Last chance drive…

By Mark Marchand

“Church closed. Keep praying.”

The sign on the front lawn of the Pittsford Congregational Church UCC in Pittsford, Vermont said it all. As the pandemic expands, social distancing is a must, more gathering places are closed—but keep the faith. So few words, but so much meaning.

I glimpsed the sign driving north March 18 on U.S. Route 7 during a solo, mental-health sojourn through Vermont to the Canadian border and then south toward home through Upstate New York. I needed a change of scenery and succumbed to my persistent wanderlust to drive somewhere without any purpose or destination. And it was a beautiful day—in stark contrast to the turmoil surrounding us as we fight an invisible enemy.

When I spotted the sign driving past the church, I quickly found a place to turn around. I wanted a picture. I parked and another car pulled up behind me. A woman emerged. Congregation member Nicha McCuin walked up and greeted me warmly, while keeping a safe distance. I explained why I stopped. She was there for a different reason: Updating the sign to indicate the closing was because of the virus.

“I’m not sure I need to do that, though, because I think everyone knows by now all of these closings are because of the virus, right?” I agreed. We chatted for a few more minutes. She lamented the speed with which the world changed.

“Just a week ago we were making plans for future events. Now everything has changed so quickly. I don’t know when we’ll re-open.” We engaged in a mutual head shake. She walked to the church building. I took a few more pictures and sauntered back to my car.

Pittsford, Vt. church 2The front lawn of the Pittsford Congregational Church UCC in Pittsford Vermont

During my drive through rural Vermont I planned for little personal contact and expected panic, deserted streets, and xenophobia toward a car with plates from New York. We were now the state with the most COVID-19 infections. I was in for a surprise. For several miles before Pittsford, workers in lime-green vests walked both sides of the road picking up trash. I spotted a “Litter Patrol” sign. How bad could things be, I thought to myself, if workers were still picking up litter?

I stopped at a convenience store to use the restroom. I walked in prepared to buy candy bars and soda so I could be allowed restroom access. The clerk didn’t even look at me. I used the bathroom. I still bought a package of cupcakes and a Coke on my way out. The clerk smiled. I walked out in a daze. I began wondering: How long would this last before everyone was ordered to stay home? I sanitized my hands before resuming my drive.

***

Farther north, I stopped to stretch my legs in Burlington, Vermont’s largest city. It was a little grittier than I remembered. The waterfront along Lake Champlain—normally a popular gathering spot during nice weather—was nearly deserted. I pressed north. Nearing Canada, I angled west to cross several bridges across Champlain into Rouses Point, New York. I texted a photo to a friend, showing the sign for the border. He texted back, “Make a break for it.” I declined and stopped to eat my prepacked sandwich and to rest.

South along Route 9 and into Plattsburgh at the northern edge of the Adirondack Mountains I grew tired and lost patience with slow traffic. I headed to I-87 southbound and sped toward home in Saratoga County. During stops, I kept reading more bad news on my phone so I just wanted to be home.

It was on the interstate that the mildly good mood I acquired in Vermont disappeared. Fast. For over 50 miles on the major two-lane highway I didn’t see one other car. I only saw six tractor trailers. To my left, dozens of cars were heading north. I had read earlier that the U.S.-Canada border would close soon. I let my imagination get the best of me. Were those northbound drivers fleeing the country before the closure and the only other traffic allowed southbound was supply transport? My stomach was a mess. Finally, as I neared Lake George Village, more cars appeared but the feeling of uneasiness remained.

Some 40 miles north of home, Bruce Springsteen’s famous post-9/11 song “The Rising” poured from the radio. I screamed along with the words, hope surging through my veins as it did when I first heard the tune 18 years ago. And then the tears came. I cried for the situation we were in. I cried for our country. And I cried over the possibility of my wife and I not seeing our grown sons again soon. The episode lasted but a few minutes, but it allowed my bottled up, wildly gyrating emotions to escape.

I pressed on for home. We needed to make dinner plans.

 

 

The Opioid Crisis: Words Matter

By Mark Marchand

Words and language are powerful tools at our disposal. That’s why I’ve spent a fair amount of my life writing, reading, teaching, and studying our amazing English language. Coupled with multiple platforms we use to exchange words – ranging from print to social media to the internet itself – we swap ideas, information, thoughts, multi-media and so many other forms of communication instantly and effectively. It’s an amazing world, and we have all benefited.

