Saturday, January 21, 2006

What's the Rush?

I'm at Rush University Medical Center in the middle of a rotation in pulmonology/critical care. Basically, I'm on the consult service, which means we spend our day going around seeing patients in the hospital who have developed lung problems, or whose lung problems are too complicated for nonspecialists to handle.

It's a busy service, we have one attending, one fellow, three residents, plus me the medical student and we are all usually carrying 4-5 patients. We start the day around 7:30AM and often end up staying til 6pm. Some long days for what I thought would be an relatively easy month...

One of our patients is a gentleman who has multiple sclerosis (MS). MS usually affects people of Northern European descent and women are affected twice as much as men. So if someone says MS, you usually think of a young white woman, between 20 and 40 years of age. What's interesting about our patient is that he is an African-American male.

He basically came in because he had fever, vomiting and abdominal pain. He breathes through a tracheostomy, which is when they hook you up to a ventilator by making a hole in your windpipe. We're seeing him to treat a pneumonia he developed as a result of the vomiting, which happens when some vomit accidentally goes down the windpipe into the lungs. Pneumonia is very serious in MS, because it has high mortality. Nearly 50% of people with MS die because of complications from things like pneumonia, pulmonary emboli, and urosepsis.

It was discovered the abdominal pain was due to a kidney stone, which was removed, and he is doing better now, though we will not be able to take him off the ventilator. MS is a really tough condition, there is no cure and we don't know what causes it. Our patient has become so spastic (a kind of involuntary muscle tightness) and weak, he can no longer walk around, even though mentally he is intact. He likes watching game shows, and I watched a little bit of Family Feud with him...I admire his perseverance and only wish we could do more for him...

Race of Hope

Saw a show about Cameroon, on PBS' Globetrekker show. Not really a huge fan of the show but it was on and I was bored. The show's host came across a big event in Cameroon, called the "Race of Hope". It involves running up and down Mount Fako, or Mount Cameroon, a volcanic mountain that rises over 13,000 feet into the sky. I think the race is a total of 42 kilometers or so.

It's actually scheduled for this Febuary and attracts athletes from all over the world. Personally, I get tired after like 7 flights of stairs. 13,000 feet sounds like a whole heckuva lotta stairs...

To entice the lazy, they've doubled the prize money to 3 million CFA, which sounds like a lot but translates to $5300. Hmmn. Or you could sit on the couch and watch other people do it for you...and if you have HDTV it'll be like you're really there! Won't it?

Well, whatever you decide to do, here are some nice pictures taken by Ann Bowker, who did climb the mountain and who apparently has climbed a whole lot of them, if her site is any indication...

Mt. Cameroon is also famous for its biodiversity and a local tree called prunus africana, whose bark is used to make a medicine to treat prostate enlargement. Cameroon is the largest exporter of prunus and apparently the French are the biggest importers...draw your own conclusions...

Friday, January 20, 2006

Storm Warriors: Heroes of the Shipwreck Coast

If I told you that there was a place called "Shipwreck Coast" where ships and sailors met their untimely deaths in frigid, choppy waters that crash against constantly shifting sandy shoals and rocky coastline, where do you think I would be talking about? Norway? Sweden? Iceland?

Well, how about the Upper Peninsula in Michigan? Just watched a documentary on PBS called "Storm Warriors: Heroes of the Shipwreck Coast" that talked about Shipwreck Coast on Lake Superior in the UP of Michigan.

If you look at the image below, from the Great Lakes Information Network, Shipwreck Coast is the coastline after you emerge from the Soo Locks of the St. Marys River going into Lake Superior along the northern coastline of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Another image is here, from the documentary website.

The problem was so bad that Congress eventually built a series of "Life-Saving Service Stations" along the coast and two lighthouses. The people that lived here faced harsh, long winters and an almost desperate isolation as they served this country by rescuing those in shipwrecks, or ships that were clearly about to become wrecks. The documentary detailed many of the heroic rescues that were accomplished and depicts the life of these men and their families in an engaging manner.

It's kind of strange to imagine Lake Superior as the setting for so much maritime drama. From 30-foot waves, to tragic deaths and incredible rescues, the 100 or so shipwrecks along Shipwreck Coast each have a compelling story behind them.

Apparently today, you can visit Shipwreck Coast and go scuba diving to see the wrecks firsthand. There is also a museum you can visit, to complete the edutainment.

Amazing what's in our backyards...

Sunday, January 08, 2006


Some 3 million Muslims are nearing completion of the Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim who is able must make, the culmination of a spiritual and physical journey to the most sacred of environs. The Hajj is one of the pillars of Islam and the reward of a successful Hajj is nothing less than complete forgiveness for all one's sins.

But the blessings of Hajj extend to all Muslims, as the first ten days of the month in which Hajj is held are the most blessed days of the year - any good acts performed in them receive more grace and reward from Allah than in any other days of the year.

