February 8, 2015
Why do so many people deny science? This is the question of the hour.
I became a mother in early 2004, when murmurings of vaccines and autism were getting loud, but before they were definitively refuted. My father survived a long bout with polio in the 1950s, and I grew up on tales of its brutality and longevity. My personal history easily leads me to favor vaccination.
About a year ago a friend of mine took her child in for a check-up. She was wary of the messages going around and simply asked the pediatrician for more information before the shots were administered. She received a lecture and was derided like a naughty kindergartner for asking the question.
She wanted information and reassurance. New parents, by the way, need a lot of that. And for the dumbest reasons you could imagine because we are exhausted, sleep deprived, and overwhelmed.
I have no sympathy for the likes of celebrities who abuse their vast access to uneducated masses by spreading ideas they are not qualified to present, especially when they profit from doing so. But I am concerned over new parents not having a safe place to voice their fears and talk through them (no matter how stupid they may seem today).
In the vitriol spewing from either side, are new or uncertain parents going to get the support they need? The bedrock of critical thinking is inquisitiveness, an inherently imperfect practice. The only stupid question really is the one not asked.
Whenever we as a society gather a group together, string them up, and label them the enemy, I can’t help but be suspicious. Are we sure the criminals are so different from us? Are we missing important parts of the picture by laying the blame so squarely at the feet of one group?
We want to identify the enemy and annihilate her. But denial of science is a more vast landscape than today’s dialogue frames. While those who refuse to vaccinate are extreme, their failure to recognize flawed thinking and its consequences are far from unique. As we vilify science deniers in the media, our list of criminals may be too narrow.
Consider the slow beginnings of anesthesia, first used in human medical operation in 1846. Methods had been tested with that goal in mind for more than 300 years, and the general chemicals and protocol used in that first surgery had been around for over 40 years. The medical community resisted for so long this practice we now consider indispensable.
“…anesthesia itself was hardly new in the 19th century, but that a moral objection prevented its use. Why? Because pain was considered an integral and necessary part of life, and the removal of pain was the work of either a charlatan or a Satan…”
Could you imagine such an innovative technique sitting on the shelf unused for four decades? Fortunately we know the benefits of reducing patient suffering. We even sedate or anesthetize for routine invasions whether the discomfort is pain or just anxiety.
But there have been holdouts to this line of thinking among some caregivers. It is well documented that Mother Theresa withheld pain medication from suffering patients because she believed pain was God’s Will. And what did we do? We set her on the path to sainthood. Her name is synonymous with selflessness, and the pedestal we have her on is high.
Only a year after that first anesthetized medical procedure a clinician succeeded in proving how vital hand washing is to the quality of patient care during child delivery. But the overwhelming evidence had a rocky path to the light of day. (See On Washing Hands, by Atul Gawande.)
“…the Viennese obstetrician Ignac Semmelweis famously deduced that, by not washing their hands consistently or well enough, doctors were themselves to blame for childbed fever. Childbed fever, also known as puerperal fever, was the leading cause of maternal death in childbirth in the era before antibiotics (and before the recognition that germs are the agents of infectious disease). It is a bacterial infection — most commonly caused by Streptococcus, the same bacteria that causes strep throat — that ascends through the vagina to the uterus after childbirth. Out of three thousand mothers who delivered babies at the hospital where Semmelweis worked, six hundred or more died of the disease each year — a horrifying 20 percent maternal death rate. Of mothers delivering at home, only 1 percent died. Semmelweis concluded that doctors themselves were carrying the disease between patients, and he mandated that every doctor and nurse on his ward scrub with a nail brush and chlorine between patients. The puerperal death rate immediately fell to 1 percent — incontrovertible proof, it would seem, that he was right. Yet elsewhere, doctors’ practices did not change. Some colleagues were even offended by his claims; it was impossible to them that doctors could be killing their patients. Far from being hailed, Semmelweis was ultimately dismissed from his job.
Semmelweis’s story has come down to us as Exhibit A in the case for the obstinacy and blindness of physicians. But the story was more complicated. The trouble was partly that nineteenth-century physicians faced multiple, seemingly equally powerful explanations for puerperal fever. There was, for example, a strong belief that miasmas of the air in hospitals were the cause. And Semmelweis strangely refused to either publish an explanation of the logic behind his theory or prove it with a convincing experiment in animals. Instead, he took the calls for proof as a personal insult and attacked his detractors viciously.”
