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Cancer, In the News, Palliative Care, Stanford News

Paul Kalanithi’s book will probably make you cry

Paul Kalanithi's book will probably make you cry

Just over a year ago, I received a first draft of an article for Stanford Medicine magazine that electrified me. It was gorgeous. It was heartbreaking. Its last words delivered a jolt of joy and made me cry. And this was just a first draft.

Now that essay, published in our spring 2015 issue as “Before I go,” is part of “When Breath Becomes Air,” the book Stanford neurosurgery resident Paul Kalanithi, MD, wrote in his last months of life about confronting an early death. The book is as compelling and beautiful as the essay. And just as likely to make you cry. Our next issue of Stanford Medicine will include an excerpt.

That I received the essay at all seemed at the time a small miracle. In September 2014, Kalanithi had agreed to write for the magazine, and two months later I had more than a magazine editor’s usual trepidation about whether the writer would meet the deadline.

I knew the cancer was wriggling through all medical defenses and that he was still fighting it with chemotherapy. I suspected the chemotherapy side effects were brutal. (I now know he wore silver-lined gloves to protect his fingertips, cracked from chemotherapy, while using his computer’s trackpad.) I hoped he was spending his last days doing what was most important to him, so I was loath to pressure him to finish his draft. Yet I selfishly hoped he had enough time to get the story done.

My deadline worries evaporated on Nov. 6 when, right on time, Kalanithi sent a first draft. It was magnificent. A month later the polished version came in, we published it and it proceeded to blow the minds of readers around the world.

Janet Maslin speaks for me in her New York Times review of the book:

Part of this book’s tremendous impact comes from the obvious fact that its author was such a brilliant polymath. And part comes from the way he conveys what happened to him — passionately working and striving, deferring gratification, waiting to live, learning to die — so well. None of it is maudlin. Nothing is exaggerated. As he wrote to a friend: “It’s just tragic enough and just imaginable enough.” And just important enough to be unmissable.

Kalanithi’s wife, Lucy Kalanithi, MD, a physician at Stanford, wrote the book’s epilogue and has penned an essay in the New York Times on their marriage before and after his death. It’s also unmissable.

Previously: Stanford neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, who touched countless lives with his writing, dies at 37 and For this doctor couple, the Super Bowl was about way more than football  and Stanford neurosurgeon/cancer patient Paul Kalanithi: “I can’t go on. I will go on.”
Photo courtesy of Lucy Kalanithi

Global Health, Pediatrics, Stanford News

Stanford Medicine magazine tells why a healthy childhood matters

Stanford Medicine magazine tells why a healthy childhood matters

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I’ve forgotten most of my childhood experiences – which is perfectly normal. But apparently my body remembers many of those experiences – and I learned while editing the new Stanford Medicine magazine that’s normal too. The fall issue’s special report, “Childhood: The road ahead,” is full of stories of researchers realizing the impact early experiences can have on adult health. Some of their discoveries are surprising.

“Some people think kids are protected by virtue of being kids. In fact, the opposite is true,” pediatric psychiatrist Victor Carrion, MD, told writer Erin Digitale, PhD, when she interviewed him for her story on the long-term effects of childhood trauma. Other writers found the same goes for other types of early damage: Kids are resilient but they also carry hidden scars.

The report also includes a Q&A with former President Jimmy Carter on discrimination against women and girls, which he considers the most serious human rights problem on Earth. The online version of the magazine includes audio of the Carter conversation.

Other highlights of the magazine’s special report include:

  • Go to bed“: An article on the devastating toll inadequate sleep takes on teens, with an update on efforts, including a Stanford project, to fix the problem.
  • When I grow up“: A report on the growing need for support of chronically ill children making the jump to adult care, and on the progress that’s being made.
  • Beyond behavior“: A story about a high school student’s return to health after an assault, and the new type of therapy that helped her.
  • Rocket men“: A feature about three rocket-combustion experts teaming up with a pediatrician to analyze the breath of critically ill children at warp speed.
  • Warm welcomes“: An article on blending Western medicine into traditional culture to reduce newborn mortality in the developing world.
  • Bad for the bone“: A quick look at a new way to study the toll of childhood disease on bones.

The issue also has an article on a surprising role for viruses in human embryos, as well as a report from India on how vision, investment and medical know-how has brought about an ambulance system — now 10 years old and one of the most important advances in global health today. The online version includes a video showing the ambulance system in action.

Many thanks to Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, which helped support this issue.