But there can be some downsides. The language we use to describe and discuss the opioid crisis is one example. Last year I had the good fortune to spend time with some terrific scientists who have trained their research efforts on the language all of us use when discussing the crisis. Their results show us that words do matter. The wrong words and phrases can lead to stigma, and public “shaming” of victims. This, then, creates widespread misunderstanding of the problem and stands in the way of better public policy and more effective treatment for those suffering from opioid use disorder. BTW – that’s the phrase researchers suggest we use to describe patients dealing with addiction to opioids.

One researcher in particular stood out. Her name is Emma Beth McGinty Ph.D., a scientist at Johns Hopkins University. I was so impressed with her work and that of others, I crafted an Op Ed commentary on the subject, which ran this week in the Times-Union daily newspaper in Albany, N.Y. If the embedded link above doesn’t work, here’s a full URL:

https://www.timesunion.com/opinion/article/Commentary-How-we-talk-about-opioid-crisis-15121333.php

 

 

 

Beware the Broken Heart

By Mark Marchand

There is such a thing as broken heart syndrome.

This realization followed a recent New York State Writers Institute event featuring cardiac expert Sandeep Jauhar, M.D., Ph.D. I enjoy listening to and talking with scientists and doctors who have a knack for helping the masses understand science and medicine. I wasn’t disappointed by Jauhar’s talk. I came away with new appreciation for an organ so complex that it was the last holdout for organs that could be surgically repaired. For centuries, doctors found ways to operate on almost every organ in the human body—except the live heart. Stitching or cutting a tough, constantly moving and electrically stimulated muscle with a network of chambers wasn’t even attempted until the late 19th century. In 1893 Daniel Williams of Howard University surgically repaired the heart of a man dying from a knife wound. Two months after the stabbing, the patient walked out of the hospital and lived a normal life. The march toward the last frontier of lifesaving organ surgery was on.

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Dr. Jauhar, left, talks with New York State Writers Institute Assistant Director Mark Koplik

Jauhar’s new book “Heart: A History,” is filled with fascinating information about the heart—some good, and some scary—that underscores the importance of the muscular organ. Consider this: From birth to death the human heart beats about three billion times. Each heartbeat generates enough force to push blood through about 100,000 miles of vessels. And the amount of blood that passes through an average adult heart in one week could fill a swimming pool. Some bad news: Cardiovascular disease claims 18 million lives annually, earning a place as the No. 1 cause of death in America.

Jauhar became fascinated with the human heart growing up in his native India. His paternal grandfather died of a sudden heart attack at age 57, 15 years before Jauhar was born. The suddenness of the death and accompanying decades of grief became part of family lore and fueled an obsession that eventually led Jauhar to a lifetime of studying and practicing heart medicine. So many causes of death, he says, play out over time, such as cancer and Parkinsons. Not so with heart attacks, which swoop in and rob a family of a loved one in an instant. In his book, he says, “…I grew up with a fear of the heart as the executioner of men in the prime of their lives. Because of the heart, you could be healthy and still die; it seemed like such a cheat.”

Jauhar recalls lying on his bed growing up, watching the revolutions of a ceiling fan while listening to the thudding of his heart. “I’d adjust the speed of the ceiling fan to synchronize with my heartbeat, in thrall to the two competing oscillators, so grateful that mine never took a rest.”

So what about that broken heart? Jauhar loves to talk about two hearts: the biological, never-resting organ and the metaphorical heart—the center of humanness that for centuries was viewed as the core of our bodies. The metaphorical heart encompasses love, depression, a soul, character, fear, courage, and so many other aspects of our lives relating to who we are and how we live. That heart inspired poets, painters, and writers. Of course, we now know that’s not physically true, Jahaur says, but, “…we nevertheless continue to subscribe to the heart’s symbolic connotations.”

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Dr. Jauhar, during his Writers Institute talk at UAlbany

Along with other heart failure specialists at Long Island Jewish Medical center, Jauhar has focused on empirical connections between the biological and metaphorical organs, especially the impact of sudden, severe stress on an otherwise healthy heart. It has a medical name: takotsubo cardiomyopathy. The word takotsubo comes from the name of a vase-shaped Japanese octopus trap. The name was chosen because sudden stress causes the left ventricle of a heart to change shape, resembling the trap. The changing form and enlargement of that heart chamber rapidly degrade heart performance. Thus, the condition results from the close intersection of the metaphorical heart with the biological one.

