Archive | January, 2012

Whoamygosh. Or, how I became a Glimpse Correspondent

23 Jan

The first time, I was in Thailand and my PayPal account was going to put me behind the deadline.  Sitting in an uncomfortable internet cafe in Bangkok, feeling the patience of my brother running down, I was clicking away at my computer, editing my writing sample while in other windows I was working on setting up a PayPal account to pay the application fee.  It was an old fiction piece I had written for my high school senior English class about the last days of your mother’s life, and letting go.  All interspersed with lyrics from “Across the Universe”.  I loved it back in high school.  When I reopened it years later, I was shocked at how bad it was.

That was after my MSc, when I was in that strange funk of excitement to explore the world, with simultaneous fear and disappointment of not knowing what I was doing with my life.

Now, three years or so years later, I’m in Grenada, sitting in Taylor, a chilly study hall on my medical school campus.  I’ve heard it described as a “freezer full of angry medical students” but when I opened the email from Glimpse it had at least one speechless one.  I shook Frond, and we headed outside where I could properly freak out, dance and yell unintelligibly in peace.  “The extensor surface of my arms are tingling!  My radial nerves are flipping out!”  I am such a nerd sometimes.

I am so fortunate.  Really.  To have finished my MSc then decided not to continue in the same field, so I had time to explore other options and stumble across the Glimpse Correspondent program.  To move to Grenada after having been rejected by all the North American medical schools I applied to, after two rounds and thousands of dollars in application fees, and just as many tears.  To have had Frond to help look over my application writing sample and tell me not to try so hard, to just tell the story and not tell people what to think or feel.

I have so much more to learn about writing!  I’m so excited.  I really want to become a great communicator; to tell stories that make people think and feel, and to use this when I keep going on, to help people around the world learn about each other, and to connect them.  Maybe along the way I’ll learn how to stop using commas so much too.

My extensor surfaces are still tingling, my schoolwork has gone totally untouched, and a mosquito is having the time of it’s life with my knee.  But that’s all great.  Somehow, sometimes, when you really put yourself out there, the stars align and you get that email.

Here’s what I submitted to Glimpse as my writing sample.  It might seem a bit familiar as it has pieces taken from other blog entries.

New In Town.

Rumbling down a dusty unpaved road in Shervin’s jeep, we whipped around a leafy green blur and came to a clearing.  There were two small buildings, surrounded by knee-high kids in twos and threes, running here to there, stopping, then taking off again in a new direction.  They were each monochromatically dressed in either green, red, or yellow.  It was a multicoloured ant hill.  On the other side were older kids dressed in long navy blue pleated skirts, white collared short-sleeved blouses and red ties or navy pants and white dress shirts.  These kids were leaning over the railing of the second floor, many yelling, some throwing food onto the yard, most just gazing about coolly.

We had come to talk to the principal about a new pilot program we were starting.  In light of the diabetes and obesity epidemic on the island, we were proposing to help teach some life skills and healthy food choices on the backdrop of fun physical activities.  Healthy Grenada, we called it.

As the three of us were standing under the sun discussing how we would run the first session, a pair of girls in their pleated dresses walked up to stand behind me and giggled when I glanced at them.  After a few minutes we were ready to leave, and we started back towards the jeep.  The two girls, still giggling, followed us a few steps behind and in the instant just before we pulled away, I heard one say: “I want to be white too”.

Two months earlier, I was on a bench under a tent in the Carenage in a concrete room with two walls and no roof.  It felt like an old construction site, perhaps abandoned after Hurricane Ivan in 2004.  There were about 70 Grenadians patiently standing in line to sit beside me, ranging from middle aged to elderly.  I was helping out at a school health fair, a student-organized event where students and our physician clinical tutors come out to screen the community for high blood pressure and diabetes.  My job was to take blood pressure and ask a few questions before they went on to see the physician.  Beside me was Helen, a well dressed lady in her 50s or 60s in silver rimmed glasses and a white blouse.  I asked her how she was doing, and she said, “Fine, just a little warm but that’s okay”, with a smile.  It was humid and hot, with an occasional spattering of rain, but typical of Grenadians, the participants were patient and without complaints.   I apologized for the lack of set up early on.  There was a miscommunication with the organizers and although the volunteers and participants arrived on time, the equipment, tables, chairs, and tent was about an hour late.  “That’s fine”, Helen said “we make do.”