Previously: This summer’s Stanford Medicine magazine shows some skin, Stanford Medicine magazine reports on time’s intersection with health and Stanford Medicine magazine traverses the immune system
Illustration from the cover of Stanford Medicine magazine’s fall 2015 issue by Christopher Silas Neal

Cancer, Dermatology, Infectious Disease, Stanford News, Transplants

This summer’s Stanford Medicine magazine shows some skin

This summer's Stanford Medicine magazine shows some skin

below surface banner and 1 blogSkin is superficial, literally. But it’s also really deep, as I realized while editing the just-published issue of Stanford Medicine magazine. The summer issue features the special report “Skin deep: The science of the body’s surface.”

I learned from the chair of Stanford’s Department of Dermatology, Paul Khavari, MD, PhD, that thousands of diseases affect the skin. And I learned it’s surprisingly abundant: An average-sized adult is covered with about 20 square feet of skin.

Research on skin is thriving, in part, because skin is so easy to get hold of, Khavari told me. “The accessibility of skin tissue to the application of new technologies, including genomics, proteomics, and metabolomics, make this a watershed moment for progress in alleviating the tremendous suffering caused by the global burden of skin disease,” he said.

The magazine, produced with support from the dermatology department, includes articles not only about new treatments, but also insights into how skin works when it’s healthy and how to keep it that way. In a Q&A and audio interview, actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith, who is African-American, addresses skin’s social meaning, discussing her relationship to her own skin and how, as a writer and actor, she gets under the skin of her characters. The online version of the magazine includes audio of an interview with Smith.

Also in the issue:

  • The butterfly effect“: A story about two young men coping with one of the world’s most painful diseases — the skin-blistering condition epidermolysis bullosa — including news about an experimental treatment to replace their broken genes. The online version includes a video with a patient at home and interviews with experts on the condition.
  • Surviving melanoma“: A report on progress being made after years of stagnation in treating the most deadly skin cancer: melanoma.
  • The rarest of rashes“:  A look at one of Stanford Medicine’s great accomplishments in dermatology: successful treatment of a rare but dangerous rash — cutaneous lymphoma, a form of blood cancer that spreads to the skin.
  • Take cover“: Tips on keeping skin safe from the sun.
  • Wither youth“: A feature on research seeking to answer the question: Why does skin age?
  • New lungs, new life“: The story of a young woman who lost her smile and had it restored through surgery.

The issue also includes a story considering the rise in number of castoff donor hearts, despite a shortage of the organs for transplants, and an excerpt from Jonas Salk: A Life, a new biography of the polio-vaccine pioneer, written by retired Stanford professor Charlotte Jacobs, MD.

Previously: Stanford Medicine magazine reports on time’s intersection with health, Stanford Medicine magazine traverses the immune system and Stanford Medicine magazine opens up the world of surgery
Photo, from the Summer 2015 issue of Stanford Medicine, by Max Aguilera-Hellweg

Aging, Pain, Palliative Care, Research, Stanford News

How would you like to die? Tell your doctor in a letter

How would you like to die? Tell your doctor in a letter

writing a letterAsking patients how they would like to die is not a question that comes easy to most doctors. Not surprisingly, most of us – doctors and patients alike – prefer to avoid the topic completely. That’s not good, says VJ Periyakoil, MD, director of palliative care education and training at Stanford.

As I wrote in an Inside Stanford Medicine article on Periyakoil’s new study on end-of-life conversations:

End-of-life conversations help clarify for doctors what matters most to patients in their waning days of life… “What are their hopes, wants, needs and fears? Do they want to die at the hospital on a machine? Do they want to die at home? We can’t know unless we have a conversation,” she said.

Her study, published today in PLOS One, surveyed more than 1,000 medical residents and found that most balk at talking with seriously ill patients about what’s important to them in their final days, especially if the patient’s ethnicity is different than their own. Of those surveyed, 99.99 percent reported barriers, with 86 percent rating them as very challenging.

The upshot for Periyakoil, as she explains in a New York Times column published today, is that if we want to have a say in how we die, we should start that conversation ourselves.

To get these conversations started far and wide, she has launched the Stanford Letter Project – a campaign to empower all adults to take the initiative to talk to their doctor about what matters most to them at life’s end. The project’s website hosts templates for a letter about this to your doctor to get the conversation rolling. The templates are in Mandarin, Spanish and Tagalog as well as English – and Periyakoil says translations in additional languages will be available soon.

Previously: In honor of National Healthcare Decisions Day: A reminder for patients to address end-of-life issues, Study: Doctors would choose less aggressive end-of-life care for themselvesAsking the hardest questions: Talking with doctors while terminally ill, On a mission to transform end-of-life care and The importance of patient/doctor end-of-life discussions
Photo by Gioia De Antoniis

Applied Biotechnology, Clinical Trials, FDA, Research, Stanford News

An inside look at drug development

An inside look at drug development

B0008664 Assorted pills, tablets and capsules

How are drugs born? If you’re really curious about this, you’d be fascinated by the weekly meetings of industry experts and academic researchers taking part in Stanford’s drug-development training program known as SPARK.