Jauhar says the primary mechanism for sudden cardiac arrest in someone experiencing intense emotional disturbance lies in the human autonomic nervous system, which regulates unconscious movements like heartbeat and breathing. Within that system are two divisions. The first, sympathetic, is responsible for reactions like the rising heart rate and blood pressure of “fight or flight.” The second, the parasympathetic system, has the opposite effect of slowing respiration and heartbeat. What Jauhar and others have learned over the past several decades is that intense stress causes an autonomic “storm” on the heart, emerging from the sympathetic and parasympathetic components. The result—whether it’s caused by a sudden release of adrenaline or longer-term grief—leads to cardiac events in the wake of the patient learning of a sudden death, the end of a close relationship, or another type of emotional loss or fear. In one year studied by researchers, Jauhar explains, there were 22,000 U.S. patients documented with takotsubo. These cases were traced to events ranging from widespread, destructive weather events like tornadoes and hurricanes to emotional upsets.

The link exists and heart doctors like Jauhar say they need to focus on understanding or simply recognizing patients’ emotional states, stresses, worries, and fears. “Stress management is clearly associated with a reduction in heart problems,” he told his Writers Institute audience. “It affects survival more than most realize.”

Beware the broken heart. Learn to better manage stress or your reaction to sudden fright. Your life just might depend on it.

Drawing Inspiration From a Very Old Autobiography to Tell the ‘Superbug’ Story

By Mark Marchand

Really good writers who can explain complex scientific or medical topics are rare.

Scientists and/or physicians who are really good writers are even rarer.

Ever since Columbia University physician, biologist and oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee crafted the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,”  I’ve been on the lookout for the next breakout scientist/physician who could help us learn more about the science of our world.

Thanks to the New York State Writers Institute and the University at Albany’s RNA Institute, I recently discovered another gem. Meet Matt McCarthy, MD. He’s a staff physician (hospitalist) at New York Presbyterian Hospital and an assistant professor of medicine at Manhattan’s Weill Cornell, a leading medical and graduate school. He recently visited the Writers Institute at the University at Albany to talk about his craft and his new book: Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic.” It’s a scary, detailed look at the battle against new antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

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Dr. Matt McCarthy during his talk at the University at Albany

Like Mukherjee, who drew on his early days at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute, McCarthy delves into his work with patients at Presbyterian and medical college students to apply a personal touch in telling his story about the search for new treatments. I haven’t finished his new book yet, but the afternoon and evening he spent with audiences here in Albany revealed a lot about how and why a busy doctor and medical college teacher came to devote so much time to sharing his story.

I have always been fascinated about the creative process and the spark that launches a creative endeavor. Artists like Norman Rockwell and the song-writing duo of Lennon/McCartney are two that drew my recent interest.  I wasn’t disappointed with McCarthy’s story.

His decision to begin writing can be traced back to his days at Yale University and his short career as a college and minor league pitcher. Yes, he pitched in the minors and even wrote a book about it…but more on that in a bit. The lifetime musings of a famous statesman and inventor who helped found our republic kick-started McCarthy’s desire to read and then write, as he began his final year at Yale.

“The book that really changed it for me was the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,” he explained. “Until then, I thought he was just a boring old fart. He proved to be a really provocative and interesting guy who wrote about his life in a unique way. For me, that was the first real American memoir and I’ve been fascinated with American memoirs ever since. I also started taking some survey courses (at Yale) on 19th and 20th century literature.”

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After graduating from college, the left-handed McCarthy was drafted and began his minor league pitching career at the Provo, Utah, affiliate of the Anaheim (now Los Angeles) Angels. It was there, on long bus trips through Utah, Montana, Idaho and elsewhere, that his love of reading memoirs and novels grew.

“I got that list of 100 greatest novels of the 21st century and just started reading them,” he says. “There wasn’t a lot to do, so I read a lot.” McCarthy realized during his second year in the minors that he probably wouldn’t have a successful career on the baseball diamond. He decided to return to school and started along the path to become a doctor at Harvard Medical School. But he never forgot his experience in Provo or his newfound interest in reading and, now, writing—especially memoirs. In 2009, he published his first book, a successful, revealing memoir on his baseball career: “Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit.

