November 8th, 2017 ~ Vol. 87 No. 45
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
Reflections on Standing on Guard
Looking Back
John Kinnear photo
Hillcrest honour guard at Coleman Cenotaph - 2009
As a young child I recall how impressed and respectful I was of the four posted sentry's at the Coleman cenotaph that stood guard during the Armistice ceremony each year. Dressed in their service uniforms, they seemed as rock solid as the stone memorial they were sent to stand by. Not even the ever present icy cold east winds of November seemed to make them waiver.

Those young brave cadets that stand unwaveringly at the cenotaph each November 11th are to be commended. It is no easy task to hold a pose so reverently for that length of time, balanced as they are on stone pedestals, heads bowed, white gloves resting on the butts of their guns. Only after most everyone had left do these special guards finally step down from their posts.

I remember noticing back then that, on occasion, the faces of one or more of the cadets about to "stand down" were ashen in color, no doubt from the fact that the blood had been draining from his or her face. I have many times and in many different situations seen grown men and women with that same look. In some of those cases they eventually teetered precariously and, if left unnoticed, toppled or crumpled to the floor. From British palace guards to nervous bridegrooms they all suffered from what is technically known as "syncope" (pronounced sin-cuh-pee) or fainting.

Standing for a long time, fatigue or even overheating can put you horizontal abruptly but you usually recover quickly once the blood flow to your brain in normalized. These "brownouts" we experience are a result of our brains being oxygen-starved, a condition that causes it to shut down just like a fuel starved engine. Of course, if oxygenated blood doesn't show up there within four to six minutes we're toast but normally "getting horizontal" does the trick.
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On investigating this phenomenon I discovered we have interesting areas within our "autonomous nervous system" that is at the core of this fainting scenario. They are known as the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and they work hand in hand most of the time.

One thing our sympathetic system does is release adrenaline into our blood stream which kicks the body into overdrive by speeding up our hearts and constricting our blood vessels to increase blood flow and thus oxygen supply. We need this burst of adrenaline in situations like sports or if a grizzly should step out of the bush in front of you.

The parasympathetic system is there to undo later what adrenaline has done by releasing "acetylcholine" into our blood. Otherwise we'd never sleep at night! This organic chemical, known as a neurotransmitter, slows the heart and dilates the blood vessels in the legs. Quite simple really but when this system gets out of sync is when the trouble starts.

For the soldier on the parade square it is the sympathetic system that slacks off and allows the blood vessels to expand some thus reducing circulation and oxygen starving the brain. And then whack, over he goes. In some cases, like the palace guards who have locked their knees, there is an actual restriction of blood flow from the legs. So one learns to make small unnoticeable muscle contractions or to subtly shift one’s weight unless one wants to do a face plant.
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The converse of this is an overreaction of the parasympathetic system that also causes fainting. It all has to do with an old inherited instinct we all have, known as the "fight or flight response". It probably evolved back when charging saber tooth tigers and the like made our lives as humans pretty tense. Nowadays when this response is tripped by say, the sight of blood, it kinda backfires on us. We have all seen that so called wimpy, squeamish type keel over in this situation. It is actually unfair to label them so because all that's really wrong is that their sympathetic/parasympathetic systems overreact to what is not really a threatening situation.

Case in point. Back in the 1960’s while studying architecture at SAIT our class was watching a carpentry safety film that got quite graphic. At one point the film depicted a man pushing a board over a table saw without a guard on it. The saw kicked the board backwards and it stuck right into the stomach of another man standing nearby. It was all staged of course, with lots of blood, but the next thing I know the guy sitting next to me in class was on the floor.
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I also remember reading a few years back about a fellow named Bill that went down this way. Face first into his linguine and clam sauce while sitting in a restaurant. It seems one of his lunch break buddies decided to give everyone a graphic description of his recent hernia operation which was done with a local anesthetic. So hernia guy got to see his intestine bulge out through the incision. His elaboration on what this looked like apparently tripped that chemical mechanism in Bill. Next thing you know he went splat, right into his dinner plate. The hospital checked him over real careful-like because when you faint sitting down there's a chance there could be something serious involved. Of course by the time he arrived there he was quite normal which nonplussed the physician who came back to him with further questioning a little later on about what was going on when he passed out.

The physician recognized that in Bill's case is was nothing more than a perfectly healthy guy with a strong "fight or flight" chemistry.

Author’s Note:

I have never in all my years of attending armistice services seen even one brave soul falter at their post, a credit to the staunchness of the individuals who stand on guard in the best country in the world. An interesting side note is that “stanch”, spelled without the u, usually means to: “stop the flow of blood”! How ironic is that!
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November 8th, 2017 ~ Vol. 87 No. 45
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