But despite all that ego and personal dysfunction, the lesson was learned. Handwashing is a cornerstone of surgical practice.
“But such enthusiastic devotion to hand hygiene does not exist outside the operating room. And again and again in discussions about quality and safety and the terrible infections that can ensue, one issue continues to bedevil the patient-doctor relationship yet defies all reason: why don’t doctors wash their hands more?
Over the last 30 years, despite countless efforts at change, poor hand hygiene has continued to contribute to the high rates of infections acquired in hospitals, clinics and other health care settings. According to the World Health Organization, these infections affect as many as 1.7 million patients in the United States each year, racking up an annual cost of $6.5 billion and contributing to more than 90,000 deaths annually.”
Christopher Hitchens, the journalist who published the story about Mother Theresa I mention above, died of one of the illnesses we fear most. Cancer. Well, actually, he was battling cancer. But he died of pneumonia caused by a hospital infection, as his wife was quick to point out in several interviews. We spend billions of dollars fighting this disease, and still can’t comply with the simplest and least expensive strategy in favor of surviving it.
Science denial is a symptom of the worst part of our humanity – our incessant notion that our judgment is enough, our priorities are right, and we are not the problem. Our god complex. We then systematically scramble evidence to the contrary in our brains to give us a worldview palatable to our psyches. Then we point the finger at someone else.
When Gawande refers to his hospital and details its compliance statistics, he is referring to Brigham & Women’s in Boston, staffed by Harvard physicians and one of the finest hospitals in the world.
“With the (alcohol) gel finally in wide use, the compliance rates for proper hand hygiene improved substantially: from around 40 percent to 70 percent. But — and this is the troubling finding — hospital infection rates did not drop one iota. Our 70 percent compliance just wasn’t good enough. If 30 percent of the time people didn’t wash their hands, that still left plenty of opportunity to keep transmitting infections. Indeed, the rates of resistant Staphylococcus and Enterococcus infections continued to rise. Yokoe receives the daily tabulations. I checked with her one day not long ago, and sixty-three of our seven hundred hospital patients were colonized or infected with MRSA (the shorthand for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) and another twenty-two had acquired VRE (vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus) — unfortunately, typical rates of infection for American hospitals.”
Quality public health is not simply a battle with a small community of nutjobs. It is a complex system that needs us to fight against the foolishness in us all.
As I watched the polarization over immunization grow, I asked other parents what they thought. One friend reminded me that her son has had a suppressed immune system most of his life to help him battle an ongoing medical condition. I had forgotten, because he is a healthy and vibrant kid now. His immune system can’t tolerate a live vaccine, and many of the conditions we avoid through vaccination could kill him. He doesn’t have the luxury of immunization. Parents who choose not to vaccinate do so because they don’t believe their own child is at risk. Well, this kid is.
So I asked her, what do you do?
She makes sure the school nurse knows her son’s face and his story. She gets to know the other parents and sometimes which kids haven’t been immunized. She tells them her son’s story. She encourages her school community to tell her if they get so much as a whiff of concerning symptoms.
“I build relationships,” she told me. She knows firsthand that some minds simply will not be swayed, and that their ignorance could deliver her worst fear to her doorstep.
New vaccines will come, thankfully. Despite the amazing advancement of pharmaceuticals, there is no perfect science. If a new vaccine starts to show evidence of unacceptable risk, I worry we will be so weary of this issue, and so defensive on behalf of vaccines as a category, that even the most pro-science among us will be unable to consider it.
We can never be too certain we know the answer. I don’t share the sentiment that Big Pharma is evil, but pharmaceutical companies don’t have a pristine track record either. Not because they are evil, but because companies are made up of human beings.
As you shake your head at the idiots of the world, take the time to make sure your own vaccinations are up to date. And when you are or someone you care about is being treated in a health care facility, make damn sure your caregivers wash their hands.
January 19, 2015
This past year was one of great professional stress, and I determined not to carry it into 2015. When I did find resolution in October, it came in a better manner than I could have imagined. While I made some contributions to the outcome, I assure you luck was the prevailing factor.