Memoirs continue to fascinate him. “A memoir can give you something no one else has…the writer’s story. It could be some random person, but if it’s well done it’s interesting.”

As he moved through medical school, internship and residency, McCarthy remained fascinated with reading and telling “a story” through his writing. McCarthy’s approach also continued to evolve. When he started work on his newest book, he wanted to write the history of antibiotics, but decided it had already been done. Instead, he approached the topic by telling the stories of his patients at New York Presbyterian. The result is a unique look at an epidemic through the eyes of McCarthy, an infectious disease specialist, and his patients, some of whom were facing death. e also began to adapt some of what he learned in the writing world to working with patients. Today, when he finds himself talking to a difficult, upset patient, he often steps back and employs a literary approach.

“I remove myself from the situation for a few minutes and think of the patient as a sort of character in a book,” he says. “I ask myself, ‘What is the back story here? Why are they angry?’ ” The end result, he says, is a better understanding of the patient’s reason for frustration.

McCarthy also pushes writing as a creative means for medical students and physicians to cope with long hours and difficult medical situations. “As I have found, it’s a terrific way to handle the stress we face each day.”

***

I have just started to read McCarthy’s new book. I’m looking forward to learning more about how we ended up in a situation where highly effective drugs, like the battery of antibiotics developed in the 20th century, are increasingly ineffective against bacteria that have developed resistance. McCarthy takes us into the hospital and labs where he is involved in the clinical trial of a groundbreaking new drug that might have one of the answers.

Our current situation, he explains, is partially the result of over-prescription of antibiotics—especially for illness rooted in viruses, against which antibiotics are ineffective. It’s also the result of decisions by pharmaceutical companies to avoid pursuing new antibiotics in favor of other drugs that will provide steadier income streams because patients take them every day.

“But I want to make sure readers know I adopted a very hopeful approach in writing this book,” he says. “There is hope on the horizon.”

McCarthy says one source for new classes of drugs that could fight drug-resistant bacteria is in the soil around us. The ground contains thousands of microbes that many scientists believe could help us. The problem is the time and resources needed to test them.

The next time I turn over some dirt with a shovel in my backyard I might ask myself: “Is there a microbe here that could kill MRSA?”

The 50th Anniversary of Landing on the Moon – A Personal Reflection

By Mark Marchand

It’s been a half century since we landed on the Moon. It was an important moment in my life and, I suspect, for millions of others. I have spent years studying the nine-year NASA program, leading up to the Apollo 11 landing on July 20, 1969. During that time, I have read hundreds of historical records, books, and other accounts of this amazing achievement for humankind, attempting to find some sort of personal meaning. I wrote about it in this Op Ed published last weekend in the Times-Union daily newspaper in Albany, N.Y. If you get the time, leave a comment and tell me what it meant for you and where you were when it happened

Commentary in Times-Union of Albany, N.Y.

Fort Myers, Florida: More Than Just a Home for MLB Spring Training

By Mark Marchand

(Cover photo: Thomas Edison’s winter home in Fort Myers. Credit: author)

For years, I’ve been visiting Fort Meyers, Florida and the surrounding area in March, spending time watching my Boston Red Sox get ready for another campaign up north. This Southwest Florida city and the surrounding area is a terrific destination for a late-winter recreational sojourn. And it’s filled with with attractions that go well beyond the spring training homes of the Red Sox and Minnesota Twins. From nature/wildlife preserves to historical sites, there’s more than enough here to satisfy even those visitors who aren’t fans of America’s pastime. And of course there are plenty of beaches.

I recently wrote about the area for a new online travel publication called The Commoner Magazine. They posted my article at the link below. If you’re interested in potential future places to visit for vacations or road trips, make sure to bookmark the homepage for the site. They are constantly publishing great new stories on travel. Happy trails.

As always, feel free to leave comments or ask questions. I can be reached at markmarchand56@gmail.com

https://www.thecommonermagazine.com/a-baseball-fans-guide-to-fort-myers/

 

 

The creative link between science writing and art: the ‘story’

By Mark Marchand

Whether communicating about the complex world of science or using art to illustrate life in America, the “story” is what matters.