I wrapped my blood pressure cuff around her arm and began to pump it up.  The crowd around our small table leaned in slightly, watching the process.  160/90; it was high.

“Have you ever been checked for blood pressure?” I asked.

She had.

“What kinds of things are you doing to manage it?”

Helen looked at me and said, “Well I have a prescription.  But the pharmacy is out so I haven’t had it.”

“Do they know when they’d be restocked?”

“They’re not sure.”

“Since when have they been out?”

“Three weeks.”

“How often are you supposed to take the medication?”

“Every day, morning and afternoon.”.

The next woman eased onto the bench beside me and I pulled the table closer for her to rest her arm.  It was hard to tell her age, but she was young, perhaps in her 30s.  She was well obese and had come during her break-time from work, as clear from her green uniform shirt and baseball hat for a local grocery store.  I introduced myself and asked her name.  “Angel”, she said.  As I unwrapped and wrapped the cuff around her arm I noticed the Diet section of her questionnaire hadn’t been filled out.

“Can I ask, how many meals a day do you have, typically?”  I asked.

“One or two.  Usually one.” she answered.

“Do you get to eat regularly?  Or do you find yourself skipping meals here and there?”  I started.

“I skip meals, maybe every other day.  When things get busy.”

“And what’s your typical meal like?” I asked Angel.

“Juice, bread” She trailed off, still looking around.

“Any vegetables or leafy greens?”

She looked directly at me for the first time since sitting down.  She had hazel eyes but was wearing no make-up, unlike many of the young women who had previously come by.  “I eat what I can find.  When you have no money, you eat what you can find.”

I thought back to the brief training we had done for the health fair. “Offer a bit of counselling,” the coordinators advised us. “It’s easy, basic nutrition and healthy eating – balanced meals, being active however you can.  You guys will do great.”

We walked up the long road toward the school with a group of volunteers and a folder full of quizzes, worksheets, and activities we had planned for our first session of Healthy Grenada.  Alongside us were a group of young boys, about 9 years old, in burgundy pants and white polo shirts, laughing and running about.  One of the boys had a long thin stick and was playfully swinging it about and making growling noises.  They told us they were playing a game they made up called Daddy.  “It’s a different culture,” Shervin said to me, “let it go.”

Later that night I slipped quickly out the door, trying to leave faster than the mosquitoes could enter.  It must have looked pretty comical, like Kramer from Seinfeld as I opened and closed the door in one movement, manoeuvring my gym bag out of the way.  I glanced around to see if anyone saw my awkward exit.  There was no one, but a silhouette of two little boys, maybe 10 or 12, drinking cartons and rummaging through the trash bins outside the apartment.  Neither had looked up.  Not wanting to embarrass them, or perhaps embarrassed myself, I started walking towards school as if I hadn’t just seen two kids looking for food in my trash bin.  About two minutes later I passed the security gate of the school, and as I approached the student center, I passed a group of students chatting and holding takeout containers full of food.  I walked past students playing basketball on the lit-up court, filled up my bottle at the water fountain, and ran on the treadmill for a half hour.

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Everybody Solar

23 Jan

Everybody Solar

Mission Statement:

Everybody Solar works to protect the environment and strengthen U.S. communities through solar energy projects. By providing solar power to local charities we help them reduce electricity costs and direct their limited resources to the communities they serve.

Vision:

Our vision is to create healthy and sustainable communities. We want current and future generations to have equal access to essential social services while living on a thriving and sustainable planet.

We aim to improve our communities by giving the gift of clean energy to organizations that need it most; non-profits on the front lines, serving our most vulnerable populations. By eliminating electricity costs for non-profits we help them maximize their impact on their direct cause. With our help, these organizations are able to invest funds directly into their missions: to feed children, provide counseling, support a shelter, or start a movement. By saving thousands of dollars for those who need it most, and harnessing the power of the sun, we help local communities thrive.