A recently published book, A Practical Guide to Drug Development in Academia, crystallizes the sessions. Even if you’re not a scientist dreaming of curing cancer with your latest discovery, you might find it interesting.

In his recent review of the book for Nature Chemical Biology, industrial medicinal chemist Derek Lowe, PhD, writes:

I would actually welcome it if this book’s intended audience were broadened even more. Younger scientists starting out in the drug industry would benefit from reading it and getting some early exposure to parts of the process that they’ll eventually have to understand. Journalists covering the industry (especially the small startup companies) will find this book a good reality check for many an over-hopeful press release. Even advanced investors who might want to know what really happens in the labs will find information here that might otherwise be difficult to track down in such a concentrated form.

Lowe also wrote about the book last week on his blog, In the Pipeline, where an interesting discussion has begun.

Previously: SPARK program helps researchers cross the “valley of death” between drug discovery and development and Accelerating the translation of biomedical research into clinical applications.
Photograph from Wellcome Images

Cancer, Stanford News

Stanford neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, who touched countless lives with his writing, dies at 37

Stanford neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, who touched countless lives with his writing, dies at 37

Paul K and daughter - fixedNeurosurgeon and writer Paul Kalanithi, MD, passed away on Monday. A death is almost always sad, but for me this one is indescribably so – though if he were alive he might convince me of a positive angle.

Kalanithi died at 37 of lung cancer less than a year after finishing his neurosurgery residency at Stanford. During the roughly two years between his diagnosis and death, he spent time as a surgeon saving lives and passing his skills and insights to neurosurgery trainees. But I came to meet him through my work as editor of Stanford Medicine magazine, which published an essay he crafted. His words changed how I think about my life – and, based on the many letters and emails I’ve received, changed how many people looked at theirs as well.

After his diagnosis he wrote essays for The New York Times and Stanford Medicine about his changing perception of mortality and time and the joy he continued to find in life. I interviewed him for a video produced for our magazine, talking with him at his apartment and meeting his wife and baby girl. My colleagues also got to know him by working on stories about his life and illness; just a few days ago, Paul Costello shared on Scope a 45-minute conversation the two had last fall.

Kalanithi’s message, to appreciate every moment, sounds corny when I write it, but in his eloquent words it hits home. In the obituary I wrote today, I shared this excerpt from his Stanford Medicine essay – words he wrote for his infant daughter:

When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

Previously: Stanford neurosurgeon/cancer patient Paul Kalanithi: “I can’t go on. I will go on.”For this doctor couple, the Super Bowl was about way more than football, A neurosurgeon’s journey from doctor to cancer patient, Stop skipping dessert:” A Stanford neurosurgeon and cancer patient discusses facing terminal illness and No one wants to talk about dying but we all need to
Image – a screenshot from a Stanford Medicine video – from Mark Hanlon

Aging, Cancer, Education, Emergency Medicine, Pregnancy, Stanford News

Stanford Medicine magazine reports on time’s intersection with health

Stanford Medicine magazine reports on time's intersection with health

Why is it that giant tortoises typically live for 100 years but humans in the United States are lucky to make it past 80? And why does the life of an African killifish zip past in a matter of months?

I’ve often mused about the variability of life spans and I figure pretty much everyone else has too. But while editing the new issue of Stanford Medicine magazine’s special report on time and health, “Life time: The long and short of it,” I learned that serious scientists believe the limits are not set in stone.

“Ways of prolonging human life span are now within the realm of possibility,” says professor of genetics Anne Brunet, PhD, in “The Time of Your Life,” an article on the science of life spans. My first thought was, wow! Then I wondered if some day humans could live like the “immortal jellyfish,” which reverts back to its polyp state, matures and reverts again, ad infinitum. Now that would be interesting.

Also covered in the issue:

  • “Hacking the Biological Clock”: An article on attempts to co-opt the body’s timekeepers to treat cancer, ease jetlag and reverse learning disabilities.
  • “Time Lines”: A Q&A with bestselling author and physician Abraham Verghese, MD, on the timeless rituals of medicine. (The digital edition includes audio of an interview with Verghese.)
  • “Tick Tock”: A blow-by-blow account of the air-ambulance rescue of an injured toddler.
  • “Before I Go”: An essay about the nature of time from a young neurosurgeon who is now living with an advanced form of lung cancer. (The neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi, MD, is featured in the video above, and our digital edition also includes audio of an interview with him.)

The issue also includes a story about the danger-fraught birth of an unusual set of triplets and an excerpt from the new biography of Nobel Prize-winning Stanford biochemist Paul Berg, PhD, describing the sticky situation he found himself in graduate school.

