The Faithful Fibroblast

Late last October the Boston Athletic Association sent me an email which read:

‘Dear Pheidipides Goldenberg*,

Kindly advise us of your postal address forthwith so we can forward the race package for your entry to the 2015 Boston Marathon.’

I sent my details forthwith and equally forthwith I began to train for the great event. Now, my alert reader might recall the sincerity and warmth with which I wallowed in self-pity in my incapacity last (southern) winter. I posted a piece titled ‘Farewell’, a lament for injuries that would permanently prevent running. I indulged in a prolonged period of warming sorrow, recalling better times. After three decades of running that were halcyon my winter of 2014 was halcyoff.

I know well not to expect an injured and abused skeleton, aged in its late sixties, to heal. My forty-four marathons had smashed knee joints and mashed vertebrae. Sciatica taunted my left thigh with every footfall. I stopped running and I rode a weasel bike. This morally feeble substitute served until osteoarthritis screamed from my left knee whenever I pushed down on the pedal. I stopped all exercise and sulked and nursed that achilles’ limb.

Sulking did me good. After a team of physiotherapists rubbed and probed and pressed sore spots until I squealed; and having found those sorest spots they pressed harder and I squealed the more; and after they prescribed exercises too intricate for me to conceive, to be repeated thirty times a day; and after I tried each exercise once before giving it away; after all this I sulked. And in my sulking I enlisted the faithful fibroblast and it is to that unglamorous cell that I owe thanks.

I last met the fibroblast in my second year of medical school. That was in 1965. I learned then of that industrious cell, of its role in building connective tissues. The fibroblast is the humble builder’s labourer of the foetus. It creates the neonatal skeleton and muscles. Once the human – so intricate, so cunning, so elegant in design, so glorious in execution – has been built the fibroblast might deservedly rest on its laurels. But it does not. Instead it lurks and waits for any damage it might be called upon to repair.

Sprain an ankle and fibroblasts swarm to the site, building, building, building. They create a fibrous scaffolding which, together with nests of new capillaries, is appreciated as a hot swelling at the site of the tear in the ligament. Slowly, thanklessly, this busy little cell knits new fibres to replace the old. Slowly the damaged dancer or skier or hockey player rises and flies again.
But that leaper or runner or slider is fifteen or thirty. Chockers with fibroblasts, at those ages she is indestructible.

Then the day arrives that she turns fifty, when her collagen sags, her ovaries shrink, her mood sours and she sweats her nights through and celebrates the menopause ‘and all the daughters of song are brought low.’

Her man is even more pathetic when ‘desire fails and man goeth to his long home and the mourners go about the streets.’

On the other (more cheerful) hand the poet John Donne wrote:
‘… from rest and sleep
Which but thy pictures be
Much pleasure…’

My spine had rest and my knee slept. June came and passed and with it passed the marathon in Traralgon. August came and for the first time in ages I missed the marathon in Alice Springs. In October Melbourne ran its annual marathon without Pheidipides Goldenberg.

Then Boston sent me that email.

And together with Johnny Donne my knee sang and my spine caroled: ‘Death, thou shalt die,’ as I rose and ran. Since October I have tested the knees on the rocky slopes at Wilson’s Promontory. I have tried but failed to provoke the sciatic nerve in Central Queensland and in outback NSW. I have thrashed the skeleton in Pittsburgh, in New York and in Boston where, three weeks ago I ran the slopes of Heartbreak Hill. I froze but I felt no pain. The next week I ran fast up the length of London’s Muswell Hill to the top, then I turned around and galloped down. This short run constitutes a brutal abuse of synovial membrane, of articular cartilage, ligament and tendon.

I listened for protests from the body. But neither degenerate hip nor spinal nerve made any murmur. Incredulous, I gave thanks to the long ignored, sadly neglected, ever-faithful fibroblast.

One of my favourite poems for sulking is Ecclesiastes, 12. With language like this it’s a pleasure to be sad. Here’s a fuller portion for your enjoyment. You don’t need to run a marathon or injure your body:

1 Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;

2 While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:

3 In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened,

4 And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;

5 Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:

6 Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.

7 Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.

8 Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.

*My running name


8 thoughts on “The Faithful Fibroblast

  1. I’m so glad you are fit to run again and happy to go with it. My mountain-walking-climbing uncle (now 102) was told by his doctor, when his limbs started to complain, to walk through it. He climbed 8 Monroes on his eightieth birthday. I’ve often wondered who was doing all the work and now I know, my fibroblasts. I have fearfully abused my back, shoulders and elbows (carrying bags of cement up flights of stairs, moving giant flagstones, breaking concrete bricks etc). Weary of back pain, I gave up making heavy sculptures and took a desk job… and got better. I can now lay brick paths, and marble greenhouse floors and the back and the elbows and shoulders rarely squeak. Thank you fibroblasts.


    • Sculpture really seems to be the heroic art
      Fibroblasts must die of broken heart;
      You put aside rupture, sculpting and rapture
      To chase the write word and to capture

      Bravo Hilary

      And bravo uncle monro!

      (What are 8 monitors?
      Please do not reply: one more than seven)



  2. oh the relief, the relief. Forget all your me me me stuff about marathon running – this was about ME! It was written to make me laugh and rejoice. Last year (at about your age) I had a hip replacement. Everyone said – (as they do) you MUST do the exercises or you will be stuffed and it will be to no avail. I was shown the exercises (some of them not at all dignified – even in the privacy of my own home) and gave up. I dutifully showed the physio each week what I could do (praying as I had never prayed before that I could do them). You are great, she said, you are one of my best patients. But you see I did about 4 of the exercises, twice. Ever. Within 2 weeks I was walking unaided by crutches or walking frame. All has been well. And until now I have not confessed my non-compliance….and felt guilty. But… more! If my favourite male Doctor also non-complies then it’s OK. My guilt has been assuaged. Thank you dear HG.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well jan

      I am glad for your recovery

      I am glad you got away with your rehab dinquency

      I am glad your fibroblasts answered your prayers affirmatively

      I am unglad I endorsed your self-neglect: in assuaging your guilt I Augmentedy my own

      You were clever to undergo hip surgery at sixty rather than eighty

      At greater age you would have paid heavily – bound to a wheelchair and waiting for the fatal pneumonia

      Nothing beats cheeky youth

      Glad you are well

      See you out on the track



  3. Give it a few more years and it will be the marathon to the loo. ( four times a night) It happens to the best of us. Get ready…set…go.
    I tried running years ago but did not get the joy it is supposed to give, nor exultation or a ‘high’. I tried a few times.

    Give me a pleasant thought on a bench in the shade of a eucalypt instead.


  4. You have given me renewed faith that my dodgy hip may still have hope…come on fibroblasts, do your stuff! (Don’t really want to go under the knife just yet) I have changed activity, also laughed (on the inside) at the prescribed amount of stretches/exercises etc given, and then done about a half (initially) and now a lot less.
    Are you suggesting complete rest? For how long?
    Getting a house ready for sale, cleaning, gardening like never before etc, is not conducive to this.
    Consultation over….do you want my medicare number? Hehe!


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