Saturday, April 30, 2011

Intimations of Immortality

Time for a terrific read designation. It's been...ages since I made such a pronouncement.

I have just finished The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, and I highly recommend it.

This non-fiction work details two story lines: the fate of Henrietta Lacks, who died of virulent cervical cancer, and the early efforts to culture and maintain live human cells. The intersection of the two stories is what occupies the heart of the book.

Skloot first heard of Henrietta Lacks when a biology teacher wrote the word “HeLa” on the board, the name of a most important line of human cells. The teacher went on to say that the cells had come from an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks, but that no one knew anything else about her. From that moment, Skloot was hooked.

When she began the search to learn more, she spent more than twelve years to learn the true identity of the source of the
HeLa cells. Her search gave rise to the book. No wonder, it reads as though it is a fiction mystery story—the unfolding story pulls reader along, so be prepared for reading it late into the night.

In addition to teaching you a whole lot about cell culture techniques and challenges, the book also explores medical ethics. When Henrietta Lacks’ cells were sampled and grown, informed consent was not a common practice at all. Henrietta died in 1951, and it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that informed consent and patient information about testing that what we take for granted today became common practice.

However, two historical frameworks complicate that observation. First, immediately following World War II, when it became clear that the Nazis had been conducting horrific experiments in the name of medicine, the doctors involved were tried at the Nuremberg trials and convicted. To rectify an perceived legal lack of a guiding code. Dr. Leo Alexander—who was the principle medical advisor—developed a ten point code to govern using humans as test subjects: the
Nuremberg Code. The first of those principles was the unequivocal need for voluntary consent by human subjects. Of course, the doctors at Johns Hopkins—where Henrietta Lacks was treated and where her cells were sampled and cultured—would not have viewed using cells outside the human body as experimenting ON the human body.

Second, the history of public health in the United States has been woeful where African-Americans are concerned. Perhaps one of the worst examples of the failure of health care for African-Americans is the infamous
Tuskegee syphilis study. This study began in 1932 when the Tuskegee Institute linked up with the U.S. Public Health Service. They enrolled almost 400 African-American men who had already contracted syphilis. They offered them free medical care, meals and burials—all in exchange for drawing their blood. The men were NOT told they had syphilis nor were they treated for it, even after penicillin was developed in 1947 and became the widely accepted standard treatment. Instead, the men were told they had “bad blood.” A leak of information brought the study--which was examining the ravages of the disease on untreated humans--to an abrupt halt in 1972. In the meantime, unsuspecting wives were exposed to and contracted syphilis, and children were born with congenital syphilis.

No wonder, African-Americans in general are deeply suspicious about the medical establishment. And it helps explain why Henrietta Lacks’ family in particular were deeply suspicious of Johns Hopkins and its use of Henrietta’s cells.

What Henrietta’s cells did was grow in the culture medium, and they thrived. In fact, they are still “alive” today, doubling every 24 hours. The estimate is that today there are more cells derivative of Henrietta Lacks than she had in her body when she was alive.

All in all, a terrific read.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Where the Books Are

Remember that old story about Willie Sutton who when asked why he robbed banks replied--because that's where the money is?

Well, here's a take-off--libraries are where the books are. Only, hopefully, no one robs them. But sometimes they do take out all the books. Perhaps you wonder why I made that reference--a blogger friend of mine sent me a story a couple months ago about how a small town saved its library, which was scheduled to close, by coming to the library repeatedly and eventually checking out all the books, so the library could NOT be closed. (Thank you, Philip, for sending that wonderful story.)

So, why write about libraries today? After all--this is Easter Sunday and many of the blogs I read have that as their theme. A most fitting theme. The promise of new life is all around us in spring--plants spring to life emerging from the ground, birds return and build nests. All the world bustles with the promise of new life.

I guess I decided to write about libraries on Easter--well, no good reason. Just because. Oh, yes--and because on this date the Library of Congress was established in 1800. At that time, our capital was in Philadelphia. When Congress authorized its transfer to what became Washington, DC, included in that bill was a call for a reference library with "such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress — and for putting up a suitable apartment for containing them therein ..."

The original library was burned when the British burned it in 1814 during the War of 1812. The British burned the Capitol building, and since the library was housed there, it too burned.

To begin the rebuilding of the library, Thomas Jefferson donated his entire personal library which contained some 6,500 books that he had collected over his lifetime.

Eventually, a lovely new building was erected to house the library, where it remains today. First opened to the public in 1897, the Newly built Library of Congress is now the largest library in the world. Its website points out that:

Today's Library of Congress is an unparalleled world resource. The collection of more than 144 million items includes more than 33 million cataloged books and other print materials in 460 languages; more than 63 million manuscripts; the largest rare book collection in North America; and the world's largest collection of legal materials, films, maps, sheet music and sound recordings.