We believe that everyone has the right to affordable energy and clean air.

Our Philosophy: Efficient spending, easy breathing.

 

Giving people the tools.  Nice!

 

Blind mole rats and my first citation

22 Jan

I published part of my MSc research last April. It was my first and only paper, and had taken about an extra year or two after my MSc finished to wrap up all the revisions, run new experiments, write and revise again. I remember being in a hotel room in China during my time on a cleft-lip surgical mission, writing scripts and starting programs on Brian’s computers back at Mac. It passed through three rounds of reviewing and on the final round, one of the reviewers still didn’t agree that the findings made sense but s/he also didn’t seem to understand the experiments. Thankfully, the editor of the journal stepped in and told us it was accepted anyway. It’s tough writing about population genetics and computational biology. It’s like explaining math without using numbers.

So once in a while, I like to look at how many times the paper has been downloaded. Ya, nerdy and kind of self-absorbed, but you’d do it too. After all, many people google themselves (I do that too, but thanks to a Singaporean pop star it doesn’t satisfy my ego), and many others start personal blogs (ahem). Good thing there’s such a fuss about stopping internet censorship because how else would we find out so much stuff about ourselves?

Instead of studying Pharm, I checked on my paper’s views again. And my paper has been cited! The paper citing me is called “Is Evolution of Blind Mole Rats Determined by Climate Oscillations?”. Oh academia. Bonus points for it being a paper about climate change (my paper had nothing to do with climate change).

Shorts too short, and other lessons in culture

17 Jan

The school Healthy Grenada is working with had a PTA meeting tonight, so Frond and I went to introduce the program to the parents. As we were sitting waiting for the meeting to start, the principal pulled us aside into another classroom and asked who was going to be presenting. Frond said both of us. But she replied that I wouldn’t be able to do it because of my shorts. I don’t have many shorts, and the one pair that I wear a lot while here are pretty short I suppose. Not by North American standards, but for a Roman Catholic Elementary school, I could see what the principal was talking about. She said that I could hand out the fliers we had made, but I couldn’t be presenting. In the end, I went home to change and we presented together.

I appreciated the principal pointing this out to me, as it’s important. But I felt bad because I had worn these shorts to the school before, while doing activities with the kids. It really hit me that for all my trying to make Healthy Grenada a culturally competent program, I had overlooked many basic things.

We stayed for the entire PTA meeting, where parents shared some things they had learned about food, artifacts, and songs that their “forefathers” used. Grenada’s independence day is coming up in February, and judging by the efforts going in to it around town, it’s a pretty big deal. The principal and vice went on to talk about programs they are running for the students, including Sports Days (with an “Infant Cross Country Race” where the kindergarteners run a cross country course — incredible! People were saying how it was such a short course, but to me it sounded like quite a length), Spelling Contests, Reading Contests, and an ongoing school-wide Physical Activity competition. I was thinking the whole time about how I had came in to the school with so many assumptions about what the school had to offer their students. It had me wondering what exactly Healthy Grenada had to bring that would benefit the school. Was the school doing us more of a favour, by giving us a chance to volunteer with their kids? During their school time? I felt like a silly tourist.

After the meeting, we went to thank the Principal for inviting us to the meeting. She asked where we were from, and when we told her she said how we’re three different cultures. We agreed, adding that we’ve got a lot to learn from them, and she said, “Yes a lot to learn from each other” and gestured her hand back and forth between the 3 of us.

Talented friend!

16 Jan

I have a many. And one of them is Shannon, who I’ve known since Grade 1, when we shared our school’s grass-less pebble-plentiful playground.

I’ve never heard Shannon sing or play a musical instrument. So when I heard these recordings of her singing along to her ukulele, I was blown away! It’s always impressive to see people putting themselves out there, and even more impressive when it’s after only 8 weeks of ukulele playing. Check out more of her recordings at her soundcloud page.

and

She’s also very talented at making thoughtful comments on my blog. I really appreciate her perspective and that she can laugh with me at the painfulness that is learning clinical skills. She’s in nursing school, which means that she gets all my questions about nurses and nursing school, as I’ve always been unclear about the line between doctors, nurses, med school and nursing school.