The connection between two vastly different worlds struck me a few weeks ago as award-winning science journalist  Ed Yong stood before a University at Albany audience. As he shared with listeners his approach to selecting topics and then writing articles about 21st century science, the slide he projected behind him spoke volumes: “Stories Matter.” In a world bursting at the seams with scientific data and research results, The Atlantic magazine writer argued, any journalist attempting to gain eyeballs as he/she explains a scientific topic needs to appeal to the basic curiosity of the masses through simple and effective story telling.

The author should endeavor, he added, to “Get people to care about things they wouldn’t otherwise care about.”

Science journalist Ed Yong discusses his craft at the University at Albany (courtesy of The RNA Institute at UAlbany)

A month earlier, I visited the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. During a day spent gazing at the famed illustrator’s 323 Saturday Evening Post cover paintings and other original works of art that help tell the story of 20th century American life, I listened to Rockwell himself explain his approach to painting. In a video recorded shortly before his death in 1978, he said: “I love to tell stories in pictures. The story is the first thing and the last thing.” I blogged about it.

As a lifelong student of the creative process—from music to writing to art—I had within the span of four weeks had some of my long-held beliefs about that process upheld by two immensely different but talented individuals. Embed a simple story into whatever you’re crafting and, whatever your message is,  people will be drawn to it.

Yong’s Book: We. Are. Microbes

Well, maybe about half of us, according to Yong, who appeared at UAlbany Feb. 19 as part of the New York State Writers Institute spring 2019 series. It’s a well-known fact that the human body is made up of millions of living cells, composing structures ranging from our brains to our bones. But that’s only half the story.

In his book “I Contain Multitudes – The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life,” Yong tells us the rest of the story. Beyond those living, pulsing cells lives a collection of trillions of tiny microbes that make up the rest of our bodies. These tiny bacteria, viruses and other organisms chugged along for millennia, out of sight and without recognition for the role they play in our lives. They finally achieved some recognition, Yong told his Albany audience, when Dutch microscope maker Anton Van Leeuwenhoek discovered their presence in the 1600s. A few centuries later, scientists including Louis Pasteur discovered their role in causing illnesses. This 19th-century development of the “germ theory,” however, gave microbes a bad name because they were associated with making us sick.

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Yong discusses his book at UAlbany

Later, 20th century scientists delved deeper into the microbial world and found that microbes are constantly everywhere in our bodies, and they in fact perform useful functions that help us thrive. Over 400 species of microbes live in the human gut, for example, and aid processes like digestion. They work in sync with our cells, and we should be thankful for them.

Yong’s regular stream of articles contain similar revelations. Readers of his recently learned: Why do zebras have stripes? (follow the flies…), giraffes are close to extinction, sharks can live to 400, we’re the only animals with chins, and one of my personal favorites..how wasps use viruses to genetically engineer caterpillars.

Yong stressed that the scientific and science writing community should hold each other accountable. On the day he appeared in Albany, for example, he published a piece to help clarify a wave of science headlines and social media posts predicting impending doom for the insect population across the world. He argued that while there was some validity to the claims, “it was complicated” and they were based on very limited research.

“And if insects do die out within a century that will mean the planet has become inhospitable to all life,” he concluded.

Focusing on the “how” and Leonardo

Despite Yong’s explanations of his science writing approach at UAlbany’s D’Ambra Auditorium, students, staffers, faculty and others continued to press him to further describe his process. Finally, he answered with:

“I’m almost always led by curiosity—if something makes me go ‘huh,’ I can also convey that sense to a reader.”

Yong’s process is not that far from one aspect of the Leonardo da Vinci described in Walter Issaacson’s biography of the 15-century polymath responsible for paintings like the Mona Lisa and the early scientific foundations behind manned flight. As he drew near the end of the story of da Vinci’s life, Isaacson wrote a section called, “Learning from Leonardo.” The first heading in this segment is titled: “Be curious, relentlessly curious.”

Isaacson wrote further, “…his distinguishing and most inspiring trait was his intense curiosity. He wanted to know what causes people to yawn, how they walk over ice in Flanders (northern Belgium), methods for squaring a circle, what makes the aortic valve close, how light is processed in the eye, and what that means for the perspective in a painting.”

That’s not a bad trait to emulate, and it’s writers like Yong and artists like Rockwell who help us stay curious about the world around us.

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Blog author (left) with Yong after his talk at UAlbany