Pausing in the Swirl of Life

Have you ever looked forward to an event, only to have your plans crumble? “Life intrudes” we say. Or “God laughs when we make plans.” Responding quickly to change can be difficult. At least it is for me. If you know people of Dutch descent, you will understand. We are not known for our flexibility! We are known for our tenacity, which is also a virtue, but quite a different one.

Right now I’m in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I came for the Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College, which I’ve been attending every-other-year since 1996. There is no other gathering that I attend with such regularity. FFW pulls together many threads of my life: 1) As a former member of the Christian Reformed denomination, Calvin is my alma mater; 2) As a pastor, I have found lots of fodder for preaching and ministry; 3) As a reader, I have been bathed in words, and the ways that words evoke meaning; 4) As a budding writer, I have met editors, publishers and agents over the years; and 5) I can do all this and simultaneously visit my parents, who moved to Grand Rapids in retirement.

In fact, my favorite festival events have been the ones my parents attended with me. In 2006 I even convinced them to register for the whole festival. That was the aerobic FFW. I fondly remember pushing my mother’s wheelchair across campus at high speed — whirring her to one event, then running off to attend a different one myself! My parents are 87 and 90 now, and the festival events are too difficult for them logistically. The crowds are hard to navigate and they have difficulty hearing. Recently my father has slowed down quite drastically. His breathing has become labored.

Months ago I registered for this year’s festival and bought my plane tickets. Then my father’s doctors scheduled an elective heart catheterization right in the middle of FFW. I was concerned about the changes in my father’s health, grateful that I would be in town, and disappointed to miss hearing the authors.

How the days worked out has been a gift, a different configuration of the threads of my life. I had already set up a number of appointments related to my books, and was able to honor those. I was even able to attend the opening lecture by Tobias Wolff, whose writing I especially appreciate. On the day of my dad’s heart procedure I was at the hospital with my mother, sister, and niece. The medical care that my father received may be considered “routine,” but it is truly amazing. What a privilege to pray over my father’s bed, hands joined with family members.

Today will be a similar patchwork of events, including picking up my father from the hospital and attending a lecture by Nadia Bolz Weber. At least, that is the plan! We shall see what transpires.

I’m pausing to write this as I begin another busy day — a day that feels complicated, messy, and beautiful! I know your days often feel the same way. There are unwelcome adjustments, but also unexpected blessings. Perhaps these messy days are when God’s activity becomes most apparent to us — in a swirl of events that the finest planning could not have orchestrated.

Breakfast with my parents the day before the cardiac catheterization.

Breakfast with my parents the day before the cardiac catheterization.

Front and center at the Tobias Wolff lecture.

Front and center at the Tobias Wolff lecture.

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Speaking Tips from a Lecture on the Brains of Fruit Flies

Have you ever wondered how a fruit fly thinks? Maybe not! But chances are that you’ve wondered about your own brain.

I attended a Janelia Farms “Dialogue of Discovery” called Taking Action: How Small Brains Make Big Choices. The scientist, Gwyneth Card, PhD, gave a dynamic presentation describing her research on the thought process of fruit flies: investigating how individual neurons lead to the fly’s specific movements to escape a predator.

Dr. Card said: We are trying to reverse engineer the brain. I liked that phrase. I like big subjects brought down to something small enough to investigate. The phrase “reverse-engineer” helpfully orients the exploration: even though the fruit fly brain is tiny, the scientist still stands behind/underneath it. To my mind, understanding always comes from “standing under” with an attitude of curiosity and exploration and respect. (In my life, this describes scripture study.)

The numbers tell us why neuroscientists start with fruit flies. Fruit fly brains have 300,000 neurons, compared to the 86 billion neurons in human brains. Dr. Card showed helpful pictures of the difference between these two figures: the population of Anchorage, Alaska vs. the population of 12 earths.

Context is key to signal interpretation. Dr. Card showed a picture of a man holding a cat by the tail, and also a large knife, all of which are covered by a great gush of red liquid, presumably blood. The brain has to determine what just happened. A pot full of a tomato-based dinner and a curious cat may provide an unexpected answer. It is the job of the brain to make these connections and assessments, almost instantly.

Dr. Card backed up to describe the work of Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) which sought to answer the question: When a horse is running are all four legs ever off the ground at once? (I remember studying that in high school, did you?) To answer that question, Muybridge invented a way to take a series of photos in quick succession.

