Maya Glyphs and 12-Lead ECGs

I watched an outstanding documentary last night on Neflix called Breaking the Maya Code. It was based on a book of the same name by Michael D. Coe.

The documentary examined how passionate researchers broke the code of the Maya glyphs over the course of decades.

You can see the trailer here.


I found many things about this documentary to be fascinating, but as I thought about it this morning I realized that deciphering the Maya glyphs is a lot like interpreting 12-lead ECGs.

You can teach someone to recognize certain symbols within in a relatively short period of time, but to become a master decipherer of the glyphs might take a lifetime.

Likewise, you can teach a paramedic to recognize ST-segment elevation on the 12-lead ECG in a few hours, but learning how to differentiate between STEMI and the STE-mimics takes a lot longer.

Even if you can decipher most of the glyphs, there still might be value in passing along a photo or rubbing to a colleauge who knows more about Maya glyphs than you do.

The AHA ECC guidelines call this “expert consultation”.

Likewise, if it’s a marginal case, and you’re not sure if it’s a STEMI, there may be value in transmitting an ECG for a physician interpretation.

The point is that Maya glyphs are beautiful and complicated, and there’s always more to learn. The same is true with 12-lead ECGs.

Photo credit: University of Minnesota, Duluth

One of the first things they figured out about the Maya glyphs was how the Maya counted and kept their calendar. Compared to the rest of the Maya glyphs, this seemed relatively straight forward (although the calendar is astonishingly accurate and predicts the motion of heavenly bodies).

However, when they started to decipher some of the other glyphs, it turned out that various symbols could have more than one meaning or be drawn more than one way. Or, when one symbol was combined with another it could modify or change the meaning in unexpected ways.

Do you see the connection to electrocardiography?

We should not confuse STEMI recognition with mastery of the 12-lead ECG.

We should not decide that because paramedics can identify ST-segment elevation on the 12-lead ECG that paramedics can read an ECG as good as an emergency physician or cardiologist.

Perhaps some of us can, but in reality the vast majority of us can’t.

There’s no shame in that admission. However, that doesn’t mean that the knowledge is forbidden to us or that it’s somehow unobtainable or reserved for the select few.

You can learn anything you set your mind to, whether it’s learning how to decipher Maya glyphs or interpreting a 12-lead ECG.

The people in the documentary, whether they were from academia or amateurs who were drawn to the glyphs, became experts because they had a passionate desire to understand this beautiful and unknown language.

They were awe-struck by the sense of discovery they felt when they made a new connection.

Do you still feel that way about medicine?

If you’re a paramedic who has learned how to identify acute STEMI on the 12-lead ECG, I challenge you to learn something new about 12-lead ECG interpretation.

Spend a few hours learning three different methods for axis determination and see how it deepens your understanding of the 12-lead ECG!

I also challenge you to approach chest pain patients with a new level of enthusiasm and interest.

Approach these patients like a scientist and an artist. Undress the patient from the waist-up. Prepare the skin and place the electrodes with care and precision. Take pride in capturing a 12-lead ECG with excellent data quality.

When you obtain the ECG, be mindful of the fact that you’re looking at a pattern that corresponds to the electrical activity of the patient’s heart.

Then ask yourself, how would the Maya treat a signal from someone’s heart?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *