Old Well: UNC Chapel Hill Campus

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The patient succumbed to complications....

In following a news story about someone's demise, we often come across something like, "He succumbed to complications following routine surgery." The truth is that anyone undergoing surgery of any kind faces at the very least a one percent risk of never making it home again.

One percent might not seem much of a risk, but then we tend to think such things happen to the other guy, not us. Unfortunately, life is replete with the improbable and unanticipated every morning we get out of bed, and death has its way of cornering us in unexpected places.

I still remember a chance conversation I had many years ago with a custodian at Harvard who told me of the loss of her child during tonsillectomy. As I was very young, I don't think I took in its resonance as to the freakish nature of life itself, contributing not only to its mystery, but underscoring its frequent tragedy. I think it was Thomas Wolfe who wrote that a young man at 25 thinks himself immortal. (Say that to Keats, who knew better.) In my case, I was just 22.

A little more than a year ago, model and actress Mia Amber Davis died following knee surgery. She was 36. Dying from knee surgery? Yup, it happens.

There was also the unanticipated death of author Olivia Goldsmith, 54, whose Wives' Club became a popular movie. Following plastic surgery, she went into cardiac arrest, possibly induced by anesthesia. For me, the latter has always been the spookiest element in any surgery I've undergone. To borrow a phrase from poet William Carlos Williams, "so much depends on" an anesthesiologist.

Then there was the widely reported death of prominent Congressman John Murtha, 77, during "minimally invasive surgery" to remove his gall bladder. A close source told CNN that doctors accidentally "hit his intestines."

While natural causes such as a weak heart or allergic reaction to medication may often be factors in surgical mortality, the human capacity for error through misjudgment or negligence always looms, increasing the risk. Even good doctors make mistakes. The quandary is the more you do something well, the more the law of averages kicks in. Let's hope your surgeon is having a good day.

The bottom line is that our bodies treat any surgery as invasive, and human error compounds the danger. Surgery may be necessary, but it's never really "routine." Consider the case of Jenny Olenick, 17, who died of hypoxia (deficient oxygen to the brain) while undergoing anesthesia to have her wisdom teeth removed. While very rare, it's not unknown.

Of course, you can help lessen your risk by choosing your doctors well or considering a non-surgical alternative.

Unfortunately, we seldom get the choice as to the anesthesiologist. They just happen to be there, often rushing in from a previous procedure, and know precious little about us.

Next to death, surgery may be the ultimate in loss of control.


Saturday, September 22, 2012

Time for a new toy

I've just learned Target and Walmart have locked out the Kindle, including Amazon's most recent and innovative offering, the Kindle Fire HD. Some speculate these chains are clearing inventory to make way for both the hot selling iPhone 5 and the much anticipated mini iPad, though Apple remains mum on the latter.

Probably what's really happening has to deal with profit margins. With Amazon promoting its Kindles via low profit margins, there's little left over to entice the box stores. No evidence yet, however, that BestBuy and Radio Shack will follow suit.

As for a mini, rumored to be released in time for Christmas sales, it's not improbable. I wonder, though, if it would mean the demise of the larger screen version, which I prefer. One thing I have to admire is Apple's uncommon ability to keep a secret. Seems our government could learn a thing or two.

In the meantime, I've finally thrown in the towel and am upgrading to the iPhone 5 with its wondrously fast camera, enlarged screen, retina sharpness (18% more pixels to play with), vastly improved saturation, 4G LTE access, and alluring svelte slimness. I hear the improved Siri will even open up your applications. Hey, how good is that!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

English is still number one

We hear a lot these days that we're transitioning from the American Century to a Chinese one. In my own lifetime I never anticipated the current groundswell for Chinese language classes. I grew up with the emphasis in schools and colleges on Spanish, French, and German. I hadn't thought about it until just now, but my high school didn't even offer Spanish, let alone an Asian language, though it did offer four years of Latin. The times certainly are a-changing.

While I'm strongly for learning another language in a world of shrinking distances and expanding global interchange, I still think English will remain the closest we have to an international lingua franca for some time to come. Even in China, English is seen as "the ticket."

Language domination does shift over the centuries with the wax and wane of primary empires and modern nations. Before the rise of Latin, the language which defined linguistic universalism in the Western world was Greek, so much so that the New Testament was rendered in Greek to promote the new faith. Its antecedent was the Septuagint rendering of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek.

We all know about the spectacular spread of Latin with the rise of Rome and its shaping several of Europe's primary languages, including English.

With the reign of France's Louis IV in the 17th century and the nascence of the Enlightenment, French began its ascendency as the language of diplomacy until English began its challenge with the birth of the Industrial Revolution in England and the growth of its Empire. English received a further boost with America's emergence as a superpower in the 20th century.

While Chinese may have far more speakers than English, its users are primarily geographically confined, unlike those speaking English, a truly international tongue based on geography alone--UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Guiana, former African colonies, and much of the West Indies. We tend to forget that more than 300 million Indians use English daily.

In all of this, that so many opt for English as their second language doesn't mean they like us anglophones, but that they find it the most useful for world communication.

What principally inhibits Chinese is its notorious difficulty as a tonal medium, despite a relatively simple grammar, and the virtual impossibility of mastering its written language. The Chinese, along with the Japanese, would do themselves a huge favor by transitioning to the Latin alphabet, as did Turkey in the last century, but they aren't going to do that.

