Thursday, January 26, 2012

Homeless to Harvard

The injustice we do to people when we label them, even while well intentioned is harmful. Before I return this book to it’s owner I must commend the author on her story and her life. Liz Murray is the author of Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and my Journey from Homeless to Harvard, a story of a harrowing childhood in a home plagued with mental illness and drug abuse. She became literally homeless and a student who was truant, defiant, and lost. She pulled herself up by her proverbial bootstraps after the death of her mother, enrolled in an alternative school (while still homeless) and was accepted to Harvard in spite of all this and more. The teachers at the alternative school inspired her but gave no slack (knowing nothing of her living conditions); while several teachers at her prior high school who did know some of her trials and tribulations felt sorry for her and nudged her along.

She said that when she was labeled as truant or a disciplinary problem “I saw failure in their eyes, then I was one….capable, then I was capable.” Even well intentioned teachers who “saw me as a victim-despite (her) good intentions-that’s what I believed about myself, too.” (p. 286) She dropped out of high school in her sophomore year while being labeled a victim, after nursing her mother through her last dying days. She returned to school, homeless, and overcame so much.

She did not let the label, victim of unfortunate circumstances, become a self-fulfilling prophecy. She graduated from Harvard in 2009 and today is a motivational speaker and runs a company that helps others fulfill their destinies. A truly amazing story of a truly amazing woman.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Confessions of a Surgeon

Confessions of a Surgeon is a book best read at home, not as a gift in a get well basket for any recovering family members or friends. An eye-opening read of health care systems (past and present) and the flaws that exist due to surgeons being human and health care systems being systems. The road to becoming a surgeon is a long and painful one resulting in a God-like complex in many a surgeon.  This surgeon defends his kingdom while shedding light on the problems inherent in such deification.

Your insurance company, your hospital, and your government know more about the skills of a surgeon than you will know in the present system. All of these bodies tabulate figures on outcomes because bad outcomes cost more money. The likelihood of success of one's surgeon would be desirable for a patient to know going into a prospective surgery, but this data is not available to the general public.  (This information is provided quarterly to all surgeons, however.) The best advice the author can give is to ask your prospective surgeon what his/her complication rate is on the procedure you require (and then hope to compare it with the national average for the same, if you can obtain such a figure.)

Surgeons being human, there are good ones and bad ones. Nice ones and mean ones. Lucky ones and unlucky ones. They all worked very hard to get where they are today.  But you probably don't want the brand new one, or the one who all of his/her colleagues know should have retired ten years ago. And remember, the ones with crappy bedside manner may have the best technique in the world. 

This author does not want to see increased regulation of his practice, and is an unabashed old school kind of guy. A bit of a male chauvinist brought up in the residency days of working with no sleep for days on end he has little patience for the next batch of surgeons coming up the ranks. But as he points out with burn-out being so high from the rigors of the job one can only hope that they are quick learners as more surgical services are needed for an aging population. You can pick your surgeon to the best of your ability for your elective surgery. But in the middle of the night when an emergency requires surgical intervention it is a crapshoot .  Whomever is on call will provide your services to the best of their ability, with the best equipment provided to them by the hospital (and allowed by the insurance company), with whatever sleep they managed to get before your procedure.

 An interesting read for any persons involved in health care as an occupation or as a prospective patient. The reader will appreciate surgeons more for what they have endured and endure on a daily basis. The reader will also wish for a more transparent system to provide for the safety of the general population after reading some of the stories contained within these pages.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Michelangelo's Pieta

I just finished reading Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy, a biographical novel of the life and works of Michelangelo. Despite the enormity of his work in the Sistine Chapel his sculpture of the Pieta is the one I look forward to seeing the most this coming summer. A sculptor at heart, he was forced to paint to make ends meet per Stone's biography. 