Today the standard for fruit fly investigation is 6,000 frames per second. The scientist is able to introduce a shadowy object (to mimic a predator) and film the result. The scientist can then determine the precise actions a fly takes in evasion.

Dr. Card showed a fabulous clip of a man jumping out of the way of an oncoming car. The man’s body followed the same basic sequence as the fruit fly: freeze, adjust posture, shift body weight, jump.

There were some lighthearted moments, such as a “Fly Pez” which dispenses the fruit flies one at a time. Fun to see the contraptions that scientific exploration requires. Can you imagine what ingenuity they take to build? Another sophisticated piece of equipment can head-fix the fly in order to insert an electrode into the brain. This allows neuronal activity to be matched to specific behaviors.

It was enjoyable to watch an energetic speaker, who made excellent use of visuals. As a preacher/speaker, here are a couple observations:

1) The speaker’s sense of curiosity was contagious.

2) The speaker’s fondness for her tiny subjects was evident, proving once again that intimate study inevitably leads to a certain respect for the subject matter.

3) The speaker’s efforts to make immediate applications to her audience’s life kept attention, even as the complex layers of the subject matter multiplied for a full hour.

4) At the end, the speaker went out of her way to laud her research team, not only showing their names but also their faces, which speaks volumes about her leadership.

(Other Dialogues of Discovery notes here and here and here.)

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Cognitive Anchors: What Weighs You Down?

So Howard Hughes has his own Mrs. Fields cookies. I'm impressed!

So Howard Hughes has his own Mrs. Fields cookies!

“Cognitive Anchors” are facts we know to be true — so that all incoming information must wrap around these facts. What are your Cognitive Anchors?

Last night I went to a “Dialogue of Discovery” at Janelia Farm, a research campus funded by Howard Hughes Medical Institute, to hear a practitioner of “curiosity-driven science.” (And isn’t that a great phrase?)

Joseph DeRisi spoke: “Unraveling Infectious Disease Mysteries Through Genomics.” As a speaker he did everything right: great visuals, interesting stories, and a touch of humor, all to make his very complex science approachable for the public. This link is to a related Ted Talk.

In the first portion of his talk, Dr. DeRisi explained how genome sequencing works, with lots of visuals. Basically, DNA is shattered, then the strands are manipulated and dyed with markers (A, C, G, T) so that a computer can match together the tiny pieces into long strands. We’re talking millions of pieces of DNA, which can now be done incredibly quickly — within 2 or 3 days. The progress in this field in the decade since the human genome was mapped is absolutely stunning. (The resulting drop in cost in this field is 50,000 fold!)

The second portion of his talk revolved around a case study of a 14 year old boy who was immune-compromised, and who became mysteriously and seriously ill. Dr. DeRisi told this story in a captivating way so that we never forgot the boy who was at the center of it, or how high the stakes were. Eventually this case was solved by the unusual step of sequencing his DNA, which revealed the problem: leptospirosis. It was an unexpected result, so that even though the clues were there (onset of conjunctivitis, progression to meningitis), this infection was never suspected. The doctors were focused on the boy’s immune suppression and therefore pursued treatment with steroids.

In this case, the belief in immunosuppression was a Cognitive Anchor. Wrapping all knowledge around that fact kept the doctors from correctly interpreting other facts as they appeared. On top of that, the disease waxed and waned so that the steroid treatment did sometimes appear to have efficacy. And why would someone expect a statistically unusual virus to be the culprit, rather than a known fact?

We have Cognitive Anchors in all areas of life, and while anchors can be terribly useful, they can also weigh us down.

As a pastor, it occurs to me that churches may actually be in the business of providing Cognitive Anchors for people. After all, isn’t doctrine/belief a way of giving someone an anchor or safe harbor when the sea of life is tumultuous? But note how quickly sound doctrine devolves into cliche.

When God closes a door He opens a window.

This saying is not biblical, and certainly is not nuanced enough to qualify as good theology. But this phrase (and similar others) is muttered in hospital waiting rooms or posted to Facebook walls. Like an anchor. Easy to hold onto. Seemingly solid. But terribly over-simplified.

So that’s one type of Cognitive Anchor that weighs us down in church.

As institutions, there are others. For instance, we church professionals think we know what people want/need/expect from church. Correspondingly, we act as if we know why people stay away — usually some combination of music style/ preaching quality/ program availability/ parking.