English musters a terrific advantage in its being largely inflection free, unlike German or Russian with their formidable declensions. While English features some irregular verbs, a vestige of its Germanic origin, it doesn't exhibit the complexity of verb conjugations found in the Romance languages. Nonetheless, I've always maintained that while English is easy to learn, it's hard to speak well. Only a relative few native speakers know how to distinguish lie and lay, farther and further, amount and number, etc. Then there is the challenge of its non-phonetic spelling. Imagine the challenge this poses for non-native speakers. Still more, there are all those nasty homonyms: horse vs hoarse, and the infamous to, too, two, etc.

Nevertheless, English remains relatively easy to speak, with only the Scandinavian languages approaching it in leveled or near absent inflection. Their speakers, however, are too few for it to matter. In fact, English has become so dominant in Sweden that a new language law was recently enacted (2009) to protect Swedish. In Sweden, virtually everyone speaks English well and you'll find it abundantly in public ads and English language television and movies, which are seldom dubbed. Many young Swedes prefer English as more expressive and practical. If this is Sweden, can you just imagine the consternation of the French?

So despite what you may be hearing, English is still number one and likely to remain so for a long time to come. But do the language a favor by learning it well. After all, it's the language of Shakespeare.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Promises to keep

In 2008, an intelligent, compassionate, and eloquent Barack Obama was swept into the Presidency, becoming the nation's first Black president, auguring a new day and "promises to keep" (Frost) for a better America.

Unfortunately, our president made some 500 promises he hasn't kept . Here's a composite of the better known ones:

Create a tax credit of $500 for workers

Repeal the Bush tax cuts for higher incomes

Train and equip the Afghan armed forces

End the use of torture

Close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center

Restrict warrantless wiretaps

Seek verifiable reductions in nuclear stockpiles

Centralize ethics and lobbying information for voters

Require more disclosure and a waiting period for earmarks

Tougher rules against revolving door for lobbyists and former officials

Secure the borders

Provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants

Reform mandatory minimum sentences

Secure nuclear weapons materials in four years

Strengthen antitrust enforcement

Create new financial regulations

Sign a "universal" health care bill

Create 5 million "green" jobs

Reduce oil consumption by 35 percent by 2030

Create cap and trade system with interim goals to reduce global warming

Cut the cost of a typical family's health insurance premium by up to $2,500 a year

Now our President wants a second term. He'll probably get it, considering the power of incumbency, with more broken promises to follow.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

When Elephants Weep

I have always had this love affair with elephants, these gray, wrinkled, lumbering mastodons, survivors of a primordial past, trunks swaying, gentle creatures, yet fearsome when provoked.

Among animals, they're probably the most attached to one another. What surprises many is the social sophistication of their matriarchal society characterized by close relationships with all herd members, many of them related. Herds, sometimes numbering up to a hundred, are headed by the oldest female and calves are raised and protected by the entire matriarchal herd. (Males generally leave the herd at about 15 years and live apart.)

Elephants are found in Africa and Asia and it's easy to tell them apart, as the Asian species is smaller. When I see the large ears, I know at once it's an African elephant.

Both male and female African elephants have tusks, to their own undoing. In contrast, only the Asian male has them.

Highly intelligent, elephants can communicate messages over long distances with their feet.

They are also endowed with prodigious memory, as I think most of us know.

Elephants have the longest noses of any animal, for that's what their trunks really are. Some sport trunks up to seven feet in length, yet they never get in the way, as they're used to grasp as well as feed. With this tool, they've been known to assist calves to stand or pull them up over an embankment.

Their ivory tusks are actually teeth that never stop growing.

Lesser known is the elephant's capacity to mourn their dead.

Population growth has reduced its habitat inexorably, resulting in elephants invading villages in search for food, in turn, leading to hunting parties. Immense poverty has triggered poachers to seek quick Asian money for ivory. Even reserves, dedicated to wildlife safety, are violated and any elephant, mother or calf, is gunned down for its tusks. African governments lack the financial resources needed to upgrade security. Reserves themselves are a last ditch effort to provide sanctuary but, unfortunately, often conspire against elephant interests, blocking off migration routes when they need to mate or find new food resources.

Just over a century ago, several million elephants roamed Western and Central Africa's savannahs and dense jungles; today, about 300,000 remain. In Asia, their numbers have dwindled from 100,000 to 35,000, all of them domesticated.

Often weighing up to seven tons, their sole predator is Man. In Cameroon, 300 elephants were recently slaughtered, their bodies left to rot. Such slaughters are likely to define their future, given the nature of Man's capacity for ruthlessness for the sake of coin.

To fully appreciate elephants, I highly recommend Jeffrey Moussaleff Masson's moving book, When Elephants Weep, an exploration of their capacity, along with other animals, for emotion.

Conrad had it right about the ignominy of Man, his ruthless capacity, hidden behind his civilized veneer, for retrogression to a latent savagery taking many hues.

When elephants weep, I weep with them. I weep for a vanishing legacy that our grandchildren may never know: the cry of elephants, the thunder of their feet, the mystery of their dark eyes.

I weep most for a declining vestige of a once garden world distanced from Man's malevolence, a fall from grace into the heart of darkness.