A beautiful poem by Ibn Arabi, one of the greatest saints of Islam, expresses his love for the Ka'bah. It has been translated to English by Gibril F. Haddad, from Ibn Arabi's Futuhat:

1. In the Place of refuge my heart sought refuge, shot with enmity's arrows.

2. O Mercy of Allah for His slaves, Allah placed His trust in you among all inanimate forms.

3. O House of my Lord, O light of my heart, O coolness of my eyes,b O my heart within,

4. O true secret of the heart of existence, my sacred trust, my purest love!

5. O direction from which I turn from every quarter and valley,

6. From subsistence in the Real, then from the height, from self-extinction, then from the depths!

7. O Ka`ba of Allah, O my life, O path of good fortune, O my guidance,

8. In you has Allah placed every safety from the fear of disaster upon the Return.

9. In you does the noble Station flourish, in you are found the fortunes of Allah's slaves.

10. In you is the Right Hand that my sin has draped in the robe of blackness.c

11. Multazam is in you - he who clings to love for it, will be saved on the Day of Mutual Cries.d

12. Souls passed away longing for Her, in the pain of longing and distant separation.

13. In sorrow at their news she has put on the garment of mourning.e

14. Allah sheds His light on her court, and something of His light appears in the heart.

15. None sees it but the sorrowful whose eyes are dark from lack of sleep.

16. He circumnambulates seven times after seven, from the beginning of night until the call to prayer.

17. Hostage to endless sadness, he is never seen but bound to effort.

18. I heard him call upon Allah and say, beside the Black Stone: "O my heart!

19. Our night has quickly passed, but the goal of my love has not passed!"

Sunday, January 01, 2006

It was beauty killed the beast

Somewhere in the $300 million special-effects extravaganza that is "King Kong", Peter Jackson is trying to tell us something. It must be something important, as it is the longest remake of a movie that has been remade several times since the 1933 original by Cooper and Schoedsack.

To be honest, I've never seen the 1933 production, though I do remember the Toho Studios production "King Kong vs. Godzilla," (and nearly all their other movies) which seemed to be in endless replay on WGN back in the day. I can't say I found those movies to be particularly good, but they passed the time on those lazy summer days when it was too hot or too wet to go outside...

[please note plenty of spoilers ahead]

Part of Jackson's purpose may simply be to bring a character he's loved to life in a way no one could do before, thanks to modern special effects, and his skilled orchestration of ficitional and actual characters on the screen. His work on the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy has cemented his visual style, one in which the fantastical setting of the movie itself becomes a character, with its own moods, mysteries and even betrayals.

But perhaps there is another message in the Kong epic, one that speaks about man's fascination with the wild and the irrepressible urge, in some, to tame it. It is interesting to note that they end up on Skull Island, not because they want to (the ship's captain had turned the ship around to go to Rangoon), but because a storm and fog enshrouded the night and they were run aground into some rocks. After their freaky encounters with the local savages (who deserve the term), Denham and the rest of the crew set out on Skull Island to rescue Ann Darrow, who has been abducted by Kong. Little do they expect to stare open-mouthed both in wonder at the beauty of the scenery and in fear of the gigantic beasts roaming the Island. There is something about the Island that makes man seem small and so hopelessly weak.

As they attempt to save Ann Darrow, the rescue party gets smaller and smaller the deeper into Skull Island they go, as they are beset by dinosaurs, insects and the weather. In the end, the rescue party itself is saved only when the crew from the ship is able to come, armed to the teeth with rifles. This, humankind's technological savvy, is what ultimately saves man against the overwhelming elements of the Island.

Unfortunately, our technological powress often brings out a mean streak in humanity, for it makes us think we are not only savvy but powerful. Powerful enough, for instance, to capture a force of nature like Kong and bring him back to the Big Apple. Of course, it isn't primarily hubris that motivates Denham to capture Kong, it is the profit motive. He stands to make millions from showcasing Kong and he isn't about to let the chance pass him by. So he devises a way to capture the beast and, before you know it, the big gorilla is on his way back to the Big Apple.

Once there, Kong inevitably finds a way to bust out and wreak havoc on the streets of New York, culminating in his ascension of the Empire State Building and eventual machine gunning by little biplanes. Kong is dead and, as Denham says, it was beauty killed the beast.

While it sounds nice, it is one of the dumbest lines to end a movie as it was hardly beauty that killed the beast. Kong didn't swim across the Atlantic to follow the cute blonde with green eyes. It would be really weird if he did. He was carted there against his will, kept in chromed steel chains and put on display. It was not beauty that killed Kong, it was man's inability to control him, an inability to control the natural.

This issue actually comes up on a practical level quite often. As Ali pointed out to me, it is not uncommon for people living in relatively remote areas of America that are scenic, beautiful and wild, to encounter bears. Or, as their natural habitat is destroyed, displaced bears find their way into urban areas. The bears will often make trouble, and can be a real danger to the elderly or little children, and thus people try to put "the fear of man back into them". Bears are not unlike Kong. Both are great to behold, either in their natural habitat or chained up, but once they go "wild" on us, we destroy them.

In our quest to subdue nature, we become shocked when nature reclaims itself. We wonder how it is that a city built below sea level could become so ravaged by a hurricane (umm, don't build cities below sea level), we wonder why mud slides in California damage so much property (maybe we shouldn't build on unstable hills, even if they do have great views) or why bears wander into our backyards (how about not having any forest left?).

Often times, it is the monsters we create that we must destroy. And maybe that would have been a better line to end "King Kong" with...

1. See a trailer for the 1933 "King Kong"
2. Trailer for the 1976 "King Kong"
3. "Bear Prowling in Genoa" The Record-Courier, 12/30/2005.
4. Novelization of King Kong, available from Amazon
5. "It Wasn't Beauty Killed the Beast" by Gary Giddins, 11/22/05 in the New York Sun
6. Roger Ebert's review, 12/13/2005 (he rated it as one of his Top Ten for 2005 & also agrees that it wasn't beauty killed the beast)