Accordingly, we try to up our “appeal” by changing the music, hiring a better preacher, or hosting Bible studies over beer in a restaurant with lots of parking.

But what if our Cognitive Anchors aren’t the essential fact? What if a virus from an outside source has invaded and messed with the body? (I’m extending the disease metaphor because the church is the Body of Christ.)

Off the top of my head, here are some examples of “outside” contamination:

~ the Catholic sexual abuse scandals (which affect Protestants also)

~ global wars tinged with a religious/faith component (which undermine the idea that belief is a positive force)

~ the evangelical church’s fixation on women’s bodies and the notion of sexual purity (which intersects unhelpfully with politics here in the U.S.)

~ a culture war over same-sex marriage (which makes the church seem irrelevant and, excuse me, is a concept which Jesus did not address)

~ and the leadership mess of the moment — currently Mars Hill/Mark Driscoll but maybe next the Osteens (charismatic leadership always generates crises)

This is not an exhaustive list! But all of the above can affect the health of the Body of Christ.

Last night’s lecture was mentally stimulating. It made me back up and ask myself to name my Cognitive Anchors. What are yours?

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Brains & Beer

What do you know about your brain? Would you pay the equivalent of a six-pack so that scientists could understand it better?

Let’s call that “your brain on beer.”

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute built a campus in Loudoun County called Janelia Farm. In return for getting great tax breaks, Janelia occasionally sponsors lectures that are free and open to the public called Dialogues of Discovery.

Doug and I attend when we can because the lectures are always interesting. Plus they serve great appetizers beforehand. We don’t get there often. Three years ago I blogged about learning about mouse vocalizations.

Yesterday we heard neuroscientist Cori Bargmann speak on “Ancient Molecules and the Modern Brain: Understanding Our Social Nature.”

Earlier this year President Obama created the BRAIN Initiative, which is determined to unlock the secrets of the brain in the same way that Apollo determined it would put a man on the moon, or the Genome Project is mapping the human genome. These are efforts that need an interdisciplinary approach, and long range funding. Dr. Bargmann is the co-chair of the NIH planning group for the BRAIN Initiative. I appreciated that she stressed that brain research should be done cooperatively on a global scale.

Here’s something fun about research dollars: a friend of hers calculated that the Apollo mission cost each American the equivalent of a six-pack of beer. In today’s dollars that would be 3 billion dollars. What if scientists could unlock secrets of the brain for that investment (which she thinks is possible). Would that not be worth the equivalent of a six-pack to every American?

Dr. Bargmann studies the hard-wiring/soft-wiring of the brain in animals and how that relates to patterns of behavior in a social context, such as aggression, mating, and the rearing of young. Specifically, she studies tiny transparent worms, and the role of the neuropeptide oxytocin in their mating behaviors.

Oxytocin is a fascinating chemical. If you’re a woman who has labored, lactated or protected her young, you’re already well acquainted with it.

The reason to study oxytocin in these worms is that they have 302 neurons in their brains, whereas humans have 10 billion neurons in 300 major areas. Even though humans have more brain areas than worms have neurons, there are fundamental similarities between how brains act.

Humans share 99% of genes with other animals. Think of this as having a huge shared vocabulary of neurons. In a sense, our social context then becomes the grammar for how our vocabulary is used.

Hardwiring in the brain changes very slowly, while neuronal activity itself is lightning speed. Softwiring (such as a neuropeptide like oxytocin or hormones) affects the hardwiring at an in-between speed. It’s a regulator. Dr. Bargmann used the analogy of traffic to describe some of this brain function.

We saw brief clips of worms engaging in mating behaviors (R rated!) while specific neurons in the worm’s brain had been “highlighted” by injecting certain neurons with something or other. We also watched aggregation vs. avoidance behavior. Even worms sometimes want to be left alone.

Dr. Bargmann referenced a YouTube video called “Battle at Kruger” about buffalo and lions and how social context changes animal behavior. I won’t spoil it by commenting.

We all have many brains. Our brains change constantly.

I appreciated the fact that she ended with a quotation from Henry James (1890) to describe the process of investigating the brain: “It takes a mind debauched by learning to carry the process of making the natural seem strange.”

So many diseases will be impacted by brain research, from Autism to Parkinsons. I have never understood why “psychiatric” diseases are somehow separate from “real” diseases. Can you imagine what our grandchildren will think when they realize how doctors used to divide the body in this way? It will be like reading about George Washington being bled to death by the preeminent physicians of his day.

