Saturday, December 31, 2011

Come out and play!

"You're not playful," he says. "I'm playful!" I insist, but then I think about it some more. He is right; I am not playful. And I believe this is not a good thing.

This isn't to say that I'm joyless and gloomy all the time. I do seek out joy and I have moments of happiness that are so true, they make me cry. But this is not the same as play.

Why am I not playful? I have been thinking about this. A part of play is about trust. You have to trust the ones you are playing with, and you have to trust yourself to let go. I am a control freak and I realize that this part of play is difficult for me. I am afraid of being laughed at or embarrassing myself. My discomfort at embarrasment is so deep that I can barely watch a movie or television show where I know a character is about to be embarrassed. The times I have been embarrassed at my own behavior, I relive in my head, trying to figure out a way that I could fix it or explain it away.

I wonder if I can work on this. Maybe learning to play would help me in other places: letting go as a writer, that sort of thing. Can this be my first resolution for 2012, to be better at play?

Friday, December 30, 2011

Looking back, looking forward

I wish I could say that 2011 was this incredible year, full of joy and wonder. However, this was not the case. I would say that 2011 was a challenging year. It's a year that I will remember for a very long time, although not always fondly.

This was a year of great loss on a personal level. One thing you can say about a major loss is that all other issues become background. I never think it's right to rank things like love or pain or sadness, but sometimes things happen that do make other events pale in comparison.

Going through this year, with all its ups and downs, I feel like I've grown in my ability to handle things. I'm no zen-like center of calm, but I'm not quite as touchy as I was. That's not to say that I don't have times I breakdown or lose my temper, but I think (I hope) that it's not as often or over just little things. I feel like I can look at how I am reacting to a situation and I can figure out where my reaction is coming from. (I will admit that some of this self-actualization comes after I've freaked out a bit and calmed down. I'm still working over here!)

I hope this coming year has less drama and (dare I say it?) is a bit more boring. But, even more than that, I hope that I keep figuring myself out and I keep working on being a better version of me.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 5, 2011

She sells cells from her cells: Thoughts about HeLa

I have just finished "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." My mom gave it to me for my birthday, thinking that a good story about biology would appeal to me (she was right.) In the final analysis, I would recommend the book, but I can't say that I agree with all of it.

The book is about Henrietta Lacks, who was poor, black, uneducated, and living in the Baltimore area. When she discovers she has cervical cancer, she is treated at Johns Hopkins which treated charity cases. It should be noted that this was in the late 1940s, before HIPAA laws, detailed informed consent forms, integration, etc. Her situation was unusual in that this was a research hospital and there was a researcher looking to develop cell lines for tissue culture. Because of this situation, they took her removed tumor and used it to develop a cell line. However, the actual treatment she received and the fact that doctors didn't ask for permission to do study on discarded tissue was not usual, class or race aside. The bit of cancer that was removed from Henrietta Lacks lead to the development of the HeLa cell line which has been extremely important in biological research. Truly, these cells were game changers. However, despite the success of HeLa cells, the Lacks family has not fared so well.

The issue I had with the book was the implied controversy. "The HeLa cells made millions but the Lacks are poor! No one knew who Henrietta Lacks was! They invaded her privacy! Despite all the research, she still died from her cancer!" The author plays with timelines, shifts the story around. I suppose it could be just clever writing, but I also think it's an attempt to make controversy when none is there. Putting two facts next to each other doesn't make them related. This is bad reporting and, frankly, just stirring stuff up. (For example: I walked to work this morning and there were free donuts in the pantry. Both things are true, but they aren't related. My walking to work did not result in free donuts. Although that would be kind of awesome.) This book loves to group some pretty awful low-points in medical ethics (such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment) with what happened here, which is nowhere near each other. Henrietta Lacks was treated to the standard of the time, but she died of her cancer anyway. This is sad, but no medical ethics were compromised here.

It bothers me that the book so badly wants to make members of the scientific community the bad guys. Research is hard. It's frustrating. Sometimes you have a theory that should work, but, for some unseen reason, it just won't happen in the lab. Sometimes you have years when you work your tail off and all you have to show for it all is a big hunk of nothing. Working in a lab takes skill and determination and some smarts and (as much as we hate to admit it) luck. The group that developed the HeLa cells into a cell culture line demonstrated this. And, even though it took all of that, they gave away a lot of HeLa cells for free. They were extremely generous. The author found one scientist who felt that the Lacks family should have profited from these cells (I'm guessing that other scientists did not share this view) and she makes a big fuss over this. It would have been nice to have the other side of the argument presented.

It should be pointed out that it is illegal to sell body parts, something the author buries towards the end of the book, almost as an afterward. In fact, if Henrietta Lacks was in a clinical study where they took her tissue for further research, the amount of money she would have gotten would have been minimal (and the same for all people who had tumors taken from them, whether or not a cell line lived.)

It sucks that the Lacks family has health issues and no insurance. But it sucks that anyone in the US is in that situation. It sucks that their mom got cancer when they were really young and then they were raised by people who abused them. I agree that the forward march of science shouldn't trample someone's rights, but, as interesting as this story is, this was not the case of greedy scientists stealing body parts from a poor, black woman.