Monthly Archives: January 2014

Medical wisdom

Cover - for blogAnyone who has read my book, Finding My Invincible Summer, or spent any time with me knows that I have only tentative respect for the medical wisdom we are exposed to in today’s “evidence-based” world. Most experts contend that medical truth can only be verified if is subjected to the gold standard of double-blind placebo-controlled trials. They automatically reject any approach that doesn’t pass this test—be it homeopathic, traditional Chinese, Ayurvedic, Anthroposophical, or from any other system. “It’s all a crock,” to quote a doctor mentioned in my book.

Moreover, these “experts” have repeatedly tried to get the U.S. Government to outlaw the sale and use of any treatment that has not been “proven” to be safe and effective in double-blind placebo-controlled trials.

Several questions come to mind. First, these trials, regardless of their results, do not guarantee safety. Safety depends on many factors: accurate reporting of the (inevitable) side effects; the doctor’s interpretation of these reports, knowledge of the patient, and overall judgment; and, most important, the patient’s circumstances and the extent to which he or she actually follows the treatment.

There are also questions about how the double-blind placebo-controlled trials are conducted and reported. This subject is covered in detail in the Carl Elliot’s White Coat, Black Hat, which I will review in another blog.

Samuel Hahnemann Father of homeopathy

Samuel Hahnemann
Father of homeopathy

For now, let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that these studies are objective and that their results are reported honestly. I believe that the concept itself of the double-blind placebo-controlled trial is naïve and deceptive. It is premised on an extremely narrow view of health and the human condition. It ignores most of the variables that affect a person’s overall health and resistance to disease. I believe that the very notion that human “subjects” can be compared under the same conditions is deeply flawed.

This concern applies especially to cancer, a major target of drugs being tested in these so-called objective trials. It is well known that cancer is the result of many different factors acting upon the body. The World Health Organization recognized long ago that cancer is multi-causal. It is dizzying to think of all the influences that could contribute to a person developing cancer or dictate the course of the disease.

Ideally, the subjects in a trial for a cancer drug would have to be matched for the following criteria:  existing health issues, family health history, prescription medicines, over-the-counter remedies, dietary supplements and herbs, body mass index, metabolic type, digestive status, blood type, exercise regime, current and past smoking habits, environmental tobacco smoke, alcohol consumption, recreational drug use, sleep patterns, daily fluid intake, diet (including types of sugar and fat, meat, dairy, eggs, gluten, corn, diet drinks, colas), pollution in the environment, workplace conditions, exposure to TV and computer screens, cell phone use, history of past exposure to radiation, socioeconomic status, urban vs. rural residence, family dynamics, social support, pet ownership, and many others—all trumped by the single most important factor: the patient’s attitude.

And what if the subject is also engaged in one or several alternative practices? For example: acupuncture, aromatherapy, biofeedback, chiropractic, crystal healing, emotional freedom technique, homeopathy, hypnosis, massage therapy, meditation, Reiki, Qigong. There are dozens of possible approaches, and any of them could be affecting the patient’s status. These effects would also have to be factored into the results.

And here’s a thought: maybe the body does what it does through its own natural intelligence, beyond anything we can measure or control.

We simply don’t know, and it’s simplistic to believe that the placebo-controlled double-blind study yields anything but a very rough impression.

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Philomena and the Magdalene Laundries

Jud DenchI was happy to see that Philomena has garnered Oscar nominations for both Best Picture and Lead Actress. Judi Dench’s performance is most compelling. Both nominations are well deserved.

I’m a long-time Judi Dench fan. I have admired her versatility and subtle facial expressions in many roles, from “M” in the James Bond series to softie Jean Hardcastle in television’s As Time Goes By. She always nails her character. So when I saw ads for Philomena, I put it high on my to-see list.

The film far exceeded my expectations, though I can’t say I “enjoyed” it.  I came away emotionally drained. Sad and horrific scenes kept replaying in my mind. The ending left me anguished for the women of the Magdalene Laundries and deeply unsatisfied.

I have to confess, though I had heard of Joni Mitchell’s song, I knew little about the Magdalene Laundries and this dark chapter in Irish history, which lasted from the 1700s until as recently as the 1970s. For others like me, I will explain that these Catholic convents—asylums run by various orders—were condoned by the State and played the role of warehousing society’s disgraced and unwanted young girls and women. Their original purpose was to deliver the babies of unwed mothers (some of them impregnated by their own fathers or parish priests), adopt them out, and reform the mothers, whom they regarded as “fallen women”—hence the name Magdalene, from the belief that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.

Magdalene Laundry

Over time, they also accepted delinquents sent to them by the courts, as well as young women who were mentally or physically disabled. The inmates all lived side-by-side and worked in the convents’ laundries, businesses that not only generated income but also served as a reminder that the women were forever condemned to cleansing themselves of their sins. Unless they could buy their freedom, they worked for decades without compensation. One in 10 inmates died. Over the centuries, an estimated 30,000 women were incarcerated in these institutions and subjected to this cruelest form of slavery—cruel not only for the physical punishment but for the relentless abasement of hapless young women.

The survivors of the Magdalene Laundries have been seeking restitution, and in 2013 they received a settlement from the Irish Government, but the Catholic Church has yet to acknowledge any culpability.

The two Philomenas

The two Philomenas

Philomena is a true story. It was first revealed by investigative reporter Martin Sixmith, who published the The Lost child of Philomena Lee in 2009. The real Philomena Lee is now 80 years old and has been making public appearances, telling why she kept the story of her first-born child a secret for 50 years and finally decided to go public.