I would not have known about the Library of Congress founding date were it not for The Writer's Almanac--yes, I have referred to this gem of information before. From the Almanac, I also learned the power of books in the lives of famous people.

John Grisham, certainly one of the most successful contemporary writers, developed his love of books through libraries.

He grew up all over the Deep South. Every time his family moved somewhere new, they'd join the local Southern Baptist church, find the public library, and get new library cards.

Langston Hughes writes movingly about books and how they gave assuaged his loneliness.

Langston was fascinated by the streetcars in Lawrence, and he wanted to be a streetcar conductor when he grew up. But he also loved books. The Lawrence Public Library was one of the only integrated public buildings in the city, and he spent as much time there as possible, trying to make sense of his extreme loneliness, a combination of feeling abandoned by his parents and feeling left out of fun things that most boys could do, because of segregation laws. He said, "Then it was that books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas."

Finally, Ronald McNair:
Ronald's voracious appetite for learning began with libraries.

Ronald turned into a serious reader, eating through the books his family bought, and borrowing books from friends and neighbors. Though after reading all the books, he still longed for more books, wishing he could stand in the aisles of Lake City's whites-only "public" library. Finally, when Ronald was about nine years old, he took action. "He decided to go to the library, and he refused to leave," recalled his mother later. "The library workers called me," continued Pearl. "I rushed over and found police cars outside the building. Ron was sitting on the charge desk, holding a pile of books in his lap. His little legs hung down, not reaching the floor. I was pleased that he didn't want any trouble, just the books. He wanted to study." Young McNair had changed a small piece of history. "From then on," his mother recalled proudly, "Ron was allowed to borrow books from the library whenever he wished.
So, celebrate today. Celebrate spring and new life. Celebrate resurrection. And also celebrate libraries--they preserve all the wonderful knowledge we have.
PHOTO CREDIT: Higgins, Jim, photographer. "The Jefferson Building, The Library of Congress, Washington, D.C." Jefferson's Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Rest for the Weary

With the horrific line of storms that moved across the U.S. over this past weekend, our area ended up with record breaking rain. The previous record of rain for the day of April 16 had been just shy of 2 inches. Until this past weekend...we had three and a half inches on Saturday--on top of several inches so that in several days we had 5 inches of rain, in a very wet spring. The effect was very much like pouring a full glass of water on top of an already soaked sponge.

On Saturday evening, my husband went to our basement around 9 p.m.--and I heard him say something like--that's bad news. What? Well, our basement floor is getting wet. We have lived in our house for 30 years and have only had water in basement once before--when it bubbled up through our french drain. This time, water was coming in at the edge of the basement floor.

So, nothing to do but go to work. We grabbed towels, put them on the floor and in very short order the towels were soaked. We got out the wet/dry vacuum and began sucking up the water. What with my husband running the wet vac, and me throwing towels on the floor until they were soaked, then I would wring them out, throw them down again, wring again--repeat, we kept the water from encroaching all the way across our basement. We confined it to one third the total basement. But we worked for four hours.

Finally, the rain stopped, but by then, the hydrostatic pressure underneath our basement floor had sent a spidery network of minute cracks across the basement floor, and little bubbles gave away the leak source. Vac, mop, vac, mop.

We declared victory or defeat around 1:15 a.m. and went to bed. Now--two days later, I am slowly recovering from aches and weariness. Rest for the weary.

I note, somewhat ruefully, that this tendency to feel overwhelming weariness is increasing with my age. That realization makes me recall the two most significant senior women in my life--my mother and my mother-in-law.

When I first met my husband, and would spend time at his house, it did not take long for me to feel very much at home. And, his parents must have been comfortable with my being there. His mother had worked most of her adult life, so not surprisingly when she came home in the evenings--after the dinner dishes were cleaned up and put away--she would get into her nightgown, and come sit with us as we watched television. And she would frequently fall into a light sleep. Then she would awaken, get up and go to bed. Rest for the weary.

I think of my mother who, as she began to experience the consequences of a defective heart valve, would sometimes slip upstairs to her bedroom to lie down and rest. She was a most amazing woman who was seemingly indefatigable in every day life. But you could tell that her energy would flag when she slipped off for one of those little naps. Rest for the weary.

One more thought on weariness. Since we are now less than a week away from Easter, it's time for my husband and me to engage in one of our Easter preparation rituals--playing Handel's Messiah. We began doing this several years ago, and have enjoyed listening to this great uplifting music.

