07/25/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Salt Water: The Wonder Drug

Our bodies are just the opposite. They love salty water -- can't get by without it. By weight we're made mostly of it. We get formed in a sack of it. We get sick -- quite often -- just from the lack of it. This is one of the first things you learn as a surgical resident: a patient who isn't doing well probably needs fluids. After antibiotics, the greatest advances in patient care during our fathers' generation were in fluids -- unsung, unglamorous and inexpensive. The understanding of fluid-and-electrolyte balance -- basically knowing how much salt and water to give people when they're sick -- has probably saved as many lives as our wonder drugs have.

I do a lot of shoulder arthroscopy now. We give quarts and quarts of salty water during this type of surgery. The fluid accumulates under the skin. It's what allows the operation to be "minimally invasive" -- its transparency lets us see what we're doing. I was worried sick when I started using salty water this way: could patients take all that fluid? Many thousands of cases later, the answer is clearly yes -- no problem. By the next day the swelling is always gone. It's just salty water.

So here is a simple test to tell if a thing is alive. Put it in salty water. Some things, like babies and crayfish, will do well. They get bigger, stronger and more organized. Others, even "smart" things like iPods and cell phones, laptops, cars and TVs, stop working immediately. They rust and decompose. (I know because I've dropped most of these things in.) Inanimate things, including, alas, my boat, naturally fall apart. They are obeying a law of nature. The salty water just makes them do it faster.

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