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:

How to be a yogi

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What you’ll need: yoga mat, bendy limbs

Songlist: Faith Hill’s BreatheTwist and Shout by the Beatles

Further reading: The Yamas and Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice by Deborah Adele, or, ya know, Eat, Pray, Love

I was always “different” as a kid. My parents stopped eating meat while living in Morocco for the Peace Corps and raised my brother and me as vegetarians. My friends would give up meat for Lent to see what it was like, and complain after a few days, wondering how I didn’t have constant cravings for burgers (hint: it’s easy if you’ve never had one). Furthermore, one of my hobbies was doing yoga, a strange-sounding practice that no one had heard of in 1993 in my elementary school (“But I thought you were Christian?” they’d say in confusion).

My uncle spent several years living at Kripalu, a yoga center in Massachusetts, learning and then teaching yoga. We visited him often, and sometimes took classes there as well. In a photo album from 1990, my uncle is in a picture-perfect downward dog, while I, all of four years old, am doing my best to imitate the pose next to him.

By the time I got to college, yoga was no longer a foreign concept, but I had become a stranger to it: I hadn’t practiced in a decade. Luckily, my college had a PE requirement, which could be fulfilled in numerous exciting ways: white-water kayaking, snowboarding, and yoga. I chose all of the above.

I became so enamored of it that the summer after I graduated I got an unlimited pass to a nearby chain-yoga-studio, CorePower. True to its mass-produced nature, every class I took had the exact same sequence of poses. From June to August I appreciated this fact, always knowing what was coming next, and realizing when I could go deeper in a pose than I’d been able to before. By September I was bored. And then I moved to Spain.

The author, at far right, doing yoga in the mountains

Somehow I got lucky enough not only to be placed in a town with a yoga instructor, but also to move in to an apartment directly across the street from where that yoga instructor taught her classes. Every Wednesday afternoon my roommate and I would stroll across to the centuries-old monastery and do an hour or so of yoga, led both in English and Spanish (I learned the words for body parts in Spanish really quickly). In the springtime our teacher–who had become one of our closest friends–drove us out to the Spanish countryside and we would do yoga in the mountains or facing up at our gorgeous white town.

Now back in the United States, I haven’t yet found an analogous class. In Spain there were rarely more than about five or six students, so our teacher shaped the class to our capabilities. She knew what we struggled with, and what we were getting better at. I certainly never got bored.

I’ve gone to CorePower a few times since returning, but sometimes I notice myself getting competitive, glancing around to assure myself that my leg is higher or my back straighter than my neighbors’. But, of course, yoga is not about competition, and it’s not only about the body. The original intent of yogic practices was to attain spiritual insight and inner balance. And while balance is difficult to find in the midst of a packed schedule and an even more crowded yoga studio, it is certainly attainable in the mountains of Spain. Yoga retreat, anyone?

DIY: make your kitchen raw-friendly

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Your oven will become a storage unit for over-sized pans, your microwave just a way for young boys to melt plastic soldiers, á la Bart Simpson. As they say, if you can’t handle the heat, make your kitchen raw friendly.

Raw, in fact, refers to foods that have not been warmed above 104 degrees Fahrenheit, as that’s the temperature at which enzymes start to break down. Thus, you are still allowed to warm your food in moderation. A dehydrator is a key tool for raw foodists, as you can set it to 104 degrees and leave it for hours to dry your chopped pine nuts into some semblance of parmesan cheese.

You’ll need to do a lot of chopping and blending to get all these vegetables and nuts into edible chunks, so sharp knives and a blender are key (go with a Vita Mix–a blender on Speed–to blend tough nuts). (And, since we’re talking about chopping, invest in a Mandoline, which cuts vegetables in thin, equal strips–aesthetics are a must).

Tools aren’t the only key change. The other change in a raw food diet is–you guessed it–the food (you’d better have guessed it; it’s right in the name).

You’ll need fruits and vegetables–that part’s pretty obvious. Nuts and seeds are important to get proteins into your diet that might be lost through cutting out meat. But there are some rarer items that you’ll see frequently in raw food recipes.

When raw foodists get a sweet tooth they turn to such natural sweeteners as agave nectar and yacon syrup. Agave nectar comes from the same beautiful cactus that gives us tequila, so don’t get those two mixed up when you’re making cookies for your kid’s birthday. Yacon syrup comes from an ugly brown root found in South America. Delicious on pancakes.

Seaweed salad: not everyone's idea of a great time

One other food group you might have to get on good terms with is the family of sea vegetables. Now, I’m a person who likes vegetables, so the idea of “sea vegetables” conjures up some vague, happy image of eating salad by the ocean. But “sea vegetables” cover the category more commonly known as seaweed, a term which replaces my happy ocean-salad image with the dark murk that covers the bottoms of Minnesota lakes and brushes up against your legs ominously if you go in too deep. Seaweed comes in many edible forms, from the nori used to wrap sushi to kelp which I add when I’m cooking black beans to add flavorful saltiness.

Though it may seem like an arduous task if you’re transitioning over from a full omnivore’s kitchen to the pared-down raw food version, there are plenty of benefits to doing so. Most raw foodists say they have better health and more energy due to their diet, and have no regrets about the switch. For those of you about to do it yourself: Good bite, and good luck.

How to be a raw food chef

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What you’ll need: Sharp knives, agave nectar

Songlist: Vegetable Man by Pink Floyd, Save the Bones for Henry Jones (‘Cause Henry Don’t Eat No Meat) by Johnny Mercer with Nat King Cole

Further reading: Raw Food Real World by Matthew Kenney and Sarma Melngailis

You are what you eat

It is blazingly hot in Minnesota, mere weeks after being bitterly cold. It’s the kind of weather that doesn’t make a person want to open the oven or turn on a burner for dinner. It’s the kind of weather that I bring down my favorite cook book, Raw Food Real World.

Sarma, one of the authors of this book, runs an incredible raw food restaurant in New York City called pure food and wine. Dining there with my brother and parents exactly three years ago was one of the best gastronomical experiences of my life.

I planned to spend the entire summer of 2008 trying out recipes from the book–the grapefruit-avocado-fennel salad, the red beet ravioli, the quinoa tabouli.

My first culinary attempt was the watermelon-tomato gazpacho. This recipe includes nine fruits and vegetables to chop up, but really no additional preparation. I figured I would finish the gazpacho midday and leave it in the refrigerator to chill until dinnertime. I started chopping at noon, and was still chopping at 5 pm. By the time I was done, I was so exhausted I’d lost my appetite.

I learned that I am a laughably slow chopper while working in a kitchen for a Wyoming dude ranch. I would be given a task of cutting up lettuce, say, and when I went back to the chef for a new assignment an hour later I would realize that everyone else had moved on to making the dessert course.

This seemed to pose a problem if I wanted to be a raw food chef: since there is no sauteing or baking or broiling or roasting involved, all the preparation is chopping up fruits and vegetables.

Still, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to be slow, as long as I don’t work in a restaurant kitchen. Being slow means that I am deliberate, that my food looks perfect when it’s done, that a whole lot of loving energy went into its preparation. Now that the summer of 2011 is just beginning, maybe I’ll get back into the raw food saddle and make all those recipes I’d planned for three years ago. Red beet ravioli, here I come.

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