When I visited Shannon over winter break, she told me that before she applied to go back to school, she wasn’t sure if she could have been a nurse. She had finished a degree in Psychology and had pursued Fine Arts, and in high school did the minimum amount of science to graduate. But she took a chance on it, and has been doing amazing since day 1. She said to me, “It’s kind of cliche, but it’s true what they say.. that if you really put your mind to something, you can accomplish it!”

When you meet Shannon, she may seem quiet but she is no way meek. She’s the kind of person who doesn’t talk when everyone else is talking, but when something needs to be said or someone needs to be called out on something, Shannon is the first to speak up, especially those times when no one has the guts to say it. Sharing her songs so publicly just reminds me of how she keeps stepping outside her comfort zone and just keeps growing more from it.

Please avoid the nipple

15 Jan

It’s back to school and that means back to more awkward clinical examinations.

Last week, we had our last practice session with a simulated patient.  From here on out we’ll be going to the General Hospital with only real patients.

Our simulated patient was a 70 year old man, who worked as a gardener.  We decided to practice going over the examination for the central nervous system.  We started with the mini-mental state exam, which is what it sounds like.  One of the questions to test higher functioning is to ask to hear “world” spelled backwards.   Our patient hesitated for a long while but couldn’t do it.   We tried the other test, which is to count down from 100 by 7.  He said “100.. 97…”, he had memorized the answer to the other version of the test, which was to count down by 3.   Some of the people in my group felt uncomfortable and laughed to cover it up, which stirred something in the patient.  To his credit, my group member who was actually doing the test didn’t laugh and just waited patiently for his answer.  The patient had been sitting quietly during the entire exam, but spoke up to say, “Let me tell you something.  My mother abandoned me when I was three weeks old.  I was raised by an adoptive family.  So they didn’t teach me to spell such words.”  The room was quieter after that.

We moved on to testing the sensory system, and the tutor reminded us to test dermatomes T4 and T10, which are at the level of the nipple and umbilicus, respectively.  My group member doing the test opened up the gown and picked up the opened up paperclip that we use to test the pain and crude touch sensations.  He told the patient to let him know if he felt a sharp touch (end of the paperclip) or a dull touch (the bent end of the paperclip) and went ahead and poked the patient with the sharp end right on the patient’s areola.  “Sharp or dull?”   He went on to poke the other nipple with the bent end.  Our tutor told us that we should try to avoid the nipple.   This poor 70 year old man.  My group member went on to test for fine touch, which is done with a cotton wisp.  Again, he went right for the nipple and brushed it with the cotton wisp.  “Do you feel anything?”  My tutor said, “Again, please try to avoid the nipple.”

Sometimes when you’re doing an exam it’s hard to keep things straight.  You’re taught to do things that you’d think would hurt (sticking your fingers way into someone’s neck to feel their thyroid, tugging hard at someone’s knee to test their cruciate ligaments), and common sense easily goes out the window for things you clearly shouldn’t be doing (tickling someone’s nipple with a piece of cotton).

Angry women, angry people.

11 Jan

I’m Mad at You Because You’re an Idiot, Not Because I’m a Woman

By Litsa Dremousis from Jezebel:

I was with some girlfriends at an upscale bar downtown when a group of guys asked if they could join us. An attorney with dark, wavy hair in a plaid oxford shirt sat next to me, and we bantered flirtatiously for an hour. He was ring-free and never mentioned a partner. That is, until he asked for my phone number.

“But you’ll have to call me on my cell. My wife and I are in a weird place right now,” he said, attempting to elicit sympathy.

“Maybe that’s because you hit on women in bars,” I noted.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked. “You don’t know the whole story.”

“And I don’t want to,” I said.

“God, you really don’t like being a woman, do you?”

In two short moves we’d leapt from his infidelity to my ostensible gender dysmorphia and/or self-loathing. If this were checkers, he’d have been king, albeit of the dipshits.

