Diseases in history

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John Snow's map of cholera cases

I had a fabulous pair of books as a kid, Earthsearch and Explorabook, that introduced me to magnetism, light rays, bacteria, optical illusions, and all sorts of other cool stuff. One of the most memorable sections was about John Snow, a nineteen-century British physician. During the 1854 cholera outbreak in London, Snow mapped out the occurrences of infections and found they all centered around a water pump, leading him to believe contaminated water was the cause of the disease. He convinced officials to break off the handle of the pump, which effectively ended the outbreak. Now snow is regarded as one of the fathers of epidemiology.

In a 2008 book, Irwin Sherman names cholera as one of the twelve diseases that have changed the course of human history. Some of the diseases he picks are important not only for the devastation they’ve caused, but also for the innovations that have led to their treatment. For instance, the fight against tuberculosis promoted the use of pasteurization and the search for antibiotics. Likewise, the science of vaccination was developed to combat smallpox.

Mad King George

Other diseases are important for their sociopolitical effects, such as the genetic blood disorders of hemophilia and porphyria. Due to incestuous bloodlines, the Russian Romanov dynasty and Spanish royal families were overcome by hemophilia and died out. The Bolsheviks rose in Russia, and Francisco Franco took over Spain. Meanwhile, many British monarchs suffered from Porphyria, also known as the Vampire Disease, which can have neurological complications as well as the physical symptoms that gave rise to vampiric stereotypes (pronounced teeth, skin sensitivity to sunlight, an aversion to garlic). King George III was retroactively diagnosed with porphyria, which may explain his mental illness and the reason why he lost control over the New World.

Epidemics are often caused by the movement of people and introduction of foreign flora and fauna to new environments. Thus, there is cause for concern with the ever increasing globalization of trade and the ease of foreign travel in the present day. However, we have also become ever more adept at treating outbreaks, at least in the developed world. Epidemics now seem to highlight the divide between first and third world countries. After the hurricane in Haiti, almost 5,000 people died from cholera due to poor sanitation–a problem that is both preventable and treatable. Though the sociopolitical implications change over time, disease will continue to shape our history and future.

Doctoring without borders

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This title is taken, of course, from the very fine organization Médecins Sans Frontières, known as Doctors Without Borders in English. It, like the Red Cross, has made its mission to serve those who would not otherwise have access to medical care. And though these are two of the largest health-based organizations, there are certainly many hundreds more than do just as important work. Medicine has the capacity to bring out the incredibly philanthropic nature of humans, such in the case of two brothers, Milton and Fred Ochieng. They were raised in a small village in Kenya, and were sent to Dartmouth by their community. Their dream was to return equipped to make their village of Lwala a better place.

I won’t ruin the rest. Check out their amazing story on this ABC news special or at their website lwalacommunityalliance.org:


Doctors on TV

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Even though I have been a squeamish person most of my life, one of my favorite shows for about a decade was ER. I still remember the first show my parents and I watched, where someone lost part of his finger in an ice chest packed with fish. And over the years we tuned in to NBC every Thursday at 9 pm to watch a young(ish) George Clooney smirk his way to stardom and our beloved Dr. Mark Greene battle brain cancer.

It’s apparent why shows about doctors are perennial hits–life and death dramas occur daily in hospital rooms. I know real-life doctors who refuse to watch these shows (“After a day in surgery, do I really want to be entertained by watching more surgery?”), but I also know med school students who’ve been excited by solving medical mysteries on House before Dr. House himself gets around to the answer.

Who are your favorite TV doctors?

Drs. Greene and Ross:

Drs. JD and Turk:

Dr. House:

How to be a doctor


What you’ll need: steady hands, bedside manner

Songlist: Surgeon by St. Vincent, Dr. Robert by the Beatles

Further reading: Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, Gray’s Anatomy by Gray

Last night I had a dream I was failing my med school quiz.

This is a little strange because (a) I’m not in med school and never plan to be (b) I’m not stressed about any other tests in my life and (c) to answer the questions I had to color the number of squares that corresponded with the right answer in a bar graph on a piece of felt.

