of age. I am not an apostle of science, but I am an ardent believer and, in my shape and form, have pledged my life at its altar. Science says jump, I say how high.
If you are interested in learning more about science, have a look at the last couple fo years, from mRNA vaccines to JWST, Artemis, and nuclear fission. Science changes our lives. I can bet that politics might fail to meet carbon targets, but nuclear fission will make this monkey voting and organizing problem an irrelevant side commentary in the history of humanity's brilliant pursuit of science.