Begin the discussion of the shareable blood clot where the Atlantic chose to end it: “It can feel boorish to admire a by-product of the complete breakdown of a human body.” That was in the 13th of 13 paragraphs from the Atlantic about the visually arresting medical oddity that the Journal of the American Medical Association had fed into the content-stream earlier in the week: a photo of gorgeous branching structure, the brilliant festive red of Melania Trump’s holiday decorations, that a person had coughed up out of his lung before dying.
The Atlantic received and transmitted the image with wonder, and its readers received and transmitted it again, in the same spirit. How had this delicate, detailed cast, formed by a blood clot filling the patient’s right bronchial tree, emerged from inside the body in such perfect form? It was miraculous. The article delved into precedent and process: how earlier patients had coughed up similar objects, how the interaction of anticoagulant drugs and the patient’s elevated levels of fibrinogen may have filled the airway with “unusually rubbery” blood.
All of this—and the fact that the patient “felt instantly better” after coughing it out—made for a compelling story about the capabilities of the human body. Except afterward (and only afterward) came the part where the body wasn’t capable: “He died a week later.”
By writing the story upside down, the Atlantic tried to make the miraculous survival of the blood clot more important than, and independent from, the survival of the person who made it. But what use is a story about what the body can do, if it’s really a story about what the body couldn’t? The appeal of telling about how someone coughed a thing like that out of his lung comes from knowing that he could breathe again. Otherwise, we’re just staring at an autopsy photo.