Let’s go back to (a). I have no interest in being a doctor now, but I did when I was a kid (have you noticed a theme to this blog?) My paternal grandfather is an immunologist and used to teach at Albany Medical School. My maternal grandmother was a nurse. My maternal grandfather was a surgeon with a private practice in New York who operated on the likes of Sean Connery, Elizabeth Taylor, and Jackie O. It’s not surprising, then, that medicine seemed almost destined for me.

My maternal grandfather had a knee replacement surgery when I was about five, and came to visit us at Christmas right afterward. He brought the tape of his surgery with him. I have a vivid memory of the two of us sitting around the TV watching the footage of his surgery, him explaining the different parts of his knee that were being revealed. I remember being fascinated. I also remember my brother standing just out of view of the television and only sneaking a peek when we told him the surgeons’ heads were obscuring my grandfather’s open knee.

I don’t remember when I became squeamish. Perhaps it was when I had a long illness that the doctors couldn’t diagnose, and thus had to get my blood drawn week after week so they could run more tests. Perhaps it was when my best childhood friend split her own knee open and the blood was right in front of me. Whatever the cause, I became irreversibly hemophobic (not to be confused with homophobic).

I think my grandparents would have been proud of me for following in their shoes. On the other hand, I have many friends in med school right now, and I must admit I don’t envy their Facebook statuses about cadavers and sleepless rotations. And I certainly don’t envy those weird quizzes they have to take–coloring in bar graphs on felt? No thank you.

House gurus

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When I read Eat, Pray, Love, I was struck by Elizabeth Gilbert’s decision to find a guru and go seek out her ashram in India.

Though I’d done yoga moderately throughout my life, I never quite understood the commitment that goes with true practice. When my uncle was learning yoga he travelled to India to study with an acclaimed guru–a prerequisite at the time for becoming a teacher yourself. I didn’t think I wanted to be a yoga teacher though, so it never occurred to me to book a ticket to India.

A yoga ashram in upstate, NY

It is easy in the United States these days to find teacher trainings in any major city, just as it is easy to find a yoga retreat center in a beautiful location. Yoga Journal, that behemoth of all things yoga, lists six destinations that “offer visitors accessible, affordable, and rewarding retreats–not just for serious seekers anymore.”

The search for a guru–an earthbound individual who can provide spiritual guidance from a higher plane–seems to defy the mass-marketed appeal of what yoga has come to mean in the United States. Certainly anyone can make that search, just as anyone can achieve the status of guru (I, in fact, won the title of House Guru at my sorority, for which my job duties included sharing pieces of wisdom and making sisters laugh at our meetings). Of course, the attainment of guru status requires a specific lifestyle, discipline, philosophy, and attitude, yet it is not so rarefied as being a religious savior. Perhaps that is why some of us seek out gurus, in different shapes and guises–they are people who may be closer to enlightenment, yet they are still human. As much as we might long for the mystical, it is through the teachings of other humans that we know what we are capable of.

Yoga is for posers

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When I was a kid I had a book of yoga postures for children and loved to page through it, trying out my favorites: archer pose (in which your foot touches your ear as if you were drawing an arrow), eagle pose, and the one where you got to walk around on your knees. The only thing I didn’t like about the book was that it disabused me of the idea that I’d created my own pose–I was sorely disappointed when I came across the shoulder stand pose, photographed and documented.

Following are some of my favorite poses, done by people in beautiful locations. Let’s start with Eagle:

yoga eagle poseTree Pose:

yoga tree poseWarrior Pose:

yoga warrior poseSide Angle Pose:

Dancer Pose:

yoga dancer poseKing Pigeon Pose:

yoga pigeon poseAnnnnd, Shoulder Stand, the pose I once invented:

yoga shoulder stand pose

Partner yoga dance fusion

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I recently heard a complaint that in America every yoga class now has to be some sort of “fusion”–though yoga on its own seemed to work fine for a few thousand years, now students are looking for something new every other month. Aerial yoga, yogilates, booty ballet, tribal fusion–now yoga will never get boring! (Unlike that totally dull meditation stuff).

But every once in a while, fusion can lead to an incredible new form. My yoga teacher from Spain, a Facebook friend, recently posted this video. UH-mazing:

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