This work was completed when he was just 24 years old. It was not his first Madonna figure. The author does the sculptor justice as he describes the challenges of sculpting the Mother of Jesus. When he was describing the sculptor's thought processes he writes:

"Could so important a task, the most important assigned to any human since Moses, have been forced upon Mary without her knowledge and consent?...And if she did have freedom of choice, would she be likely to exercise it?...Once she accepted, must she carry the burden from that moment until the day that her child was crucified?...Was ever mortal woman cast in so pain-fraught a dilemma?" (Stone, 139)

I have read another biography by Irving Stone, The President's Lady. This was not as quick of a read--as the political climate of ancient Rome was more complex than that of early American history. Michelangelo was subject to the whims and machinations of more than five popes through his lifetime. So much more beauty could have come from this great artist if not for the battles these Popes created within Italy, the papacy, Florence, and in Michelangelo's life in particular. 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Fed Up: Rick Perry

Today Rick Perry, the Governor of Texas, gave up his presidential aspirations and is returning to the good people of Texas. Although not eloquently written, his assertion that Americans are "Fed UP: Our Fight to Save America from Washington" is clearer than his debate performances. I admittedly liked him on paper before I ever heard him open his mouth (I do prefer a Commander in Chief with prior military experience.) His ghost writer wasn't on the dais with him in the debates, unfortunately. When he retires from public office I do not expect to the governor on the lecture circuit!

In case you missed the book the premise is that Americans are best served by local government. Since your local legislator is more apt to listen to you and your legislator in Washington is too far removed from American life. Whether Democrat or Republican I think we can all agree on that. Beyond that, the book feeds the Inner Tea Partier within you...if you have one.

I thought the most intriguing part of the book was the following:
"We can all still be proud Americans while acknowledging that we simple do not agree on many fundamental issues. We are a diverse people-incapable of being governed from a faraway capital by people who do not share our values. Recognizing this fact is critical to the preservation of a free state. Federalism enables us to live united as a nation, with a federal government that is focused on our national security and that has specific enumerated powers, while we live in states with like-minded people who share our values and beliefs. Crucial to understanding federalismin modern-day America is the concept of mobility, or the "ability to vote with your feet." If you don't support the death penalty and citizens packing a pistol, don't come to Texas. If you don't like medicinal marijuana and gay marriage, don't move to California." (p. 13)

I know Pennsylvanians are viewed as clinging to their guns and religion, but he is pure Texan, isn't he? Unapologetically, pure Texan. He does come across as a Texan first, an American second: even if you concede that the Federal government often encroaches on state's rights. A difficult platform to run on for the president of the fifty states in the United States of America.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Dogs Understand Fairness

  • Anyone who has ever given one dog two biscuits and another dog only one, intuitively understands that dogs understand injustice. Horowitz cites an experiment that proves this "dogs who see another dog getting a reward for doing an act-shaking a paw on command-but who do not themselves get rewarded for the same act eventually refuse to shake anymore. (No rewarded dog was moved by the clear injustice of the situation to share his earned bounty with his unlucky partner, though..." (Horowitz, 204) Dogs get fairness.
It is not fair that we can't understand what our dogs are thinking, our beloved silent companions. This author makes light of her statement that a dog's tail has never been studied thoroughly as a communication tool. She does however attempt to rectify this omission. The body language of dogs is studied and interpreted so that you too, can understand what your dog is trying to tell you.

If only we understood their nonverbal clues as well as they understood ours. Through the natural selection of dogs from wolves our furry friends have literally made a living off of interpreting our nonverbal signals. If only we understood them as well as they understand us. Reading this book will put you one step closer to understanding what Fido is experiencing and saying to you.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Virtual situps? Apparently imaginary exercising really works

Imagine my delight when I was reading a book on the adaptability of the human brain and stumbled across a study that proves that just imagining exercising increases the muscle tone in the imagined area! Yes, I laughed out loud, in public while reading.

