Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Strange Things Strangely Told: The Decapitation of Shiz (Howlers # 14)

This Shiz must have been an extraordinary fellow, and it is a pity he did not in return cut off Coriantumr's head; the narrative would then have been complete. Such however in sober seriousness, is a fair sample of the book which is alleged to have been dictated by the Holy Spirit of God.
          A Few Plain Words About Mormonism (1852), 10.

Considering that he had been decapitated, Shiz was very energetic!
         Weldon Langfield, The Truth About Mormonism (1991), 47.

Dr. M. Gary Hadfield is a Neuropathologist and an Emeritus Professor of pathology (neuropathology at Virginia Commonwealth University Health Sciences School of Medicine/Medical College of Virginia, Richmond Virginia, where he taught and practiced from 1970--2003. In 1993, Dr. Hadfield published a very interesting article in BYU Studies 33/2 (1993): 313-28, entitled "Neuropathology and the Scriptures." There he gives a medical assessment of the various scriptural accounts of sufferings and healings of different individuals, including the accounts of those of Christ's suffering which began in Gethsemane and culminated in his death on the cross. It is worth reading. Dr. Hadfield also has made an excellent contribution to Mormon Scholars Testify which can be accessed here along with his biographical information and documentation. Since it has direct bearing on the popular criticism of the Book of Mormon exemplified above, I include an extract from his comments here.

My own fascination with the brain’s structure impelled me to become a neuropathologist, a physician trained in morbid anatomy, one who deals with diseases of the nervous system in the laboratory. As a budding trainee, I was presented early on with the following intriguing case: A middle-aged man had undergone uncomplicated surgery for a routine hernia repair, but, while recovering, he strained forcefully to reestablish his urinary flow. The increase in blood pressure, thus produced, resulted in a brainstem hemorrhage. This left him with flexor rigidity (arms bent at the elbows and hands at the wrists. The lower extremities are likewise involved). Soon after this episode, he died. At autopsy, we found a ruptured aneurysm in a brainstem artery that accounted for his stroke. The bleeding had destroyed and compressed critical neural tissues that ultimately led to his death.

The brainstem connects the cerebrum (the brain proper) to the spinal cord. It is highly complex, because it contains major pathways leaving the brain, others returning to it from the body, and the nuclei and nerve fibers of several cranial nerves that serve the eye muscles, the facial muscles, the ears, and other important organs. It also serves as a center for vital functions that control heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, and it assumes several other important roles.

In fact, the brainstem is so vital to life, that it receives an extra rich supply of blood. This helps ensure survival of the individual even should the rest of one’s brain become severely damaged due to impaired blood flow. The patient may then live on in a vegetative, comatose state. So the brainstem’s hardiness becomes a mixed blessing.

But we had a dilemma on our hands: damage to the upper brainstem normally produces “extensor rigidity,” with the arms and legs outstretched, instead of “flexor rigidity.” The latter normally occurs following damage to the motor cortex in the cerebrum, not brainstem lesions. We have all witnessed flexor (decorticate) rigidity—in friends, family or strangers suffering cerebral damage from strokes. Most of us have also seen victims of cerebral palsy with flexor rigidity, apparent after birth, where there has been insufficient blood flow to the motor cortex during gestation and/or delivery. We feel pity and sorrow when viewing the paralyzed limbs of patients afflicted with flexor rigidity. In extreme cases, the arms, legs, hands, and feet are all curled up, distorted, and stiff. Extensor rigidity occurs more rarely, and most readers will not have encountered this condition firsthand.

My mentor, Dr. Harry Zimmerman, father of American neuropathology (at Montefiore Hospital and Albert Einstein School of Medicine in the Bronx, the doctor who autopsied Einstein’s brain), referred me to Dr. Fred Mettler, neuroanatomist at Columbia University (Manhattan), to solve the apparent dichotomy between the clinical findings and the neuropathology of this rare case. Together with Daniel Sax, the neurologist on the case, we published an explanation for this atypical picture.

I feel it was Providential to be assigned this case. It forced me to study the anatomy and physiology of the brainstem in depth, one of the most intricate and involved parts of the nervous system. In an already esoteric field, I may be one of the few Mormon neuropathologists, if not the only one. So when I read again the story of Shiz in the Book of Mormon, alarm bells went off.

“…when they had all fallen by the sword, save it were Coriantumr and Shiz, behold Shiz had fainted with the loss of blood. And it came to pass that when Coriantumr had leaned upon his sword, that he rested a little, he smote off the head of Shiz. And it came to pass that after he had smitten off the head of Shiz, that Shiz raised up on his hands and fell: and after that he had struggled for breath, he died. And it came to pass that Coriantumr fell to the earth, and became as if he had no life” (Ether 15:30-31).