When the dust settled, I was stunned to find my life relatively drama free for the first time in years. My kids are at great ages in which they are relatively dependable, responsible and communicative, but haven’t begun to hate me. Life still has plenty of stress, but a bit less overwhelming.
So I have been thinking to myself often, I really need to enjoy this. Really. And I dare not feel entitled to its continuation. Sometimes we get to a good place and assume it to be a part of a long and steady trajectory. We are certain it can only go up from here. Enough continuous rise, and descent is certain.
In my case, I have three children heading for puberty. Rough terrain is surely ahead.
I wouldn’t change most of the challenges of the last four years if I could, because I have learned so much. (In case you don’t know me, they involved divorce, going back to work, and a great deal of constant professional change as I regained my working legs.) Those stresses paved the way both to goodness, and my ability to appreciate and savor it.
When I had to fight mighty battles, I discovered I had it in me. There is no easy path to that discovery. When I needed to let battles go, I found I could. When I stepped out on a tenuous limb, people who loved me cheered me on, but never with the platitude that the limb won’t break. At 42 I’m learning to let go of false assurances, and those who love me seem to know not to give them. I know they’ll be there if I come crashing down, and that I will find a way to recover. This is what security means to me now.
A few days ago I rushed out of work late to get home to my kids. I started my car and began to back up, but stopped when I saw in the rearview mirror what had to be the oddest formation of ice I’d ever seen. That wasn’t ice, I quickly realized. It was shattered glass. My back windshield, it seemed, had been smashed leaving a big hole and sparkling web of shattered glass.
I took the time to confer with the security staff at my office building in the hopes this mystery would be solved via video recording. No such luck. I had to get home. Fortunately it was above 0 on that January Minnesota evening. It had snowed a good bit that day, so between the window and traffic, I was an hour and a half late getting to my kids. Since they are not always with me, the loss of that time matters.
I was mad about the lost time, the damage, the inconvenience of the repair, and so forth. Once home I needed to cook dinner, tend to my kids, figure out a temporary fix to the gaping hole in the dark, and shovel snow. I was also upset at the idea someone could have done it intentionally. There was nothing missing and nothing of value in sight anyway. Maybe it was the temperature swings, an accident, or vandalism. Who knows?
As I drove I remembered what I’ve been saying to myself. Things are pretty good right now, don’t forget that. Don’t let this minor inconvenience derail you. It calmed me, this inner dialogue. I believed it.
I was plenty calm by the time I got home. I visited with my kids a bit, explained what happened, and began to make dinner. My kids commented on how surprisingly well I was handling it. They have far more experience seeing me freak out. I assured them it was an inconvenience that needed fixing and not worth being upset over. We are so lucky, I tell them all the time. The wind was bitter that night, and the day before so cold Minneapolis schools were closed for the day. We had dinner cooking, a warm home, and each other.
After dinner one of my girls helped me cover the gaping hole in our van and shovel the sidewalk while the other two worked on a project inside. As I struggled to tape the cardboard to the van (adhesive and cold don’t go well together), I got really frustrated, but tried to maintain my calm. Again, she commented on how well I was handling it. She said it was like we were having a really good evening in spite of this bad thing that happened. I laughed and agreed.
“You know, Mom, at times like this I really admire you.”
She went on to say she didn’t think she’d ever forget this night. I was stunned. I think this is the only time in over a decade of parenting that I felt like I got it right when it mattered. I will never forget that night either.
For better or worse, no one knows you better than your children. They see you at your very best and worst. Despite the many pieces of parenting that make you feel helpless, we have power over them. Holding power is the greatest test of character.
My kid’s response is largely her surprise because of how many times I had not handled stress well. At 9, she can now reflect on her own moments of freaking out, and learn to talk herself down. With my recently calmed professional waters, I would not have appreciated my new situation so well had I not experienced the preceding struggle. The same is true for my kids. I just hate that “the struggle” is sometimes me.
It is heart wrenching to fail in front of your kid. But we all mess up sometimes, and so will our children. There is never a bad time to improve or try to get it right. And when our children see us fail, get back up and try again, we are telling them the absolute truth that this is how life is, and they can do it too.
June 30, 2013
When someone I love leaves this world, it is the conversations I miss most. I can imagine facial expressions, the sound of a voice, the cadence of laughter. But no matter how good my guess, I cannot perfectly conjure the response of a person who is no longer here to give it.
