My semi charmed life + a plea

It feels a bit inappropriate that I’ve been IMG_8627so derelict in my blogging given that I’ve been at journalism school. But the reason for my silence is not that I’ve gotten lazy, lost interest, or met a boy and eloped in the Caribbean. Rather, I’ve just been focusing on…well, journalism.

IMG_8745For those who don’t know. The second part of my fellowship entails spending Sep-Dec at Stanford’s journalism school. I attend classes with the journalism grad students and write articles for the Peninsula Press- a news website for jschool that has major media partners including KQED (Northern California’s NPR station) and SF Chronicle.

Let me just say that I have never been happier. Why?

School. It’s fun, engaging , challenging and I have unparalleled support from my professors- whom I regularly communicate with on a daily basis. I’m learning a lot about journalism and multimedia and I know that these skills will serve me quite well in my career. During the course of this semester I have learned how to record/edit my own audio and pictures/video. Most of all I have gotten to speak with and interview such interesting people: the head of the American Academy of Dermatology, a woman who will have health insurance for the first time in five years, a gay Assemblyman who is married to a doctor, a medical student seeing patients for the first time, a State Senator, the Chief Medical Officer of the AAMC. And tonight? Off to moderate a two hour panel about the Affordable Care Act!

Friends. It was almost weird how quickly I become comfortable with my colleagues. They are smart, funny, crazy accomplished (many are already established journalists- some at publications like the Wall Street Journal) and they welcomed me with open arms despite the fact that I will be leaving all too soon (a fact we like to collectively ignore).

Quality of life. So living in Palo Alto is IMG_8708like living in Disney World. It’s perfect. Sometimes too perfect but for 4 months it’s…well…perfect. I actually live on a couch in a professor’s house which is interesting because I have no door but she is lovely, it’s on campus and I get to walk an adorable dog every day.  I have been getting 8 hours of sleep, exercising, reading, staying in touch with friends from home, spending time with new friends here.

In med school it’s easy to forget about time for yourself. And so this hiatus has reminded me that personal care is not selfish- it helps me to be happier and thus more productive and a better citizen of the world. Hope I can import this back with me going forward.

I hope this wasn’t too obnoxiously smug. And clearly I’ve drank a bit of the uber perfect Palo Alto KoolAid. And trust me, things aren’t perfect. But I’m in a good place.

Related-ish plea: Does anyone know of any leads of an apartment/couch/sublet/cardboard box I can call my own in NYC from Jan through May? Needs to be convenient to 30 Rock (Rockefeller Center) for my next gig at NBC News. It’s getting down to the wire for me. Many thanks in advance.

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Tropical Medicine and Twitter

ImageI was invited to travel to DC to attend the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygeine’s annual conference in Washington DC. I was delighted because my clinical interest is skin disease and global health/tropical medicine. So I left sunny Palo Alto and flew across the country to re-immerse myself in some good old fashioned medical learnin’.

The conference so far has been incredibly exciting. I gleefully texted friends that I was psyched to see several sessions solely dedicated to helminths (parasitic worms). Only I would be that big of a nerd but, hey, as Popeye would say “I yam what I yam.”

To be honest, this conference is very technical in many ways: lots of really cool basic science and research about malaria, dengue fever and other global health issues. I understand bits and pieces from the clinical side but a lot of the science goes straight over my head. It was admittedly fun listening to clinical content- I didn’t realize that I would long for the days of hearing “thrombocytopenia” casually dropped in a conversation.

What has been new and excited for me is approaching this from the angle of a reporter. I walked into the press room with a bit of trepidation. But, to my shock, I am a reporter now and people do take me seriously- partially because of the title of my fellowship. I loved reading the press releases and seeing what the conference organizers felt would be newsworthy: everything from a study comparing dengue fever in two parts of the country to new vaccines for malaria.

The other fun thing has been engaging in social media. I am fairly new to twitter but am really starting to appreciate how it keeps me connected to people in journalism and health care who curate and amass content that keeps me interested and on top of the news.

During MedicineX (a medicine and technology conference I reported from in September) it seemed like everyone was on twitter. (Here’s a clip from a video interview I did about this subject:

Here the “twitterverse” has been markedly more limited. Less than 10 people seem to be regularly tweeting about the conference. For those who don’t know- it’s possible to have a conversation on twitter by including a hashtag (denoted by the # sign) in your tweet. Then, when you click on the hashtag- you see everyone who is talking about that subject. In this case the hashtag was #TropMed2013 so a sample tweet might be “Now we can protect kids from Japanese Encephalitis. This year a JE vaccine safe for children was rolled out #TropMed2013”

I ended up meeting a bunch of like minded people during these conversations and we got to meet in person and talk about global health and science and reporting.

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The other highlight was a panel entitled “Global Health and the Media: From Shoe-Leather Reporting to Television to Twitter” that was moderated by the amazing Dr. Michele Barry– one of the heads of my fellowship and an amazing mentor. On the panel were Donald McNeil (NYT global health reporter), Michaeleen Doucleff (NPR global health producer/reporter), Emily Judum (from Global Post) and Penny Duckham (from Kaiser Family Foundation).