What struck me was that both Rex and the attorney had delivered ill-timed, emotionally charged information, and when I’d expressed proportionate anger or irritation, the blame somehow boomeranged back onto me. I’d been expected to remain amiable, though by any objective measurement, that expectation was ludicrous. Either guy could have physically pummeled me had he chosen, so it’s not as if they were in danger, even for a second. Yet their reaction was still confusion and rancor when I pointed out their inanity.

The first time I burped in front of my college boyfriend, he said he didn’t know girls could burp. I pointed out that women, in this case, share the same physiology as men, so why wouldn’t we burp? He said he didn’t know why not, but that his mom and his other girlfriends had never burped. When I laughed and said they’d never burped in front of him, he dug in his heels. His mom and ex-girlfriends didn’t burp, so how was he supposed to know I could? Female burping was an urban legend, apparently, like alligators in toilets or crepes that turn out right the first time.

I’ve been a feminist since I was a little kid, but I’m extremely close with my dad and brother, and at every point in my life, at least half my closest friends have been male. I’m not trying to perpetuate gender stereotypes about dudes, while fighting the ones about ladies. But it’s weird to me that many straight men watch professional sports and action films, or back their friends up in bar fights, and find those displays of aggression admirable— but when a woman loses her temper for a specific and valid reason, these same men judge her for what is, like burping, a human reaction.

How do we alter the notion that a woman who stands up for herself, her loved ones, or her beliefs is the one who’s causing trouble? By accepting once and for all that legitimate female anger isn’t the hallmark of a bitch, cunt, ballbuster, or drama queen. We’re nearly 52% of the population— it’s time for more men to understand our behavior isn’t aberrant, and for more women not to feel “guilty” for not staying in the narrow range of traditionally accepted emotional responses. Women are multi-faceted humans with a full range of ambitions and emotional needs. Guys, sometimes we disagree with you, but sometimes we disagree with each other. Which is how it should be.

When I was much younger, I assumed girly things were bad while being more like a boy was good.  I made fun of my friend when she started wearing a bra.  When my friends and I played imaginary games in the schoolyard, I would pretend to be a guy.  Maybe I was a natural tomboy or maybe it was from idealizing my 3 older brothers, but while I’ve stopped thinking that girls are just a weaker version of boys, it’s hard to shake the feeling that acting too “feminine” in the outdated sense is frowned upon.  It still irks me when my classmates are overly polite, talk in a higher than usual pitched voice, giggle when nervous, preface sentences with “I think / I’m not sure but / Maybe”; all things I still notice myself doing too.

I’m mixed between wondering if part of me still thinks that boys are better than girls, or if it’s genuine frustration with how what’s considered feminine is largely based in what’s considered girlish.  It’s interesting that the author was surprised that her anger was perceived as threatening, and interesting too that the response to the threat was to minimize it by chalking it up to angry female hormones.  It reminds me of why I’m uncomfortable with “Women’s” organizations or specialties like “Women’s health”.  It gets down to separating women from the range of what’s considered normal;  If you’re acting like a woman, you’re not acting like a regular person.

The GM Genocide

10 Jan

The GM genocide: Thousands of Indian farmers are committing suicide after using genetically modified crops

From a 2008 Daily Mail article.

Shankara, respected farmer, loving husband and father, had taken his own life. Less than 24 hours earlier, facing the loss of his land due to debt, he drank a cupful of chemical insecticide.

Unable to pay back the equivalent of two years’ earnings, he was in despair. He could see no way out.

There were still marks in the dust where he had writhed in agony. Other villagers looked on – they knew from experience that any intervention was pointless – as he lay doubled up on the ground, crying out in pain and vomiting.

Simple, rural people, they are dying slow, agonising deaths. Most swallow insecticide – a pricey substance they were promised they would not need when they were coerced into growing expensive GM crops.

It seems that many are massively in debt to local money-lenders, having over-borrowed to purchase GM seed.

Pro-GM experts claim that it is rural poverty, alcoholism, drought and ‘agrarian distress’ that is the real reason for the horrific toll.

The [Indian] authorities had a vested interest in promoting this new biotechnology. Desperate to escape the grinding poverty of the post-independence years, the Indian government had agreed to allow new bio-tech giants, such as the U.S. market-leader Monsanto, to sell their new seed creations.