During the Q&A, a number of high school students asked really great questions. Watching the scientist engage with these students was the best part of the evening. Plus the cheese and fruit platter. Thanks Howard.

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Is Church Schism a “Necessary Tragedy”?

Consider this a post for “church geeks” which is unusual for me. But it’s part of my work-in-progress, and you can feel free to read or not, as you desire! This past week I heard a talk by Dr. Joseph Small, who has spent his career at the denominational offices of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Here’s my summary of his talk, which does not include my own thoughts or responses, which I may post later. I like a bit of time to digest his points first.

UnknownThe fractures and divisions within the Christian church are a great tragedy. At present there are 1,000 Protestant denominations in the USA, 35,000 globally.

Our Presbyterian structure shows “the democratic captivity of the church,” meaning that we have imitated the US government, believing that we could settle disagreements by taking a vote.

However, votes inevitably create winners and losers. Our most recent 70 year history traces no less than 4 schisms:

  • 1930s — Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OP)
  • 1960s — Presbyterian Church of America (PCA)
  • 1980s — Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC)
  • current — Evangelical Covenant Order (ECO)

“It takes two to schism.” Schism shows our ecclesiological deficit. We should be in repentance. The gathered congregation is the basic form of church. But this is not a sufficient form of church. In order to be “one holy catholic and apostolic church” every congregation must be part of something larger. How do we handle this?

During the 16th century, in Bern, Switzerland, the reformers held 10 theses which said that the church is not its own, or something we construct or shape according to our own desires. “The church is a creature of Christ and listens not to the voice of the stranger.”

John Calvin said that the church exists “wherever the Word is purely preached and heard, and the sacraments are celebrated.” Dr. Small emphasized and heard as the language that shows the Word embedded in the life of believers. This is the presence of the Living Christ.

Presbyterians are proud of our “connectional church” but Dr. Small is not fond of this language, it reminds him of plumbing. It is an indirect connection. He prefers the early reformers’ model, which was more direct. He described the role of the Deacons in Geneva, Switzerland. There was a wall around Geneva, and through a gate came refugees from France. The Deacons helped the refugees with food, clothing, lodging, job placement, education and free healthcare. This is the presence of the Living Christ. This is a form of communion.

“Ruling Elders” (which is what elders are now called in contrast to “Teaching Elders” which are clergy) rule — in the meaning of “measure” as a ruler does. What do they measure? The health of the congregation.

What is the role of a Teaching Elder? It is to refuse to be a CEO. We need to create a different ecclesial culture.

Dr. Small reviewed the history around William Kenyon, a minister candidate who came up for examination (early 1980s?) but did not think women should be ordained. He was not accepted as a member of the denomination, and went on to be a founder in the PCA. In hindsight, Dr. Small calls his vote against Kenyon “his greatest mistake” which led to the “Kenyon-izing” of the church. By which he means: “the practice of imposing on a person a behavior that leads that person to violate his conscience.” (sic)

Yes, some would say, but aren’t all Protestants heirs of schism? Indeed, the Protestant Reformation was really “The Great Western Church Schism.” It was a necessary tragedy and calls into question the credibility of the gospel. The church has become a series of competing organizations asking for loyalty. No wonder we lose our ability to effectively bring the gospel to the world.

Q&A period followed, and here are a few nuggets:

Don’t assume we’re preaching to Christians. The church thrives when it is in a minority position. Proclaim the gospel and celebrate the sacraments.

“The Church Reformed and Always Being Reformed by the Word of God”

Dr. Small calls for an end to:

  • 1. democratic proceduralism (Roberts’ Rules of Order)
  • 2. simple majority votes

Both of the above lead to an “exchange of self-righteousness” in which each side (winners/losers) sees itself as the faithful remnant.

We must instead ask ourselves, “How am I responsible for every other minister? How am I accountable to every other minister?” Congeniality is not enough. We must move into true koinonia, which is created through patterns of responsibility and accountability.

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My Brain Is Your Brain

It was my elder daughter who told me I could get my head examined.

So yesterday I spent an hour in an MRI machine having my brain scanned, even though I am perfectly healthy.

I was a subject in a research study whose purpose is to examine the relationship between HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders and aging, using innovative functional MRI (fMRI) techniques in a small sample of HIV-infected and HIV-uninfected people 50 and over.

