Listening to the new Pope Francis address the crowds on a cold, wet and emotional night in St Peter’s Square you’d never have known he had only one lung.
We all know now of course. Thanks to intense press speculation and the power of the internet there’s barely a detail of his pre-pontiff life that has not been published in the 24 hours since the cardinals signaled their decision with plumes of white smoke emanating from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel.
And while no one is saying exactly why he underwent a pneumonectomy (surgical removal of a lung) back in the 1950s, there’s been plenty of speculation. Back then, before antibiotics, removal of a lung wasn’t that uncommon in cases of severe pneumonia, whooping cough or TB.
Whatever the reason, living with one lung is not entirely uncommon. In America alone, it’s estimated that more than 40,000 people have only one lung. And most of them do just fine because the body tends to compensate by making the other lung grow larger.
Which got us to thinking, which other organs can you live without?
Top of the list would be the kidney. Most humans have two kidneys, but need only one to survive. However some people may be born with only one, while others agree to part with one for donation. Generally, people can live with one kidney with few or no health problems. People can even live with no kidneys, but they of course require frequent renal dialysis.
Then there’s the appendix. Nobody is exactly sure what the appendix is for and no one is really ever aware that they have an appendix until it becomes inflamed or ruptures and has to be removed. Once gone, after a brief period of recovery, life goes on as before.
And, as one in three women over the age of 60, who have undergone hysterectomy know you can live quite comfortably without a uterus. For younger women, there may be some wrench over the loss of fertility, but for others the cessation of monthly periods may be the cause of celebration.
Men can also survive without their reproductive organs – should cancer necessitate removal of either the testes or penis.
Humans can also live without their spleen should it have to be removed because of trauma or medical conditions such as thrombocytopenia. However because the spleen is part of the immune system, those who have undergone splenectomy are more prone to infections.
We can also survive without most of our gastrointestinal tract too. The stomach, gallbladder, pancreas and colon can be removed and although each is associated with it’s own challenges and problems, loss of these organs is not incompatible with life.
And the list goes on… Today thanks to advances in biomedical engineering, people can even live without a heart.
While we wouldn’t wish the loss of an organ on anyone, it’s good to know just how dispensable most of them are! Turns out our vital organs may not be so vital after all.