When you talk to Susannah Cahalan on the phone, you’d never imagine that this is a woman who has been to hell and back. Without warning 5 years ago, she descended into a nightmare of paranoia, hallucinations, catatonia and near death. One moment she’s a journalist living the high wire life in the New York media world and the next, her brain is swimming in a world of severe mental illness without any diagnosis.
With the precision of an investigative journalist, Cahalan recreates what happened to her in the New York Times-bestselling memoir, Brain on Fire, My Month of Madness. There she describes the terror of what it’s like to be a patient without a medical diagnosis. A human being lost in a sea of clinical maybes. Violent, psychotic and considered a flight risk, she was all but a shadow of her former self.
Cahalan’s back at work now at the New York Post. She’s writing book reviews, science and health articles, all with a new perspective. In this 1:2:1 podcast and Stanford Medicine magazine piece, I asked her if she was a different person now, and she told me you can’t go through something like this and not be. “It has changed everything.”
In an effort to understand new and rare infectious diseases, researchers often use recombinant DNA technology to create novel strains in the lab. In 2012, researchers did just that, creating strains of the H5N1 influenza virus that were transmissible between mammals, setting off a debate about the ethics of creating viruses that were potentially more dangerous than those that occurred naturally.
Earlier this year, in July, a group called the Cambridge Working Group convened to continue discussing these questions. David Relman, MD, a biosecurity expert at Stanford, is a member of the group and spoke to Paul Costello about the risks and benefits of lab-created pathogens. Highlights of their conversation are in a piece in the most recent issue of Inside Stanford Medicine, where Relman notes:
My greatest fear is that someone will create a highly contagious and highly pathogenic infectious agent that does not currently exist in nature, publish its genetic blueprint, allow it to escape the laboratory by accident, or else enable a malevolent person or persons to synthesize the agent with the intention of releasing it in a deliberate manner. Although these may be unlikely scenarios, they could have catastrophic consequences, which is why I and others feel that we need to sensitize everyone to these possibilities and decide how to manage these risks ahead of time. I want to be clear: I am not opposed to laboratory work on dangerous pathogens, especially if they are known to exist in nature. Rather, I am opposed to high-risk experiments and, in particular, those that seek to create novel, dangerous pathogens that cannot be justified by well-founded expectations of near-term, critical benefits for public health — benefits that clearly outweigh the risks, and benefits that cannot be achieved through other means.
But not all researchers advocate the same level of caution. A few weeks after the Cambridge Working Group formed, another group called Scientists for Science to advocate in favor of using recombinant versions of pathogens in order to understand them better. Relman says that the two groups are probably not as far apart as they appear. He says he fully supports studying disease-causing bacteria, but:
The place where we may disagree is on whether we are willing to acknowledge that there may be experiments — probably few and far between — that perhaps ought not to be undertaken because of an unusual degree of risk. Just because a scientist can think up an experiment doesn’t mean it should be performed.
Relman elaborates on these topics in the 1:2:1 podcast with Costello above.
I have to admit: When it comes to pain, I’m a total wimp. The few times I’ve approached anything near chronic pain was in my neck – the result from unilateral breathing as a lap swimmer. When I had the pain, I was obsessed with it, and it was a complete drag on my psyche. My painful experience gave me deep empathy for anyone who lives with chronic pain.
Beth Darnall, PhD, is a clinical associate professor at the medical school and a clinical psychologist at Stanford’s Pain Management Center. She has practiced this unique specialty – pain psychology – for the past 10 years, working with chronic pain sufferers to find alternative means to controlling their pain rather than being stuck in a downward spiral of opioid use. And she’s written a new book, LessPain, Fewer Pills, where she details a methodical approach that enables one to get their “head” out from their pain.
Clearly it’s not all attitude, but a significant portion of pain is how we think about it and catastrophize it and therefore unknowingly give it strength. She told me in this 1:2:1 podcast that “early life trauma can lead to changes in the central nervous system and immune systems… that could prime someone to experience chronic pain later on.” She also said:
We have just pure genetics, an underlying predisposition to acquire chronic pain… But we also know that a person’s psychological makeup, what the person brings to the table, is a big predictor in terms of whether or not their pain resolves or whether it becomes entrenched.
I asked Darnall whether her role as a clinical psychologist helps patients rethink their pain. She told me, “A key message that I bring forward to the table is that pain isn’t something that just happens to us. Once we acquire chronic pain we are constantly participating with our pain in terms of our thoughts, our beliefs, our emotions, and our choices. If we can focus on that and optimize our control there, then we can set ourselves up to have the best response to all of the treatments that our doctors are going to be trying for us.”
If you suffer from chronic pain or know someone who does, I hope you’ll find this conversation with Darnall of value.
I had heard from Rosanne Spector, the editor of Stanford Medicine, that our design team had hired an East Coast photographer to shoot for the current surgery issue. It’s surgery, so of course we wanted vibrant pictures that tell their own story. But not until I interviewed Max Aguilera-Hellweg for this 1:2:1 podcast did I realize what an extraordinary photographer we hired and what an an amazing career he’s had to boot.
