September 16, 2014

TEDMED Day 3: The Nature of People, the Peculiar, and the Pint-Sized

Bob Carey knows that laughter is the best medicine.
I was sad on the last day because a.) it was the last day, and b.) it started an hour earlier than Day 1 and by this point I was exhausted. (Exhaustion is the curse of the introvert who tries to put oneself out of their comfort zone by surrounding oneself with a thousand strangers for 10 hours a day). But as you can see from the picture on the right, it's clear that my spirits were lifted by midday.

Session 7: "Human Nature Inside and Out." This was a very diverse session addressing not just how can improve upon patient care by understanding human nature, but also how we can turn around our natural tendencies in the face of adversity.

The session opened with Julian Treasure, chairman of The Sound Agency, which advises businesses on how to design their buildings with sound in mind. Treasure gave some upsetting statistics: hospital noise has doubled in magnitude in the past 40 years; it's 12X louder during the day and 8X louder at night than recommended by the World Health Organization; and loudness is the #1 complaint of hospital patients in 2013. Treasure suggests hiring acoustic engineers, employing vibrating pagers and silent trolleys and footwear, and masking sound with white noise or music. Next, architect and scientist Mariana Figueiro spoke of the range of afflictions to which we're vulnerable when we don't get appropriate amounts of (blue!) light during the right time of day. Jeff Karp then spoke about his brilliant "bioinspired" technology, including how imitating spider webs improved adhesive tape for premature babies and how barbs, like on porcupine quills, are much better for the skin than tradition staples. Next, anesthesiologist Emery Brown gave us a primer on general anesthesia (which is not sleep!). It's actually, he says, a "drug-induced reversible coma," and different anesthetics have different signature EEG patterns. Neurosurgeon and researcher Uzma Samadani then spoke about her company Oculogica, which creates eye-tracking diagnostic technology to detect concussions and other brain injuries that do not show up on imaging. Finally, Debra Jarvis, the "irreverent reverend," spoke on the importance of finding meaning from crappy situations. She told us about a man with cancer who would go for his chemotherapy treatments alone. When Jarvis asked why he didn't bring anyone, he said he didn't have any friends. Once cancer-free, he vowed to find the meaning of friendship; when Jarvis attended his Christmas Eve party later that year, his house was packed to the brim.

Session 8: "Weird and Wonderful." This fun session explored some quirky biological systems—and some even quirkier things people can do thanks to a solid understanding of them.

A bra that doubles as TWO face masks, as modeled by Marc Abrahams.
Photographer Bob Carey was introduced to the stage wearing nothing but a tutu ("What's so funny? Oh yeah, I'm fat"). Carey found the true meaning of the phrase "laughter is the best medicine" after his wife Linda was diagnosed with breast cancer. He began photographing himself in a tutu in unlikely places, thus starting The Tutu Project. Next, science humorist Marc Abrahams described his role as master of ceremonies at the annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony; this year's event will actually be held this Thursday at Harvard.  Ten prizes are awarded each year by Nobel laureates themselves to research that makes us "laugh, and then think." Abrahams modeled an example for us: a bra that quickly converts into a face mask for two needy folks. In San Fransisco, we were introduced to Eric Chen, a Harvard College freshman recently awarded grand prizes at major national science fairs for his work in discovering anti-influenza drugs. Chen discussed the benefits of the Internet in not only finding answers to scientific questions, but discovering people and places to work in the first place. Next, University College of Cork neuroscientist John Cryan spoke on the fascinating relationship between the gut microbiome (the "master puppeteer") and our brains. Our early life exposure has a lot to do with this; babies born via C-section have a gut microbiome that differs from others, and we know that these bacteria also affect brain development. In SF, Sophie de Oliveira Barata, an artist trained in special effects prosthetics, described the work of the Alternative Limb Project. Barata creates beautiful, imaginative covers for peoples' prosthetic limbs to their custom specifications. One of her clients, Louise, joined Barata on stage, telling us that nobody addressed her prosthetic leg before, but now she's "re-claimed something [she] lost." Resa Lewiss then spoke about the importance of point-of-care sonography, which she hopes will be the future of the field. During triage, she believes, sonography can be a quick and accurate way to detect something that may be otherwise unseeable. Next, John Stein introduced us to AdhereTech, which has created "smart" pill bottles to remind patients to take their medication via phone call or text message. Stein says this type of technology will inevitably be offered to people who don't want it, so it's important to give them something that requires zero additional effort with intuitive functioning. Finally, we were treated to an original cello piece by the extremely talented Joshua Roman.

Session 9: "I Was Just Thinking Too Small." Of all sessions, I think I was most looking forward to this one. As a scientist studying just an iota of a subtopic of a subtopic, it's easy to lose sight of the big picture. And sometimes, as a doctor examining a patient, it's hard to remember that we're really a conglomerate of millions of complex and ever-changing cells.

Heather Raffo returned for a third performance to kick off the session, but to be perfectly honest...I snuck in a bit late and didn't catch her story. (I was caught in the back of a long line to get my new book signed by Marc Abrahams! TEDMED had its own bookstore for the first time this year, which was a great way to interact with the speakers.) In San Fransisco, Nadine Burke-Harris spoke about a pernicious condition that has its hands in every 7 of 10 deaths and affects every bodily system: childhood stress. High doses of stress hormones, like cortisol, result in increased risk of heart disease, cancer, and risky behaviors later in life. Burke-Harris founded the Center for Youth Wellness, which screens children in an effort to recognize and treat toxic stress. Harvard professor Daniel Kohane then took the stage to discuss his research on more efficient drug delivery routes. One example he gave was a drug that adheres to the tympanic membrane of the ear, makes it more permeable, then delivers it directly to the middle ear to treat an ear infection. "You can achieve big things," Kohane says, "by making them really small." Next in SF, Robin Guenther, a healthcare architect, discussed the design and importance of sustainably-built hospital systems. She pointed to the University of Texas system which contains 21 hospitals in just 1.5 square miles. Its waste and impact likely contributes to more problems than it's trying to solve, as the U.S. healthcare system accounts for 20% of the nation's waste. Although the up-front costs may be more, Guenther suggests that "green" hospitals pay for themselves over time. Rebecca Adamson, TEDMED's first female Native American speaker, is an economist who discussed the importance of "culturally-appropriate economic development." Adamson founded First Peoples Worldwide in 1997 to allow natives to develop their land based on indigenous principles. "A healthy individual emerges in a healthy society within a healthy ecosystem," she says. Finally, TEDMED D.C. 2014 closed with a thunderous performance by The Gypsy Allstars, a unique group comprised of members from France, Spain, Afghanistan, and India.

All in all, TEDMED 2014 was eye-opening, unique, education, and inspiring, and I'm honored to have been a part of it all.

Bob Carey perches on a step as we view a selection of his photos from The Tutu Project.
That's all, folks! Be sure to check out my Day 1 and Day 2 summaries as well, my general comments on the conference, and follow the #TEDMED hashtag on Twitter. If you are interested in attending TEDMED next year, you can secure your spot with a deposit now! Certainly consider applying for a Front Line Scholarship (that's how I got here). 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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