September 14, 2014

TEDMED Day 2: Hijacking, Keeping Mum, and the Importance of R&R

I was particularly excited about Day 2. Not only did this day include some of the speakers that I was most looking forward to, but the session topics were relevant, I found, to both medical practice and the scientific method.

Progress on Andrew Rae's mural by Day 2.
Session 4: "Stealing Smart." This session described how one biological system can hijack another to assert its effects—and how we humans can take advantage of that for our own needs.

The session opened with cardiologist Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, who observed that vets were often treating animals with similar afflictions as humans—even mental illness. Natterson-Horowitz argues that studying behaviors and conditions like self-harm, infant neglect, and stress-induced heart failure in animals can improve our treatments in humans. Next up, economist Ramanan Laxminarayan discussed the worldwide problem of antibiotic resistance. Like the "drill, baby, drill mentality," we find alternatives when other antibiotics stop working; Laxminarayan proposes solutions comparable like emissions taxes and green energy subsidies. Drew Lakatos took the stage next, citing that 1/4th of people over age 65 who break their hip die within the next year. Lakatos created ActiveProtect, a sensor technology one wears around the pelvis and deploys like an airbag when it detects atypical human motion. We were then treated to the soulful sounds of jazz trumpeter Dominick Farinacci, who, in addition to his musical skill, shared stories of his mother's cancer treatment and playing for hospice patients. Neuroscientist Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, spoke next, discussing her work on depletion of the dopamine D2 receptor in both drug addiction and obesity. Like "driving without brakes," she says, these conditions are not simply problems of self-control, as this dismisses the idea that a region of the brain is chronically malfunctioning. Last up, journalist Leslie Morgan Steiner told the story of Rhonda and Gerry, an infertile couple who chose surrogacy in India, which was 1/10th of the cost that it would have been in the U.S. Despite being so stigmatized here—by conservatives and feminists alike—the business is thriving abroad thanks to "medical tourism." We were lucky to be introduced to Rhonda, Gerry, and their three little miracles onstage.

Session 5: "Don't You Dare Talk About This." This session dealt with, as is obvious from the title, things we don't talk about. Though we should.

TEDMED curator Jay Walker streaming in from San Franscisco
and paging through a 1600s navigation book.
First, we were reunited with TEDMED curator Jay Walker once again, though this time he was speaking live from San Fransisco. He showed off some books and images from his Library of the History of Human Imagination—some truly incredible treasures.

We first saw actor Heather Raffo again—this time in the form of Layal, an Iraqi artist struggling with love during Saddam's brutal regime. When lawyer Sigrid Fry-Revere's young son was in need of a kidney transplant, she found just how difficult the process was in the U.S. She travelled to Iran to document their solution to the kidney shortage, which is both ethical and practical. In San Fransisco, neuroscientist Carl Hart introduced us to his former life as a petty criminal, drug dealer, and drug user. Diving into education after his stint in the Air Force, Hart's research in human drug addicts has uncovered something fascinating: one is more likely to choose an attractive economic alternative, if available, over a hit of drug. (SF gave him a standing ovation!). Patricia Horoho, the first woman and first nurse Army Surgeon General, shared with us some sobering statistics: every year, 400,000 deaths (enough to fill Arlington National Cemetary) occur due to medical error, and 1 in 4 hospitalizations result in harm. The problem isn't that we make mistakes, she says, but that we ignore them. Next up, actor Elizabeth Kenny told the story of how a simple doctor's visit to treat a common ailment led to a tornado of side effect after side effect. Eventually, she wound up in a level-5 psych ward. Kenny worries about all the people who went through what she did without understanding why, pondering that perhaps they, too, "walked away with a prescription for Paxil." Leana Wen, a doctor at George Washington University, urges for transparency among physicians for the benefit and trust of their patients. Wen founded, a site where physicians can sign the Total Transparency Manifesto, which can be viewed publicly. The session closed powerfully with a performance by former Marine Christian Ellis, an Iraq War veteran who has attempted suicide four times. He sang a piece from the opera he wrote based on his experiences, called Falluja.

Jazz trumpeter Dominick Farinacci.
Session 6: "Play is Not a Waste of Time." Mostly I was excited for this session since people like to tease me for having a Rubick's cube on my desk and taking walk breaks during the workday. (Also, my kitten is trying to play with me as I type this, so surely he knows what's up.)

Jill Vialet was the perfect person to open the session. She had us play a quick game where we stood up if a statement she said was relevant to us ("stand if you're a parent," "stand if you can speak two languages")—it got us thinking about our bodies and the people around us, much like collaborative playing. Vialet launched a nonprofit called Playworks in 1996, which now serves 450 schools in 24 cities, and spoke of the positive influence it's had on even the rowdiest of kids. Next, neuroscientist and physical therapist Cole Galloway introduced us to his Pediatric Mobility Lab and Design Studio, which customizes $100 toy store Jeeps as an affordable alternative to $25,000 wheelchairs, allowing non-mobile kids to "go, baby, go" (and look really cool while doing it). We then met Carla Pugh, a surgeon who realized that doctors had no way of fine-tuning their haptic skills. She's developed sensor technology that allows students to simulate what they should be feeling before putting it into practice. Next, science writer Kayt Sukel wondered why kids are encouraged to take risks, while adults are told that their risky actions are "stupid" or "crazy." The brain is plastic, and being risky throughout our lifetime helps us continue to learn and solve problems. Finally, we were treated to the energetic Cuban band Gerardo Contino y Los Habaneros, who also play at the bedside of sick patients with Musicians On Call.

Taking a cue from Ted Kaptchuk's talk on the placebo effect, host Jon Ellenthal decided to give acupuncture a go.
Read about Day 1 of TEDMED here.

Stay tuned for Day 3 details coming soon, and feel free to tweet or e-mail me if you're interested in more details about any of these speakers. I have lots of crazy notes scribbled down!

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