Previously Stanford Medicine magazine traverses the immune system, Stanford Medicine magazine opens up the world of surgery and Mysteries of the heart: Stanford Medicine magazine answers cardiovascular questions.

Cardiovascular Medicine, Immunology, Medicine and Literature, Stanford News, Surgery

Stanford Medicine magazine’s big reads of 2014

Stanford Medicine magazine's big reads of 2014

brain attackThis year’s most-read Stanford Medicine magazine stories were all about the heart, surgery and the immune system – the themes of this year’s three issues. The top 10 (as determined by pageviews on our website):

Previously: Stanford Medicine magazine’s big reads of 2013 and Stanford Medicine magazine’s big reads of 2012
Illustration, from the article “Brain attack” in the Fall 2014 magazine issue, by Jeffrey Decoster

Immunology, Mental Health, Stanford News

Stanford Medicine magazine traverses the immune system

Stanford Medicine magazine traverses the immune system

cover_fall2014_2If you want to understand the human immune system, try studying humans – not mice. That’s what Mark Davis, PhD, urges in a special report on the immune system in the new issue of Stanford Medicine magazine.

For decades, most research on the immune system has used mice. Davis, director of Stanford’s Institute for Immunology, Transplantation and Infection, launched Stanford’s Human Immune Monitoring Center a few years ago to change the immunology research paradigm.

“Inbred mice have not, in most cases, been a reliable guide for developing treatments for human immunological diseases,” Davis says in the special report, titled “Balancing act: The immune system.”

As the editor of the magazine, I wanted to feature a story that showed how human-focused immunology research plays out. So I was glad to learn that the center is in the midst of its largest study so far – one to figure out the cause of chronic fatigue syndrome. A team led by Stanford professor of infectious diseases José Montoya, MD, is looking for meaningful patterns in the components of blood samples gathered from 200 patients with chronic fatigue syndrome and 400 healthy subjects.

“It’s like dumping a hundred different puzzles on the floor and trying to find two pieces that fit,” Davis says in our story. We also have a video about a patient’s seven-year battle with chronic fatigue, from despair to recovery.

Also covered in this issue:

  • “I can eat it”: on a revolutionary treatment for food allergies
  • “Brain attack”: on the struggle to help children with psychiatric illness caused by a malfunctioning immune system – a condition known as PANS or PANDAS
  • “When bones collide”: on a new view on the cause of osteoarthritis: autoinflammation
  • “My rendezvous with insanity”: a Q&A with Susannah Cahalan, author of Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, her memoir of surviving an autoimmune attack on her brain
  • “The swashbuckler”: on look back to the early days of molecular biology when Mark Davis cracked one of the greatest mysteries of the immune system

The issue also includes an article on efforts at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System to use peer-support services to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, and a story on the growing concern that biomedical research results are often erroneous and efforts being made to solve the problem.

The issue was funded in part by the Institute for Immunology, Transplantation and Infection.

Previously: Stanford Medicine magazine opens up the world of surgery, Mysteries of the heart: Stanford Medicine magazine answers cardiovascular questions and From womb to world: Stanford Medicine Magazine explores new work on having a baby.
Illustration by Jeffrey Decoster

Medicine and Literature, Stanford News, Surgery

Stanford Medicine magazine opens up the world of surgery

Stanford Medicine magazine opens up the world of surgery

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It used to be “big hole, big surgeon” — but no more, according to Stanford’s chair of surgery, Tom Krummel, MD, who’s one of the surgeons featured in Stanford Medicine magazine’s report on surgery and life in the operating room, “Inside job: Surgeons at work.”

During his career of more than 30 years, Krummel has seen a massive shift from open surgeries to minimally invasive procedures — major surgeries conducted with tools that work through small openings.

“We do the same big operation. We just don’t make a big hole,” he said in the article leading off the report.

In the same issue, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta, MD, talks about why he’s “doubling down” on his support for medical marijuana.

As the editor, I’m biased — but I think it’s worth a read, along with the rest of the issue, which includes:

The issue also includes a report on research on Alzheimer’s disease, and an excerpt from Surgeon General’s Warning, a new book by Associated Press medical reporter Mike Stobbe on the fall from power of the U.S. surgeon general. The digital edition offers audio interviews with Gupta, Stobbe, Stanford surgeon and humanitarian-aid volunteer Sherry Wren, MD, and photographer Max Aguilera-Hellweg, MD.

Previously: The vanishing U.S. surgeon general: A conversation with AP reporter Mike Stobbe, Mysteries of the heart: Stanford Medicine magazine answers cardiovascular questions, From womb to world: Stanford Medicine Magazine explores new work on having a baby and Factoring in the environment: A report from Stanford Medicine magazine
Photo by Max Aguilera-Hellweg

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