I figured that if studying my “aging brain” can help improve treatment for folks with HIV, I can do that. Doug was also game, so I signed us both up.

This project is funded by the NIH (National Institutes of Health) and is a joint effort of George Washington University and Georgetown University Medical Center. (Not that there’s anything confusing about any of that. Can you believe we ended up at the right campus! “Aging brains” hah!)

We each had a one-hour intake appointment, in which we had to execute various pencil-and-paper tests, and computer tests. It was kind of fun, but then I like games. I thought how well my parents would do on the tests — now THEY would have aging brains!

I had to wait an hour for Doug’s appointment, so I strolled around the facility and peeked into the cadaver lab. (I’ve been in the building before when attending “Georgetown’s Mini-Medical School” which I blogged about here.)

Then it was time for the actual MRI. There’s something a bit fearsome about confronting an enormous machine which is going to examine your brain with magnets. I told myself: “Do not think about Magneto.”

Which is not something I usually have to tell myself.

I lay on my back on the scanner bed. A technician placed headphones on me and then clamped a grid over my face. She wedged everything tightly into place with pads. She gave me an “emergency” button to press, which lay on my belly. She put another button in each hand. Then I was slid backward, head-first, into the large whirring machine.

I suppose you could say it was like being shoved into a tomb.

OK, I’ll be less dramatic: The machine’s rounded contours reminded me of an old-time washing machine laid on its side. Meaning my head was being clamped into a “wash-and-spin” cycle.

A screen was projected over my eyes, which showed pictures and words. I would be given various tasks to perform, which I would do by pressing the buttons I held in each hand.

After some preliminary adjustments, I was shown images of faces, words, and houses. I didn’t have to do anything except watch them go by. The images cycled quickly, for about five minutes.

Now for the first task. I was shown an image of a face with a word superimposed over the face. I had to click the left button if the face was male, the right button if the face was female. The faces and words kept changing. I didn’t have time to think at all, just press.

Then the paradigm changed. Now I had to look at the word instead of the face, and click the left button if the word was animate and the right button if it was inanimate. The images kept changing, very rapidly.

Shift. Now look at the faces, not the words. Right, left. Shift. Now words. Shift. Inanimate? Left? Male? Right? What am I looking at again?

We did this for nine minutes. Which is a long time.

Then for a minute I listened to chimes clanging around my head, in octaves, with swishing noises. At this point it occurred to me that I was trapped inside a coffin-like machine having my head examined. I felt some claustrophobia rise up in me. I had the urge to sit up, which of course I could not do.

So I shut my eyes and pictured Jesus standing in a field. Do I sound like a real dork? I have an image of Jesus which is my “go-to” image for anxiety. I picture a wheat-field, and Jesus is just turning away from me and striding into some timber at the edge of the wheat. I am following. Every now and then Jesus glances back over his shoulder to see if I’m following. I keep my eyes on him while I feel the wheat swishing past my knees, and the lumpiness of the ground under my feet.

My breathing slowed down, and I could feel myself relax.

Then they started up the images of faces and words again, only this time we went a full twelve minutes. I was fine, although I started to feel quite mentally tired, and I was worried I wasn’t doing a very good job. (Translation: getting a high enough score! Can they measure ego as well as neuro-cognition?)

The next segment was passive. I just needed to lay there and not fall asleep. This I could do easily. For fun I switched to my image of the Spirit, which is of fluttering doves over the Jordan River. I was rather bummed that the test ended in about eight minutes, before I had time to switch to the Creator.

I was given the next task, again using the buttons. The researcher said, as if it was an afterthought: “Oh, and the machine will start to shake about halfway through, and that is entirely normal.”

This task was to look at an image of a face, followed by two faces side by side. I had to choose which face, left or right, most closely matched the first face. Again, the faces went by in a blink, much faster than I could actually think. I had to just press the button. Some faces were male, some female. Some seemed to morph in the second image. Maybe their expressions changed? Did their eyebrows draw down? Some of the faces seemed rather menacing.

I thought: This isn’t an HIV study at all! They are testing to see my response to aggression! This is about gender and aggression! This is about racial profiling! What is this really about? Help! Get me out of here!

But then I thought: Okay Jesus, let’s just trust the NIH and get this done.

And I kept right on focusing and doing the best I could do. And then the whole machine started shaking. It was like being in a pool on an inflatable raft, and having somebody try to shake you off.