Perhaps that is why, as I contemplate the weariness of body, I suddenly found myself humming the marvelous aria from Handel's Messiah: Come Unto Him, All Ye that Labor.

Well, I trust that if you overdo your labors this spring, as I have recently done, you will find rest for the weary.

Come unto me, all ye that labor...and I will give you rest.
Matthew 11:28

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

It's Official

I don't mean to brag--honestly, I don't. Before I tell you my small story, you need a bit of background about me.

When my husband and I planned a church retreat some years ago, we settled on an introduction to Myers-Briggs personality typing. It was fascinating.

I have previously written about my personality type--here--which turned out to be INTJ.
Now, I will spare you the arcane aspects of personality typing right now, should know that the slogan for my personality type is--INTJs can improve anything; just ask.

So, I am constantly thinking about how things can be nudged into being just a bit better.
Our friends (and maybe even our children) recognize this trait in me. More than a decade ago, one of our friends gave me a button that read "I Thought I Was Wrong Once...But I Was Mistaken."

That about sums it up.
(And I hate to be wrong...ahem...but I'm working on that.)

Anyhow--now for the little story. I was looking on Google Maps the other day--looking for a store name. We have a cute little shopping center nearby us, called Shoppes at Susquehanna. When I got to the coordinates on Google Maps--nothing. No mention of that shopping center. What? It's been there at least 5 years. Then, I noticed--Google Maps lets you send them a message if they got something wrong.

Heh heh heh. So, off I sent a message. Then a couple of days ago, I got an answer.

TADA! "Your Google Maps report has been reviewed, and you were right!"
So, it's official.

Even Google Maps acknowledges that I am right.
Now, back to being humble.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

At a Loss for Words

I realize I have been silent for more than a week. While I don't post as frequently as when I first began blogging (who does?) I do try to think of something to say once or twice a week. But this week--no.

Well, I have been a touch distracted with a major renovation project in our house. Not that I am doing the work, mind. But, we finally decided to have our two bathrooms overhauled. So, what with the banging of hammers, the squeal of power saws, the garage turned over to work space, and ever present dust in the air, my thoughts have been stymied. Add to that my utter perplexment (is that a word?) over the current budget "debate" and I think you'll forgive my silence.

So, the federal budget. That's a thought stopper, isn't it. Maybe my thinking has been also been somewhat inhibited by the radio that the workmen who are redoing our bathrooms listen to. They actually have Rush Limbaugh on the whole day. OK, not the whole day--it just seems like it.

Back to the federal budget. I am not an economist, but let me put it to you this way. Say you earn $50,000 a year. Go ahead--say it. Now, say your boss tells you he is going to cut your salary to $25,000 a year, BUT the bills you have to pay stay at exactly the same level, or maybe even go up a bit. Would you have a budget crisis?

That is a bit like our country's situation. I know this is oversimplification, but we have cut our income. The tax reductions that President Bush touted for 10 years now seem to have become permanent. And when you cut salary, but still have bills to pay, you will suffer a financial shortfall.

One party in Congress is jumping up and down yelling--it's not that we don't have enough money; it's that we spend too much. So, we have to cut down our spending. What puts me at a loss for words is that--as a country--we seem to be buying this argument.

Let me point you in the direction of someone who has more skill expressing this point than I--Matt Taibbi has a
wonderful opinion piece in the current issue of Rolling Stone (thank you, Carol, for referring it to me). Taibbi concludes, in reference to Paul Ryan (the congressman proposing the Republicans' spending plan) that "Ryan’s gambit, ultimately, is all about trying to get middle-class voters to swallow paying for tax cuts for rich people."

What makes this current push even more breathtakingly brazen is underscored by a current piece in Vanity Fair. This
article points out that the disparity in income gap between the top 1 % in this country and the other 99 % has widened. The top one percent takes in one quarter of all the income in the U.S. and controls 40% of all wealth. The article points out ominously that:
"Some people look at income inequality and shrug their shoulders. So what if this person gains and that person loses? What matters, they argue, is not how the pie is divided but the size of the pie. That argument is fundamentally wrong. An economy in which most citizens are doing worse year after year—an economy like America’s—is not likely to do well over the long haul."
The article goes on to enumerate why this income disparity is bad for the country's economy. So, how does the budget crisis link to income disparity in the U.S. It links directly because those programs that are on the chopping block are precisely the ones that benefit low income Americans.

I don't know about you, but that cold-hearted approach leaves me at a loss for words. How have we arrived at this place--where political leaders convince us that the rich should become richer, that the poor are the cause of all our financial woes?