The Spleen Is Music to Some Ears

Summer's here--and so are 101 reminders that the season is filled with peril. In the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter, one reads of the stings of jellyfish and Portuguese men-of-war and the itchy eruptions caused by swimsuits filled with sea lice. From the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery comes a smorgasbord of warnings: of swimmer's ear; of allergies; of brain injuries from getting hit in the head with a ball; of throat hoarseness from rooting too hard for one's favorite softball team. And, warns Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, summer is more than just a time for sun and fun: "It's also the time for death and injury."

I'm staying indoors.

To while away the time, I'm reading up on organs of the body. (What fun!) First up: the spleen. I've never been clear what it does, though I know you can live without it: I once met a languid young woman who told me about a "rare blood disease" she'd had that necessitated removal of her spleen.

It doesn't take much research to learn that for some reason, the word "spleen" incites mirth. There's an Internet discussion group devoted to "spleen care, maintenance, entertainment, sport, history, music and pop culture, and many other spleen-related topics." There are spleen-named rock bands like the righteous-sounding Ruptured Spleen. UC Davis undergraduates have even gleefully declared a National Spleen Awareness Week.

But back to the spleen 411, as my kid might say. This organ is "completely underappreciated," says Dr. Namir Katkhouda, professor of surgery at USC, who's operated on many a spleen in his time. He and Dr. David Goldstein, of USC's Keck School of Medicine, filled us in on the spleen's many wonders.

Similar in size to the heart, the spleen sits on the left side of the body, snuggled close to the stomach. Also like the heart, blood moves through it--and runs a kind of gantlet as it does so. Guzzling cells called macrophages ambush interloping bacteria and chomp them up. Other immune cells make antibodies against such bacteria. You can live without a spleen--but your chance of getting certain blood infections is higher.

The spleen also regulates blood flow to the abdomen, and is important for making blood cells if the normal site--the bone marrow--isn't working. And where do those blood cells get destroyed when they're old or damaged? The spleen. That's where.

But spleens can go bad. In that "rare blood disease" that my languid acquaintance had--called IPT for short--the spleen wages an immune war against parts of the blood. (That's why her spleen was taken out.)

Even more:

Some people are born with tiny, extra spleens and some--rarely--are born spleenless. And some suffer from a poetical-sounding condition called "wandering spleen." (That's what I'd name my rock band.) Far from poetical if you have it, a wandering spleen isn't moored properly to one's innards, so it moves about, causing symptoms such as pain.

Finally, spleen fans might enjoy partaking of some rich, red wine from France's Chateau Chasse-Spleen (

Learning of a rock band named Ruptured Spleen made us wonder how many other bands have biomedically themed names. "Heart?" volunteered one colleague. "Gerry and the Pacemakers? Blood, Sweat and Tears?" We knew we could do better than that, so we went and bugged the pop music critic, then pored over a list of bands signed with major recording labels.

Ruptured Spleen wasn't on the list. (Not signed with a major label? Or has the band had a rupture?) Here are some that were: Attention Deficit, Bloodlet, the Bloods, Catatonia, the Catheters, Club Foot Orchestra, the Glands, Morphine, Mortician, Neurosis, Medicine, the Kinsey Report, O Positive, the Pills, Placebo, Prolapse, REM, Saliva, Spasm, Tourniquet, Type O Negative and Vitamin C.

We're sure this is the tip of the iceberg: We'd love to hear of more medically named bands. In the meantime, we hear an up-and-coming band, the Wandering Spleens, have openings for bass player, lead guitarist and vocalists. Send demo tapes--um, elsewhere.

Have an idea for a Booster Shots topic? Write to Rosie Mestel at the Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st. St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, or send an e-mail to:

For the Record Los Angeles Times Monday July 16, 2001 Home Edition Health Part S Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction Booster Shots--The Booster Shots column in the July 9 Health section contained an incorrect reference to the disease idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura. The correct abbreviation is ITP.
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