In return for allowing western companies access to the second most populated country in the world, with more than one billion people, India was granted International Monetary Fund loans in the Eighties and Nineties, helping to launch an economic revolution.

But while cities such as Mumbai and Delhi have boomed, the farmers’ lives have slid back into the dark ages.

Though areas of India planted with GM seeds have doubled in two years – up to 17 million acres – many famers have found there is a terrible price to be paid.

Far from being ‘magic seeds’, GM pest-proof ‘breeds’ of cotton have been devastated by bollworms, a voracious parasite.

Nor were the farmers told that these seeds require double the amount of water. This has proved a matter of life and death.

With rains failing for the past two years, many GM crops have simply withered and died, leaving the farmers with crippling debts and no means of paying them off.

Having taken loans from traditional money lenders at extortionate rates, hundreds of thousands of small farmers have faced losing their land as the expensive seeds fail, while those who could struggle on faced a fresh crisis.

When crops failed in the past, farmers could still save seeds and replant them the following year.

But with GM seeds they cannot do this. That’s because GM seeds contain so- called ‘terminator technology’, meaning that they have been genetically modified so that the resulting crops do not produce viable seeds of their own.

As a result, farmers have to buy new seeds each year at the same punitive prices. For some, that means the difference between life and death.

Monsanto has admitted that soaring debt was a ‘factor in this tragedy’. But pointing out that cotton production had doubled in the past seven years, a spokesman added that there are other reasons for the recent crisis, such as ‘untimely rain’ or drought, and pointed out that suicides have always been part of rural Indian life.

Officials also point to surveys saying the majority of Indian farmers want GM seeds  –  no doubt encouraged to do so by aggressive marketing tactics.

During the course of my inquiries in Maharastra, I encountered three ‘independent’ surveyors scouring villages for information about suicides. They insisted that GM seeds were only 50 per cent more expensive – and then later admitted the difference was 1,000 per cent.

(A Monsanto spokesman later insisted their seed is ‘only double’ the price of ‘official’ non-GM seed – but admitted that the difference can be vast if cheaper traditional seeds are sold by ‘unscrupulous’ merchants, who often also sell ‘fake’ GM seeds which are prone to disease.)

With rumours of imminent government compensation to stem the wave of deaths, many farmers said they were desperate for any form of assistance. ‘We just want to escape from our problems,’ one said. ‘We just want help to stop any more of us dying.

India’s farmers are also starting to fight back. As well as taking GM seed distributors hostage and staging mass protests, one state government is taking legal action against Monsanto for the exorbitant costs of GM seeds.

Hospital Dress Code

9 Jan

This term we’re heading in to the General Hospital and for the first time, interacting with real patients (who aren’t being paid for us to poke them).  Our school sent us an email outlining our dress code for the hospital trips.  Here are a few of them:

  • Skirts must be no shorter than 2″ above the knee.

I was happy about that one.  It’s reasonable!  The usual at or below the knee is only good if you’re wearing a towel.

  • Trousers or pants must be loose fitting

At my Catholic high school it was a big deal when girls were allowed to wear grey pants instead of the usual kilt.  But the admin didn’t expect people to start wearing grey yoga pants with their blouses.  I guess the Pope would not have been cool with that.

  • No sleeveless clothing allowed

Not even under our white coats.  Someone told me that most of the hospital isn’t air conditioned and that last term someone fainted every week.

  • No see-through clothing
  • No topless

I wish I knew the story behind the making of that last rule.

 

Happy new year!

3 Jan

I’ve been trying to read a lot this holiday.  Including all the books lying haphazardly around the house.  Before my brother gives them all away because no one reads them.  One of them was “Who Moved My Cheese?” which Frond helpfully told me got terrible reviews on Amazon.  Luckily I had already read it (it is super short).

The story is pretty basic.  A cheese-loving tiny-sized person is conquers his fears and learns some life-lessons as he ventures out into the maze to find his New Cheese after his old faithful pile of cheese disappears.   Along the way he writes messages on the wall of the maze for his friend who refused to leave where the Old Cheese disappeared from.  I thought one of the messages was nicely appropriate for the new year.  It was: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

Let’s go 2012!

 

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