With each of my friends, there is something specific and unique we share, be it a love, an experience, a hope. I have many friends with whom I can always share a book I’ve just read or a movie I’ve seen.
And since I can’t have that with one particular sweet and dear friend, sometimes I need to express it to others. Maybe because I hope some response will approximate the one I miss. Or maybe because I just want to put it out there.
So here goes…
You should see this movie. It’s beautiful, and you would get how perfect its imperfection is.
You should read this. It speaks to your observation of human nature and desire for global understanding, and most of all to your love of travel.
You should watch these. I haven’t, actually, but saw a review of it and knew you would love it.
You should read Christopher Hitchens, especially Hitch-22 and Mortality. And if you wouldn’t have, which I doubt you would, then I would at least have insisted you read this piece of his in Vanity Fair, an excerpt from Hitch 22. They are so different from the Rogers book above, but you would love his command of the English language, wit, passion, and most of all his irreverence to all but the search for truth.
And there is more, but I will stop there. Must get back to work and not spend so much time hurling stuff into the empty space.
The wonderful thing about coming home when “home” is Mississippi is that, whatever else goes on, good stories will be told. Years ago I learned of the following piece printed in Playboy magazine some time in the 1970s, but never managed to lay my hands on a copy to read for myself until today. The witty and erudite judge quoted here is my late uncle.
Below is the Playboy write up in its entirety, which I modified only by splitting paragraphs for easier reading in my blog format:
Eloquent legal decisions rarely come out of municipal courts, but an interesting exception occurred in Jackson, Mississippi last year in the case of a night-club patron charged with failure to obey a police officer and resisting arrest, among other things. It seems the patron first endeared himself to the arriving officers by loudly proclaiming, “Here comes the fucking police!” They ordered him to leave the premises and later arrested him when he did not comply. In court, the issues became those of lawful arrest and of whether or not his language amounted to “fighting words” that under state law would constitute a criminal act. Judge Howard C. Ross, Jr., held (in part) as follows:
In some instances, it could be a matter of speculation or inference by the court as to whether the language attributed to the defendant is such that a disturbance of the public peace would occur. In the case at bar, no difficulty is experienced, since nothing happened.
The statement was made, apparent due note taken thereof by all the people in the night club and nothing approaching a civil commotion or disturbance of the peace transpired. The only portion of the remark, being the adjective (which the court believes to be a participle) describing the police, which was offensive lacks a good bit of being a “fighting word.” It undoubtedly was received by its auditors as an appropriate, although this court believes an inaccurate, description of a member of the Jackson Police Department.
Assuming the defendant uttered the remark, its net effect was to advise all within hearing distance that the defendant had reached that state of maturity at which he can publicize his unmitigated and unredeemed ignorance and repudiation of our mother tongue. If the defendant’s ability to express disrespect, scorn, ridicule or the like toward law enforcement finds its quintessence in the quoted remark, his educational progress must be somewhat akin to the dog scavenging its daily carrion from the city garbage dump, who, when approached by one of his fellow mongrels, growls but does not speak, for he cannot. Woe to that generation who masticates its own bile and vomits such filth as the epitome of its thought processes. If it is unthinkable that the defendant’s imagination could conjure up such a thought, that he gave voice to such a declarative English sentence is unbelievable. Whether the defendant is guilty of using profanity in public is not before the court, nor is his obvious lack of breeding, intelligence and vocabulary.
It is said patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. To this may be added the last refuge of unregenerate man must surely be the retreat into the abyss of obscenity…Public utterances such as the one here under consideration are proof enough the evolution of man is not complete; for God help us all if it is. But the law gives man the right to search for truth and light and immortality on the one hand and the right to debase his very soul on the other; and these with equal zeal…The Constitution, as politics, makes strange bedfellows. One day the lady who has worn the blindfold for so long, to satisfy her curiosity is going to remove it and be horrified with the contents of her scales…What is before the court is whether the language of the statement constitutes “fighting words.” As a matter of law, they do not.