The images quit, and the shaking continued, for a good five more minutes.

I decided to think of it as a massage. Also, I had time to think about the Creator after all. I must say it was nice to have company in there.

They slid me out. An hour had passed. I put my wedding ring back on and the researcher presented me with some American Express gift certificates worth $70. I asked if the study was REALLY about HIV and neuro-cognition, of it was about gender or race or something different. The researcher assured me that the study was precisely as stated. I believed her.

Then it was Doug’s turn. I read a book about the Arctic while I waited for his aging brain to be assessed.

We were the last people out of the office, and emerged into a dark, cold, rainy evening. Then we went out for supper and thanked our brains for treating us.

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The Environment & Your Health

Everything is connected. Our actions created reactions and interactions between organisms.

24% of global disease is caused by avoidable environmental exposure, according to the World Health Organization.

Pollutants don’t disappear because the garbage man comes on Tuesday.

Perhaps you’ve heard thoughts such as these before. I know I have. Yet they’re easy to ignore. Who has time to worry? We have bigger fish to fry! Japan is in crisis. There’s a third war to be concerned about. And what will we do without Elizabeth Taylor?

I understand why a person would keep eating what they eat, buying what they buy, drinking what they drink, and feeling really proud of themselves for simply getting the trash can to the curb on Tuesday! But every decision we make –what to eat, drink, buy, or dispose of– is part of a much larger picture. Let’s be mindful!

Side note: We lived in a rural area for 6 years, and I am distressed to consider how many environmental contaminants we were exposed to there. You think rural means healthy, but in reality our children were exposed to: pesticides in the air when crops were sprayed or harvested, contaminants in well water from pesticides and animal waste from a nearby hog farm, and lead paint in our old house. It makes me sad.

EATING FISH

This area is very important to me because my husband and I eat a lot of fish. Here is what I gleaned:

There are two primary contaminants in fish: methylmercury and PCBs.

Mercury contamination becomes worse the larger the fish. Think about it. Big fish eat lots of small fish. The contamination bioaccumulates in the fish.

When you cook fish you biomagnify the methylmercury in it which is bad. (tuna)

However, if a fish is high in PCBs you should cook the heck out of it. (salmon)

Eating fish may be linked to heart attacks. (go figure)

If you buy fish oil supplements, make sure it says: methyl mercury filtered out.

Check out www.fish-facts.org. Another good site is www.NRDC.org/mercury to get a list of which fish is safer to eat.

Do not eat farm-raised fish or shrimp. They are fed contaminated food, and the ponds they are raised in do not allow the bacteria etc to be washed away by the movement of water.

Do not eat carp.

Because of methyl mercury, children should not eat any amount of canned tuna. (You know what? After this lecture I am not going to eat any more canned tuna. And what’s worse, no ahi tuna either!)

Do not eat any of the very-large fish: mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, shark, swordfish, tilefish, ahi tuna.

PS: None of this touches on issues of sustainability which is also important.

LEAD

Lead is a neurotoxin (bad for the brain) and is linked to hyperactivity, poor impulse control, and violence. You are exposed to more lead than you think.

Lead paint is a problem in any building built before 1978.

Candy from China and Mexico increasingly contains lead (from contaminated fields). Pay attention to where candy comes from. Don’t eat the candy in pinatas, for instance.

Do not drink from lead crystal, as lead leaches into the liquid within minutes.

Cooking with hot water exposes you to lead, especially if the pipes are old. Don’t use hot water for cooking or drinking.

MORE RANDOM THINGS TO WORRY ABOUT

Electro magnetic fields (power towers) are probably linked to disease.

DDT has been reintroduced in many places in the world, especially Africa, since it is so effective in killing mosquitoes, which carry malaria. So DDT is NOT a thing of the past.

The DEHP used to make pliable IV bags is terrible, especially for infant boys because the DEHP acts as estrogen in the system. Insist on another type of bag.

If there is anyone with asthma, do NOT use humidifiers. (I hate this because I love my humidifier!)

To combat dust mites and mold, wash sheets in hot water weekly.

The people who do lawn care are exposed to toxic levels of pesticides. This causes infertility in men. Symptoms of pesticide illness include an inability to smell.

Take it seriously that if a lawn has been sprayed with pesticide, you should not walk through it. Pesticides move through the skin into the bloodstream. Be aware of this when playing sports in an open field.

