Mind & Body

Some People Are Born With Their Organs Reversed

Imagine your right ear was where your left ear was supposed to be, and the other way around. And your right eye was in the left eye position. And your left arm was reversed and inserted in the right arm socket. As long as they'd been flipped as if through a mirror, none of those reversals would make too much of a difference. But if it's your internal organs that have been flipped, it can make a major impact on your life.

Put My Lungs Down, Flip 'Em and Reverse 'Em

Enrique Iglesias, Catherine O'Hara, and Donny Osmond may look a lot different, but on the inside they have more in common with each other than with most of the rest of us. That's because they've all got situs inversus, a 1-in-10,000 genetic disorder that puts all of your organs on the opposite side of your body. Your heart leans toward the right instead of the left, your liver is on the left instead of the right, and your spleen is where your liver should be. The thing is, your organs will probably work just fine. You might not even realize there's a problem unless you go searching for a heartbeat with a stethoscope and can't pin down where it's supposed to be.

In fact, Donny Osmond had an issue that exemplifies the primary danger of situs inversus: his appendicitis nearly went undiagnosed because his doctor didn't expect his appendix to be on the left. But outside of misdiagnosed illnesses and surgical procedures performed on the wrong side of the body, people with situs inversus totalis — that is, all of their organs flipped the same way — can often live their lives in health and wellness.

Now, those three icons are lucky enough to have been diagnosed with situs inversus totalis, but many people whose organs have grown in the wrong places aren't so fortunate. Many people with the disorder also have Kartagener Syndrome, a defect with the cilia in your airways that often leads to bronchitis and chronic sinusitis. And then, most dangerous of all, there's situs ambiguus, in which the internal organs grow in unpredictable locations. Sometimes, those locations are random; other times, people can have a mirror image of one side of their body: a spleen on each side, for example, or no spleen at all.

And there's one issue that almost everyone with one of this family of disorders may have to face at some point — if they end up needing an organ transplant, that organ may be facing the wrong way. A lot of times, the issue with organ transplants is whether or not the host rejects the donation, but for people with situs inversus, it might be an issue of simple geometry as well.

Backward Bodies in Fiction

Writers just can't help but include characters with situs inversus in their stories. The symbolism is just too rich. In the James Bond novel "Dr. No," the titular villain survives a murder attempt thanks to his attackers not realizing where his heart is. The same thing happens in an episode of the procedural "In Plain Sight," and twice in the 2009 movie "Ninja Assassin." The other main way that the disorder appears in fiction is to convey a degree of sinister alien-ness — sometimes, people with it are from a mirror dimension or an evil "other Earth," or are a mysterious copy of a "regular" person. We mention all this just to say, symbolism aside, the disorder is something that real people have to deal with. Maybe future writers can steer clear of using disabilities as a sign of evil.

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Humans Aren't the Only Ones with Backward Organs

Written by Reuben Westmaas May 30, 2018

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