The brain's wiring of our organs enabled participants who just imagined exercising a limb to become significantly stronger (by 22 percent). Of course the group that actually performed the exercise had muscle strength increases of 30 percent. But, wow! Who would have thought? The details on the study can be found here: but the explanation lies in " the motor neurons of the brain that program movements. During these imaginary contractions, the neurons responsible for string together sequences of insturctions for movements are activated and strengthened, resulting in increased strength when the muscles are contracted." (Doidge, p. 204)

Norman Doidge, MD wrote "The Brain that Changes Itself". There are many audiences for this book: health care professionals, educators, significant others of persons afflicted with stroke, OCD, amputation...or those interested in maintaining their optimal brain function. Written in an easy to read format he brings new light to the adage "use it or lose it." The studies on amputation were fascinating. He of course cited the mirror box experiment that has helped so many amputees with phantom pain. He explains why some amputees have increased sensation to other body areas because of the way the brain is wired. (Some male leg amputees, not complaining of suffering from leg pain as they now feel the orgasm not just in the area wired by male genitalia, but throughout the whole section of the brain that the leg once wired. These men are not complaining, one commented it was as if his genitalia was the size his leg had been!

Tantalizing as these tidbits are, the book is a fascinating read regarding stroke and OCD rehabilitation among other topics. These are the more sensationalized findings in a book with much to offer, to those who have "normal brains" as well as those with variations in pathology of the brain.

Friday, January 6, 2012

GOP hopeful and strong Black History proponent Newt Gingrich

The Daily Show, although hysterically funny, would have you believe that the GOP was dominated by white men mindful of only their own pasts and futures. I picked up Newt Gingrich’s book, The Battle of the Crater, not realizing he cowrote the book. I have read several other books on this Civil War battle, and this was by far the best of the lot. Whatever your political persuasion, after reading this book, one realizes the admiration he has for the one in four Civil War veterans who was black and the injustice historians (and Union leaders) perpetuated by overlooking their bravery. Newt Gingrich, a current presidential hopeful, can indeed write.

I read this book as if it was a popular fiction novel, quickly in less than two days. Admittedly, he and his co-author did use some fictional devices to tie the scenes together and move the plot along. Lincoln, a Republican, was facing re-election in a weary nation that was tired of his agenda. The war had been going on for three years, and the political infighting amongst the generals was hurting the Union’s chances for quelling the uprising before the election. Lincoln needed a big Union victory badly. If Union forces could capture Petersburg, the supply lines to Richmond would be cut, a near victory secured in battle and politics, and the Republican Lincoln would surely get re-elected.

Petersburg was the site of this epic battle which had great potential for the North, with a secret tunnel and planned explosion. Gingrich and Forstchen tell this sad tale powerfully. It went horribly awry for the Union forces. This battle could have ended the war sooner if not for the underutilization of units because of their race or the arrogance of Union Army commanders.

The former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, knows his subject matter and relays it well. Whether or not he helps determine the future of the U.S. or not remains to be seen. He certainly has a clear understanding of our past. Primary season looms ahead, will he be able to verbalize as clearly his visions of America’s future as clearly as he can write of our past history? Time will tell.

New Years Resolutions

New Years Resolutions, everyone has them. One of the most popular resolutions relates to personal fitness. Every year it seems this is on my list. The former surgeon general, C. Edward Koop said that fitness was a journey, not a destination. Goodness knows this is true. If fitness was an island, I have visited that destination but am forever seeking to get back there.

I have read so many interesting things lately. As my closest confidantes know, I am forever saying "I read somewhere....." This will be my log of things that strike me as intriguing that might be of interest to others.

With regards to jogging and running, my favorite read was in an old Runner's World magazine about a Kenyan fellow. This fellow had been told to become more physically active by his family doctor. He was ashamed to run during the daytime for fear his neighbors would see him. (I can identify with that!) He started running at night time and became an Olympic contestant in the marathon. His humble words, even in the face of such athletic prowess, struck a note with me: no matter what shape you are in the first 15 minutes sucks for everyone!