Use non-toxic cleaning agents. Really. There’s no reason not to.

Do not consume food coloring. It’s hidden in many things. Food coloring causes neuro impairment. Love your brain instead.

Good to know: Boiling water rids it of bacteria, but not of chemicals. In fact, boiling only biomagnifies the chemicals.

BOTTOM LINE

Remember: Trade trumps everything! Our dollars speak.

These notes are from a lecture on The Environment and Your Health by Laura Anderko at the Georgetown Mini-Medical School on March 29, 2011.

If I got any of these facts wrong, please let me know! Also, if any of these facts were particularly helpful to you, let me know that too. There is so much to learn. What was your big take-away?

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Breast Cancer Notes

These notes are from a lecture by Dr Claudine Isaacs, who co-directs the Breast Cancer Program at Georgetown University. If you know something on the subject and I got something wrong, please correct me! It’s amazing that I put these notes aside for about a week and already I am not certain that I understood what I thought I did!

The incidence of breast cancer has decreased in the past decade, but no one knows exactly why.

The role of hormones in breast cancer is still not fully understood, but estrogen is linked to breast cancer. The longer a woman has her menstrual cycle, the more likely she is to develop breast cancer. (a comment here: doesn’t this suck? not only does she have longer to deal with a monthly flow, she has a higher risk of cancer)

Does HRT raise the risk of breast cancer? It appears to. (Major Bummer)

The “breast cancer gene” is autosomal dominant, which means you can get it from either side, mother or father, don’t need both to manifest.

Breast cancer is much more common in the Western hemisphere than the Eastern hemisphere. Why? Noone knows. After Eastern women move to this hemisphere, their rate of breast cancer catches up to Westerners. (It must be some sort of environmental factor, right?)

Higher weight increases likelihood of breast cancer, mainly because estrogen is both produced and stored in fat.

Tight bras. Deodorant. Breast size. Taking the pill. Having an abortion. None of these are risk factors.

An important fact to know about your cancer: Is it Hormone receptor positive or not? Is it Her-2 positive or not? Being negative here is not a good thing.

Tamoxifen mimics estrogen, which is why it works to fight cancer. If you think of hormones as “lock and key”, tamoxifen fits into the reception just like estrogen does, but it does not cause the same chain of events that estrogen does.

Chemotherapy kills rapidly dividing cells, which is why it also causes hair to fall out, and the lining of the gut to have problems. 4 cycles of chemotherapy are a standard treatment.

The Baseline risk is different than the Absolute risk to the patient. You need to know the patient’s risk and then multiply times the baseline risk.

Endocrine therapy can be given to women at a high risk of breast cancer. Will this become more standard practice?

The newest thing is Biologic Therapy, when antibodies are directed at specific targets. Herceptin and others are on the front line here. Monochromal antibodies may prevent cancer from growing by shutting off the blood supply to the tumor.

Lifestyle interventions — can these reduce the risk of cancer recurrence? Yes. Exercise improves. Weight management. Reduced alcohol intake.

Metastatic breast cancer (spread to other organs or bone) is not curable. The treatment issue is about prolonging survival and quality of life.

We are probably going to hear more about Tamoxifen because it is also a good drug for osteoporosis. Some discussion about even using it prophylactically in some women.

Here’s what I’m still wondering about: Cancer cells themselves. I understand that they are evil because they replicate and proliferate at the expense of the larger organism. I also understand that they exist in all of us, or COULD exist. If chemotherapy will never kill 100% of cancer cells, perhaps killing these cells is not the point? Perhaps figuring out how to keep the cells from “switching on” and starting to replicate wildly is the point? Or is it just more possible to kill them?

Tomorrow night: Health and the Environment.

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Brush Border & other GI miracles

Did you know you have a “brush border” that keeps you alive?

The brush border is the little fingerlings that line your small intestine and absorb nutrients from the food you eat. It is only one cell thick. Think about that. There’s one cell between the food you eat (mixed with stomach acid into chyme) and your blood supply. Intestines are gloriously efficient. Yep, they were designed for a time when we needed every bit of nutrition from our food. I’m captivated by the brush border for a couple reasons:

1) I love alliteration.

2) it’s a great descriptor using simple words.

3) there seems to be a paradox in the fact that our efficient mechanisms make us obese, since obesity is so inefficient.