Critics of the Book of Mormon have had a field day laughing at this “absurd” account. The event obviously astonished both Ether and Mormon, who chronicled it. Mormon had served as the commanding officer of huge armies for three score years, and had witnessed wholesale slaughter on the battlefield. Head injuries must have been rampant. But he singled out this extraordinary occurrence to include in his abridgement. Perhaps Ether and Mormon had concluded that Shiz’s last- minute “pushup,” sans caput, was due to an unconquerable spirit, an unwillingness to die. This amazing event must have appeared supernatural to them.

But the account makes perfect anatomic sense. Coriantumr was exhausted, with barely enough strength left to dispatch his arch enemy, Shiz, commander of the opposing army. If Coriantumr’s stroke strayed through the base of Shiz’s skull—due to impaired control of his sword—instead of through the small of Shiz’s neck, it may well have cut through the upper brainstem, instead of severing the spinal cord. The resulting classic extensor rigidity would cause Shiz to raise up on his arms, then fall as he exsanguinated.

The blood pouring into his trachea would help enhance the eerie sound of “struggling for breath.” For just as brainstem reflex activity would force the extensor muscles in Shiz’s extremities to contract and elevate his frame, it would also cause his rib cage to expand and contract automatically, as it does in all of us when we are sleeping, or not trying to control our breathing, which is most of the time. This unconscious respiratory reflex is controlled by the lower brainstem.

“And it came to pass that after he had smitten off the head of Shiz, that Shiz raised up on his hands and fell: and after that he had struggled for breath, he died.” This single sentence, a simple footnote comment made in passing by ancient writers, stands dramatically apart in its own right, providing elegant scientific proof that the Book of Mormon is true. When I connected the dots raised by this statement with well known brain anatomy and physiology, I felt as if struck by lightning.

This fascinating evidence must confound even the most jaded and skeptical Book of Mormon critic. Why? Because in a single sentence, Ether has captured not only one, but two major reflex actions mediated by the brainstem. So if this were the only sentence in the Book of Mormon, it would provide ample proof that the book was true. For neither Ether (the author), nor Mormon (the abridger) nor Joseph Smith (the translator) knew anything about the brainstem or its physiology!

It was Sherrington who first described extensor (decerebrate) rigidity following brainstem lesions (6), some 68 years after the Book of Mormon was published. His classic experiments in cats and monkeys, and similar neurological findings identified in humans by several workers, all confirm that extensor rigidity remains the classic product of upper brainstem sectioning and damage (except in a few rare cases, like mine). And only “A half century ago, ideas about control of breathing were in their infancy, and serious investigation into the area had just begun,” which ultimately proved the brainstem to be the control center for respiration. This was about the time I was entering medical school.

I highlighted the case of Shiz in a work entitled “Neuropathology and the Scriptures,” published in BYU Studies. In this essay, I also discussed other cases of nervous system trauma and diseases reported in Holy Writ, principally the Old Testament.

At the end of my thirty-three-year career as a medical school professor of neuropathology, I decided to attend one last scientific conference: the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting in New Orleans, 2003. I had felt impressed to go at the last minute, though I had not submitted an abstract. Consider my wonder and surprise when I encountered a poster presentation, mounted by Canadian neuroscientists, which recounted the history of a French priest who had been guillotined some two centuries ago, but who got up and walked a few steps after losing his head. Just imagine the consternation and fear this produced in the spectators! This exotic case bolsters the account of Shiz, of coordinated muscular activity after decapitation, though the priest was obviously relying on spinal cord reflexes rather than brainstem control.

In a related vein, I fondly remember my Grandmother Hadfield’s chicken dinners, processed from beginning to end with her own hands. I watched her wring the hen’s neck, cut off its head, pluck the feathers, clean the bird and cut the meat up into frying pieces or smaller morsels for “chicken and dumplings,” a “dish to die for” (pun intended). “Running around like a chicken with its head cut off” (aided by spinal reflexes) is something I have witnessed firsthand.

Though the incident of Shiz in the Book of Mormon helps confirm my faith in the volume’s veracity, it is only one of the overwhelming physical evidences of its truth (10). But the real witness emanates from the Holy Ghost, which witness I experienced before my academic career began, as a young missionary assigned to France. The direct answers I received in facing the challenges set before me, I find incontrovertible. Since then I have been guided by many signs and witnesses of a personal nature.

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