At 18, Aguilera-Hellweg apprenticed with famed Rolling Stone photographer Annie Liebovitz. Over the years, he’s shot photos for a multitude of international publications including Stern, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, Esquire, the Washington Post, National Geographic and The New York Times. And he has one more credit to his name: MD. Yep. He’s a physician. At age 43 he received a medical degree from Tulane University with a specialty in internal medicine. He’s well-equipped to both shoot photos inside the OR and lend a hand in case of an emergency.
We asked Aguilera-Hellweg to shoot a panoply of photos for the issue, and they’re extraordinary. He also shot the cover – one that I think conveys the essence of what surgery is all about: the hands. So listen to this podcast and explore the amazing world of Max Aguilera-Hellweg: photographer, physician, Renaissance man.
When I first met Stanford surgeon Sherry Wren, MD, I immediately liked her. The affinity was probably due to the fact that we’re both from the south side of Chicago. She’s a powerhouse personality. Down to earth. No pretensions. A surgeon who goes in for the toughest assignments. During her downtime she takes her expert surgical skills to the African bush for Doctors Without Borders and creates make-shift ORs in the most remote of locations. It’s clear she has a passion for her profession and also for life.
I don’t see Wren that often so I was surprised to learn earlier this spring about a serious disc injury she suffered that brought about a paralysis. Tracie White, one of our gifted writers who always gets to the essence of the people she writes about, has a feature article on Wren’s injury and recovery in the latest issue of Stanford Medicine. In it, Wren speaks candidly about losing the use of her hands and the real possibility she would never be able to return to the OR. Sherry is indefatigable so I wasn’t at all surprised in the end that she was victorious. But the road to get there wasn’t easy.
This is a survivors’ story about grit and determination. You’ll learn a lot about Sherry and her journey in Tracie’s story and in my latest 1:2:1 podcast, above.
When the history about medical marijuana’s path to legitimacy is written, CNN’s chief medical reporter Sanjay Gupta, MD, may be more than a footnote. Gupta famously authored a 2009 TIME magazine column decrying efforts to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. In a 180-degree turnabout in August 2013, he issued an apology and said he was wrong. He wrote that he didn’t look hard enough at the “remarkable research” indicating that for some illnesses marijuana provided a relief. He told me in this 1:2:1 podcast that while he’s cautious about the impact of marijuana on some brain and psychiatric disorders, he feels that the evidence is clear for certain diseases like epilepsy, neuropathic pain and muscle spasms brought on by MS that cannabis has the power to heal.
I wanted to talk to Gupta for this special issue of Stanford Medicine on surgery not only because of his controversial yea-and-nay positions about weed as medicine but because he’s also a neurosurgeon who still spends time with patients in and out of the OR between covering health crises around the globe. And in recognition of his clinical and advocacy skills, he was also personally asked by President Obama to consider taking the position of U.S. Surgeon General. (He turned down the offer as the timing just wasn’t right for him.)
And what about this new campaign to Just Say Hello that he launched on Oprah.com? He tells me that if we were a friendlier society – neighbor greeting neighbor - perhaps we could heal some of the loneliness out there and become a more civilized society.
I asked Gupta, since he travels internationally, whether there’s one universal truth that he finds all human beings seek. “Most everyone wants to do good by their bodies, understand health and how they can improve the health of their family members. I think that the desire for good health and desire for improved function is a universal thing,” he told me. And in his storytelling, what impact does he want to make with the viewer? What does he want the audience to understand about the world as seen through his eyes? He said:
If I can explain to them that as the bombs came raining down the same family that was driving their kids to school the day before, grocery shopping after that, stopping at a bank to withdraw some money, that they are now fleeing with whatever few possessions they could garner and run for the border… that they are a lot like families in your own neighborhood… That’s really important to me as a reporter.
There is currently no U.S. Surgeon General. Like everything else in Washington today, a confirmation vote by the U.S. Senate on President Obama’s choice, Harvard physician Vivek Murthy, MD, has been squashed by politics. Last spring, White House press secretary Jay Carney said that the administration was “recalibrating and assessing our strategy on moving forward with the nominee.” In March, The Hill newspaper reported that up to 10 Senate Democrats signaled they would oppose Murthy’s confirmation after the National Rifle Association made it clear Murthy’s support for bans of certain types of firearms and ammunition purchases made him an unthinkable choice.
Now if you’ve forgotten there even is a position called the U.S. Surgeon General post, think C. Everett Koop, MD, or Joycelyn Elders, MD. Koop and Elders were two recent appointees who used their bully pulpit to raise a national discussion about AIDS and teen pregnancy. (Both were lightening rods within their respective administrations – Koop in Reagan’s and Elders in Clinton’s. Elders was eventually dismissed by the White House after wading into too many contentious issues.)