4) Celiac disease (gluten intolerance) wrecks the brush border by taking the tips of those fingerlings.

5) the brush border can repair itself, even after gluten has damaged it.

6) who is the brush border in the Body of Christ?

These notes are from Tues night when we heard the second of two lectures on Gastrointestinal Physiology at the Mini-Medical School. Lecture by Dr. Susan Mulroney, who was full of passion for her topic. Great presenter.

Also worth remembering and future ponderment:

~ Appetite is controlled by balance of ghrelin (blood protein) and leptin (produced in adipose tissue).

~ There is a fun way to determine how big your pyloric sphincter is.

~ The interplay of internal and external anal sphincters explains a lot! “Having a colon is what makes us a social animal.”

~ Everything we eat is absorbed via the portal vein into the liver. “Love your liver.”

~ Carbohydrate moves through the system much more quickly than fat.

~ There are 1.5 liters of saliva in your body. “You have not appreciated your saliva, I’ll tell you that right now.” Morning breath is caused by the overnight decrease in saliva production which allows bacteria to proliferate in the mouth.

~ Fun word: borborygmi = intestinal sounds of fluid shifting (“stomach gurgles”)

~ Stomach accommodation. You don’t feel pressure in your stomach until you’ve eaten a liter of food. (holy-moley)  Cool pictures of how bariatric surgery works. It makes me wince.

~ Stomach acid is as acidic as battery acid. Yet the chyme in the first part of your small intestine is neutral. How amazing is that?

~ Cells along the GI tract are constantly dying and being replaced. These slough off into your poop. So the fat in your poop is not from dietary fat but from your cells. This means all the fat gets broken down and used by your body, and it is usually full of toxins, etc, it is far from a neutral substance.

~ Bilirubin is what makes your urine yellow. Bilirubin is the result of red blood cell degradation, and if the body doesn’t excrete it properly it builds up in the body and causes jaundice (yellowed eyes and skin).

~ The pancreas has two functions: secreting buffers into the small intestine, and releasing insulin etc into the blood. Buffers are wicked important.

~ The gall bladder is on the right side of the body. It’s an empty sac. Well, if it’s not empty it’s full of gallstones which is B A D.

~ Fun word: haustrae = the bundles of chyme and feces in the colon, those bulges that get pushed by segmental propulsion through the colon.

~ 30% of feces is bacteria. (hoo-boy, that explains things too!)

~ Diarrhea is caused by anything that irritates your intestinal lining. (makes sense — quick, let’s move it through)

~ Fun word: ileum = the last part of the small intestine, before emptying into the colon.

~ fecal transplants might actually work — to replenish the “healthy” bacteria so they can proliferate and aid in digestion — they take poop from a healthy family member — okay, do I need to tease out the possible applications to church life?

~ I had eaten black beans with my dinner just before this lecture which provided me with some internal merriment.

“So eat drink and be merry.” (insert appropriate quote from Ecclesiastes!)

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Bust a Gut

Last night was “Gastroenterology: Clinical” at Georgetown Mini-medical school. Dr. Bruce Luxon was the presenter, and he had a perfect blend of expertise, good teaching method, and a relaxed attitude. He also had some amazing, gory films of endoscopies that were fascinating to see.

We’re going to back up and cover more of the anatomy next week, but these are the high points: Esophagus. Stomach. Duodenum. Small Intestine. Colon. Kidney.

GI diseases: Reflux. GERD. Irritiable bowel. Constipation. Ulcers. H.Pylori. Diverticulitis. Colon cancer. Liver disease.

I was curious about the role of the diaphragm in GI health. The diaphragm muscle sits on top of the stomach and, along with the upper sphincter, helps keep the stomach closed so all that acid stays in place. A hiatal hernia occurs when a piece of the stomach pops above that sphincter and the diaphragm.

Question: In the body of Christ, what is the diaphragm?

Dysphagia = difficulty swallowing. It is a significant warning sign that there are strictures in the esophagus, and there is something more serious going on than just reflux.

Endoscopy is truly amazing. It combines diagnosis and treatment in one procedure. We saw a polyp being clamped, cauterized and removed. Also a spurting blood vessel in the esophagus being “lassoed” to literally save a person’s life.

You cannot live without a liver. You can live without a lot of organs, but not without a liver. Love your liver.

Word to remember: Idiopathic (meaning “we don’t know the cause”)

Quick Quiz: Word from last week: Teratoma?

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