In discharging the defendant, Judge Ross also delivered himself of some kind and equally poetic words for the police:
Despite effluvium from the mouths of degenerates and malevolent future draft choices of the far reaches of hell itself, the badge of the cop on the beat is a shield of honor, integrity, honesty and courage. To those who say he’s not much, society responds, he’s all we have. Discredit him and you deny yourself protection from the criminal. Deny him and you deny your form of government. Defrock him and you have anarchy. To those who call him “pig,” he asks, how many murderers have you apprehended, how many rapists; how many vacant buildings have you entered at two o’clock in the morning, searching for a burglar; how many drunk drivers have you chased at 100 miles per hour?
Why an otherwise reasonably decent segment of our citizenry seems to see red when a policeman appears is an anomaly of our times. But the policeman, as the child, must only speak when spoken to, come when he is called, perform when his master raps the lectern with his baton, remaining at all other times, like Jim Crow, at the back of the bus. What is bad about police? Their most grievous sin appears, to this court, at least, to be that they protect our lives and property; they catch crooks; they keep rowdies under control; they patrol our streets, and this at hours and in weather conditions that keep the rest of us indoors; and all of this at a pay scale that makes one speculate why there are any honest cops left. Yet they are scorned, abused, ridiculed and denigrated to a degree that should be reserved for the criminal element.
This is truly one of the wonders of the modern world. Their job, dangerous as it is, must be accomplished in somewhat the contradictory manner of brandishing a Smith & Wesson in one hand, an olive branch in the other, one eye on the miscreant and the other on the Constitution. No easy task, methinks.
Gilbert and Sullivan perhaps said it best in The Pirates of Penzance:
Our feelings we with
When constabulary duty’s
to be done-
Ah, take one consideration
A policeman’s lot is not
a happy one.
December 31, 2012
I love the ritual of saying goodbye to one year, and embracing the possibility of the next.
My first order of business this year is to turn my blogging efforts away from navel-gazing and on to searching out the stories of others. Please look for my new blog in 2013, www.herownpurse.com, and you can “like” it on facebook here.
This illstrated excerpt from a Maurice Sendak interview sums up my feelings about all the joy and sorrow, all the uncertainty and beauty in the world.
“Something I find as I am aging, that I am in love with the world…Live your life. Live your life. Live your life.”
I wish you all good things. Happy New Year!
December 25, 2012
It is Christmas Eve. Presents are wrapped, finally. The fire is glowing, as are a few candles. The tree is lit. The only offensive light is coming from my laptop. I am warm, safe and thankful for so much.
But I enter Christmas Day with a very heavy heart. I have seen sadness and loss and pain in my time, but never have I watched so many people I love struggling at once with such major stuff. Added to that are thoughts of the recent school shooting in Connecticut, and the knowledge that violence is still such a huge part of our world.
First, I feel inept in my ability to help. Then I feel inept at how to prepare my children to process scary news when they hear, and to meet the challenges they may one day face. Whatever plans we make, whatever policies are changed, catastrophe will always come to some, and it can arrive in the blink of an eye. The only real comforting idea I have seen is a quote from Mr. Rogers that talks about looking for where the helpers are in times of trouble. And indeed, seeing our capacity to help others is a comfort.
Today a friend of mine lies in the hospital, having been unconscious for a month following a cardiac episode – his recovery uncertain, though not without hope, and his role as breadwinner decidedly compromised.
His wife soldiers on, doing what needs to be done for their daughters, with the support of an amazing community and the heavy load of scary times. She faces the struggle that is the worst fear for many of us.
Thanks for taking the time to read this post.
Peace to you all.
December 22, 2012
This has been a good year for us. As I type this, my children are watching the Rockettes’ Christmas special on Netflix and dancing in their seats to music just like their Grandpa Jim used to do. The fire is roaring, the tree is lit, and all of us have voiced how fortunate we are to have so much warmth and love in our lives.
It has been a long year, and a good one. Mom and Dad live in different places, but only a stone’s throw away, so the kids’ world is still small in many good ways. This school year has been wonderful, thanks to some wonderful teachers. Each kid is becoming a better reader, a more adept debater (sigh), and a more vigilant pioneer of kindness. They teach me every day what matters and how I can be better. I am grateful to be their mom.
And per Charlotte’s note above, we wish you all love, peace and cuddleness. Here are a few other images from our year. Happy holidays everyone.