The story is gripping. For those who haven’t seen it, all I will say is that Philomena, a naïve Irish girl who doesn’t even understand how she got pregnant, is sent to Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, County Tipperary, where she delivers a son whom she names “Anthony.” She remains there with Anthony for three years until one day he is summarily taken from her and adopted by an American family. Against her will, the nuns force her to sign a paper swearing that she will never try to find him. For 50 years she mourns him and cherishes his picture but is terrified to initiate an active search. Anthony, for his part, spends his life looking for her. The two main characters—Judi Dench’s eponymous Philomena and Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan—are portrayed to perfection. The real Sixsmith claims he is not as emotionally dense, but he has accepted his character in the film “for the sake of Art.”

I found it fascinating to research the lives of the people behind the story. From what I can tell, the facts are entirely accurate. The only changes have been to draw the characters slightly larger than life, since apparently the screen demands it.  

For us today it is difficult to imagine that getting pregnant out of wedlock was still seen as a terrible sin in the 1950s. The stigma even existed in the United States. I write about this in my book, Finding My Invincible Summer—which is why this story touches me so deeply.

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Winter solstice and the Bureau of Aging and Growth

BAGDecades ago I saw an improv play that left an indelible imprint on my psyche. In it, the Bureau of Aging and Growth (BAG) has granted the characters a year off from their regular commitments— job, school, homemaking—to pursue whatever is most important to them. At periodic intervals, they are required to report their progress to BAG. Needless to say, they get sidetracked and no one has made “good” use of their time. They have no accomplishments to report to BAG, and they act out their frustration with themselves in creative ways. The piece was a brilliant commentary on one of our deepest human questions:  What do we do with the time that is given to us while we’re on the Planet?

We usually don’t face this question head-on because society structures our time for us. As children, we have school and homework, and in between we say: “Mom, I don’t have anything to do!” If Mom is resourceful, she will cook up projects to keep us busy. In school we develop interests and start to pursue them. We become involved in extracurricular activities, engage in sports, play games, hang out with friends, obsess about our maturing bodies, test our power with wheels and explosive devices, get drawn into temptations. Then we start to have committed relationships, find a job, and settle into the proverbial “rat race.” Along the way, we may find pursuits we are passionate about. All this keeps us busy—very busy.

Another time-filler is the media, especially the Internet and television. This steady flow of input—tantamount to hypnosis with our eyes open—numbs us and sucks up our last bit of time so there’s none left. We may even have to steal hours of valuable sleep to make up for the time spent.

Now let’s suppose we had a clean slate and were faced with a year of empty time: no obligations, no media, no distractions. Just 365 blank days stretching before us. It’s a scary thought. I submit that, employment and caregiving aside, we create much of our busy-ness—volunteering, hobbies, classes, sports, gaming, partying, talking on the phone, e-mailing, texting, Facebooking—to keep from having to stare into that yawning cavern of unstructured time. While all these activities have their place, I believe that one of our motivations for choosing them at any given moment is that we are afraid the unknown: what we might see if everything went still and perchance we got a glimpse of our true selves.

Here’s where the solstice comes in. As daylight gets shorter, we have long hours of darkness to fill. It provides the opportunity for contemplation. But the specter of spending time alone with ourselves is so scary that civilizations have invented holidays to see us through the dark. We shop, decorate, carouse, reach out to friends—all in an effort to avoid the abyss.

In my own life, my freelance translation business has been slow (clients carousing, contracts slow to come through). I am faced with time on my hands—time I could well use to do all those things I put off last fall because I was too busy. Yet I’ve been having trouble focusing on my priorities. I feel overwhelmed as I stare at that empty hole and wonder where and how to start.

The answer came to me this morning. Here’s my insight and the point of this blog. I now realize that Nature has her reasons. It’s all very purposeful. Empty time is a gift to be cherished, not avoided. This is time to be alone with myself. To contemplate if I choose to, read a book or two, listen to music, or do nothing at all. It’s okay to do nothing and let the thoughts flow. By not fighting the empty time, I feel certain that the pieces will fall into place in right order and I will emerge with greater understanding, focus, and the energy to tackle whatever shows up on my plate.

I can forget about reporting to the Bureau of Aging and Growth!

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Local Author Exhibit at The new San Diego Central Library

Happy New Year, everyone!

SD Library logoWhat a great way to kick off 2014! I have just learned that the new San Diego Central Library will be launching its first Local Author Exhibit with a reception on January 31st. My memoir, Finding My Invincible Summer, is one of the featured books.

The new Central Library opened last September 30. It’s an awesome project. You can watch an excellent film about it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLZeWjLxlwQ&feature=youtu.be. Thirty years in the planning and three years in the making, the building is nine stories tall and a has a dome (larger than the one on the United SD Central LibraryStates Capitol) that now dominates the downtown San Diego skyline. The dome is purposely “unfinished,” symbolizing the idea that learning is always a work in progress.

The new 500,000-square-foot space houses more than 2.6 million references and has numerous specialized collections, like the San Diego Heritage Center, the Rare Book Room, the Dr. Seuss-themed Children’s Library, and the Society of Baseball Research. It has a Workforce Center for job-seekers, a Teen Center, the ICAN Center for the disabled, a computer lab, and a full-fledged high school, which occupies two of its floors. The entire building is filled with original works by San Diego artists, and it also has a sculpture garden, an art gallery, and indoor and outdoor concert venues. The Reading Room on the 8th floor has windows three stories high overlooking the city and San Diego Bay.

SD centrallibrary-floors

The project cost $185 million and was funded through a public-private partnership, with donations not only from corporations but also from numerous private individuals. It is a true community effort – a triumph for San Diego!

I’m very excited about the new Central Library, and I will be posting more news and photos in the coming weeks, including a report on the Local Author Exhibit.

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