Does the position even matter anymore? Associated Press medical reporter Mike Stobbe thinks it does. He’s written a fascinating book (Surgeon General’s Warning, University of California Press) about the history of the position and those who served. The book explains how the surgeon general became the most powerful and influential public health officer in the country and how those powers were later stripped away. An excerpt from Stobbe’s book appears in the current issue of Stanford Medicine magazine, where he catalogs the ups and downs of the individuals who held the position. The strong ones and the weak ones. Those who made a difference and those who faded away in controversy or without making a mark on the nation’s public health dialogue.
He writes, “Surgeon generals have played that crusader role better and more often than any other national public health figure. Absent such a crusader, the public’s health is prey to the misinformation and self-interest of tobacco companies, snake-oil salesmen and other malefactors.” Listen to my 1:2:1 podcast with Stobbe to hear more of his thoughts.
Dan Harris, author of 10% Happier – How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help that Actually Works (whew, now that’s a mouthful) acknowledges that he’s not a new-agey spiritual kind of guy who you’d naturally find wandering in the tranquil waters of meditation. And across the phone line, when talking to him for my latest 1:2:1 podcast, I can tell. It’s clear he’s an Alpha Male who’s risen to the top in broadcast network news (co-anchor of Nightline and the weekend editions of Good Morning America) by not being laid back. So he might just be the right guy to take the world of meditation out of the “om” and bring it to a new audience. When I told him I thought he might be doing for mediation what Richard Nixon did for China – normalizing it – he laughed and said, “I love the analogy. It’s probably more flattering than I deserve, but it’s cool nonetheless.”
The success of 10% Happier is not something Harris envisioned. As he was writing it he kept telling his wife it was never going to find an audience: “No one is going to read it.” Yet he’s managed to spin out a wonderful tale about the life of a mega-skeptical agnostic journalist finding peace, happiness and yes, fulfillment, in the land of self-help and meditation. Well, maybe not total serenity. He did have that little spat with a New York City taxi driver last week that caused his wife to remind him that he still has more steps to climb to reach the Zen state of Fudoshin. Nonetheless, Harris is happier no matter what the percentage; you get the distinct impression that he sees a lot more sunshine out there than rain. And who wouldn’t want that?
Harris thinks his worrier gene was inherited from his father, Dr. Jay Harris who he calls “a gifted wringer of hands and gnasher of teeth.” His mother, Dr. Nancy Lee Harris, was much more in the Zen mode: “…slightly mellower about her equally demanding medical career.” (Both his parents are alums of the Stanford School of Medicine.)
Interestingly, Harris tells me he believes that emerging science linking the practice of meditation to a wide range of physical and psychological advantages may lead to the next big public-health revolution. “Say that again,” I asked. “You think that meditation will lead to a revolution?” With no lack of uncertainty he replied:
Yeah, I do. As I’ve said, the science is really still in its early phases, but the science is really compelling. It shows… that this whole, almost laughably long list of benefits from lower blood pressure to boosted immune system to reduced release of the stress hormone cortisol, and then the neuroscience is just truly sci-fi.
When we wrapped up the podcast, Harris spoke highly about the groundbreaking work being done here at Stanford by neurologist James R Doty, MD. Doty is leading his own revolution in neurology and created the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), to stimulate a rigorous multi-disciplinary scientific effort at understanding the neural, mental, and social bases of compassion and altruism.
Earlier this week, my colleague wrote about a study showing that the majority of doctors surveyed said they would forgo aggressive end-of-life care for themselves. Now, in the latest 1:2:1 podcast, researcher VJ Periyakoil, MD, director of palliative care education and training at the medical school, talks in depth about the study and why doctors appear to want one thing for themselves at the end of life and quite another for their patients.
A few days after his latest research hit the press, I sat with neurologist Tony Wyss-Coray, PhD, for a 1:2:1 podcast. He laughed when I mentioned the range of news headlines touting his Nature Medicinestudy (subscription required) that found blood plasma from young mice improves the memory and learning of old mice. One headline declared: “The Fountain of Youth is Filled with Blood.” Another flashed: “Vampires Delight? Young Blood Recharges Brains of Old Mice.”
Serendipitously Wyss-Coray’s paper coincided with the release of two similar studies from Harvard teams on the rejuvenating power of young blood. For the science press, it was a perfect confluence of red.
My colleague Bruce Goldman has followed Wyss-Coray’s research for several years. He’s also written about prior studies of Thomas Rando, MD, PhD, showing that the blood of young mice could stimulate old stem cells and rejuvenate aging tissue. Rando’s work laid the path for Wyss-Coray’s investigations.
Perhaps there’s something here that will be significant for human beings and actually lead to breakthroughs in treatments for a range of neurological brain disorders like Alzheimer’s. Wyss-Coray is circumspect. It’s a tall leap from mice to human beings, but he’s eager to make the jump in clinical trials.