November 17, 2012
A good message in our post election period…
October 27, 2012
There is a princess of a girl – pretty, polite and pure – who is good at heart, but powerless and poor until a rich, handsome man sweeps her away to his gigantic castle to live happily ever after.
Boys and girls get horny after puberty and it takes us many years to learn to build the skills to maintain logical thinking in the face of biological urges. But life does not wait. We fall in love. We get laid. For some of us it happens in that order, and for the lucky few, it leads to some version of the fairytale. And the rest of us just try and find our way. God forbid we fall in love with someone of our same gender. That can’t be right – that relationship can’t procreate.
We live in a culture of entitlement. Many of us feel entitled to some version of the fairytale. We define success as having a big home, lavish meals, a big chariot, and never getting sick, disabled, divorced, unemployed and never having children with development delays or disabilities.
Then some of those whose lives look an awful lot like the fairytale – by some mix of luck and hard work – feel their achievement of the fairytale qualifies them to determine how the rest of us should live. Because some of us see their lives as some version of our ideal, we believe them.
And this is how we come to have a lot of rich, white men feeling entitled to dictate what a woman should and can do with her body. We should keep our legs locked at the knees, regardless of the urge or force that ends up parting them. We should be strong enough to bear the morality of sexual choices, but not responsible or smart enough the make choices in dealing with the consequences. If we get pregnant, we absolutely must bear that child (and associated medical bills), regardless of whether we are emotionally or financially able to do so. And then we should either say goodbye to that baby forever, or need to become to maternal model of Cinderella’s Fairy to our children – perfectly patient and wise and able to provide for them. If we have a male partner in parenting, we better can our career ambitions. And if there is no man in the picture, well we need to get off our asses and hold a job, too.
The Fairytale Class
These folks have toiled so hard like saints and their wealth makes them benefactors to society because their lavish spending trickles down to the masses. Therefore they are entitled to only pay 17% tax, or some version of that. They get a tax break, a lesser percentage, by virtue of their wealth and well-paid tax professionals. But the struggling citizens for whom the fairytale will likely never happen, they can’t have a break on their taxes. They might come to feel entitled to it.
If the Fairy-talers need to make a long-term investment in their business, say a large building or stadium, the government should also give them a tax break. They are entitled to assistance because the project creates work for others. They are not expected to plan the project around what their business can afford or whether it is a good strategic choice. They need extra incentive from the government.
They preach small government and personal freedoms while they spend millions trying to pass laws to limit freedom and expand government mandates on personal choices. They claim they are the ones who can “get things done”, but things they spend their energy on benefit the fairy-talers and not the masses.
Many associates of the fairytale-based politicians also believe their fairytale is a gift from God. And well, since that has worked so well for them, they believe the rules of their faith should dictate the law of our society. No abortion and no same sex marriage. Same sex unions are outside the fairytale box, so they must be vile. They can’t possibly be about love or partnership or human connection.
Only fairytale success entitles you to choice and decision-making power in your own life. Only fairytale success entitles you to a break from funding your share of society.
A lot of important decisions will be made in this election, only some of which are covered by my little analogy. But in terms of the politically charged word ENTITLEMENT, we are all guilty to some of degree.
In this election for President, we are not deciding whether to give out entitlements, but to whom.
September 15, 2012
A few words from Sandy Holthaus, author of Sandyisms: Stories, Recipes and More from the North Shore. Sandy is a great lady whom I have mentioned here before. Please hear what she has to say about our upcoming vote in Minnesota as to whether we should uphold an amendment to ban same-sex marriage in our state.
This might surprise some of you who know me because I am Catholic and I politically tend to be conservative. I feel in my heart that marriage should be defined is a legal union between any two people in a committed, caring relationship.
I am proud to live in a country that goes to great lengths to stand up for the rights and freedoms of people around the world, yet greatly saddened that in 2012 we would even consider limiting or denying the right of marriage between two consenting adults.
Let’s be honest, I am afraid that publicly sharing my views could have a negative impact for me and for my family, but I feel it is more important to stand up for what I believe is right than to silently stand by and let this amendment pass.
Silence implies consent. I do not consent to this amendment. If in your heart you also feel that the amendment is wrong, regardless of your religious or political standing- VOTE NO and allow everyone the right to legally marry, because it’s the right thing to do.