The whole panel was fantastic. I won’t rehash everything but there were a few key highlights:  McNeil started off talking about his experience reporting on polio in Pakistan and how he did a story regarding how vaccinators were being killed. His experience reflected deep, old fashioned  investigative reporting and it was riveting. Ducleff spoke mostly about social media and she was incredibly optimistic (not something you get a lot of in the journalism world): “it’s easier than ever for scientists to be published” she told the crowd. Clearly there are no excuses why scientists (including doctors) shouldn’t be communicating their work to the public.

The night ended with a real treat for me: dinner with the whole panel. I got to hear about McNeil’s experience with the CIA, the work that the Kaiser Foundation is doing with the ACA, what it’s like to work at NPR. We talked about pay structure for journalism and what journalists owe their sources in terms of anonymity. I was honored and happy to be included in the conversation.

Not only that- but tomorrow there is a panel on tropical dermatology. Pretty sure they designed this conference just for me. In the meantime, text me if you want live updates on parasitic worms!

Conversations with Global Health Leaders: Yōhei Sasakawa- a lifelong quest to eradicate leprosy

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Mr. Sasakawa (far left) joins Dr. Plianbangchang, WHO- SE Asian Regional Director; Mr. V Narsappa, Chairman of National Forum of India; and Dr. P. Rao from WHO’s Global Leprosy Programme a press conference for the International Leprosy Summit.

As chairman of the Nippon Foundation, Japan’s largest charitable foundation, Yōhei Sasakawa is one of the most powerful men in Japan. But he does not fill his time with glamorous galas and high powered meetings. Instead, he has dedicated his life to helping those with a disease so isolating that it’s very name now metonymically stands for discrimination: leprosy.

Sasakawa’s involvement with leprosy began in childhood when his father took him to visit a leprosy hospital in South Korea. The experience was so shocking and unforgettable that he decided dedicate his life to the elimination of leprosy.

Fast forward to the present day and Sasakawa has made good on his pledge. As chairman of the Nippon Foundation, he has overseen the donation of millions of dollars to the World Health Organization (WHO) earmarked for leprosy medication (known as Multidrug Therapy or MDT) and other leprosy elimination programs.

But his involvement goes beyond signing checks. He has become the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination. As such he has travelled to a staggering number of leprosy-endemic countries where he goes and speaks with real people affected by the disease. “I make every effort to go out into the field and see the situation for myself,” he said, “Sometimes I will travel for several days to visit a remote area, where I tell people directly that the leprosy is curable and that treatment is available for free.”

Nurse with leprosy patient

A nurse tends to a patient at the Leprosy Mission Hospital in New Delhi, India

He has also attacked the issue from a political angle. Despite being curable and not particularly contagious (contrary to popular lore), leprosy is still associated with a significant stigma. In an effort to ensure that those affected by leprosy live a dignified life, Sasakawa worked with the UN Commission on Human Rights (now the Human Rights Council) and pushed for the UN General Assembly to pass a resolution in 2010 to end stigma and discrimination against persons affected by leprosy and their family members.

I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Sasakawa at the Global Leprosy Program’s International Summit in Bangkok, Thailand in July. It was at this meeting that he announced that the Nippon Foundation would donate an additional 20 million dollars toward leprosy elimination.

Despite his power and prestige he was remarkably approachable. He was so humble that he insisted that we move a poster because it featured him too prominently and he felt that it detracted from the leprosy affected persons. He even listened patiently (through his translator) as I babbled about my passion for global health and asked for an interview. The following are excerpts (emphasis added):

Why should people care about leprosy—a disease which only affects a small proportion of the population globally?

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A patient with a visible (Grade 2) deformity at the Leprosy Mission Hospital in New Delhi, India.

We are still taking about some 230,000 new cases a year. Moreover..in recent years new case numbers have ceased to decline…When you think about the life of each individual in that context, then it’s a heavy number.

What’s more, the problem of discrimination continues even after they are cured of the disease, so they have to cope with that on top of any residual disability..When you consider this discrimination casts a shadow over their families, too, then we are talking about tens of millions of people affected by the disease.

Your foundation generously pledged 20 million dollars at the International Leprosy Summit. How would you like to see that money used?

Leprosy colony

Leprosy Colony in India

Compared to before most countries eliminated leprosy as a public health problem, I think the situation today is much more challenging. Leprosy tends to be concentrated in hard-to-serve areas such as urban slums, border regions and areas populated by ethnic minorities. Plus, cases are widely scattered.  It’s also a fact that governments have fewer resources to devote to leprosy. Among the health ministers I met in Geneva at the World Health Assembly in May this year where those who said that people involved in leprosy were letting their guard drop… and that it was becoming harder to get results.

So, to deal with these challenges, I would like to see the 20 million dollars used to strengthen [WHO’s] Global Leprosy Program and enhance the activities of the various stakeholders.

As the WHO’s Goodwill Ambassador, you have made extensive visits to leprosy endemic countries. What is a special memory or a poignant moment from those travels that has that has stuck with you?

One I especially remember came at the end of 2005. This was the first national assembly of people affected by leprosy in India. India contributes over half the new cases of leprosy in the world, yet there had never been an opportunity for people affected by leprosy to come together from different parts of the country…By uniting, they gain the strength to make society hear them.

In answer to my call, almost 600 people affected by leprosy gathered from all over India. Up until then, I had met many who had opted to remain silent rather than speak out for their human rights and invite further discrimination. But the people who gathered in Delhi summoned the courage to demand and end to discrimination and the restoration of their dignity  and debated the specifics of how this was to be done. I felt a big hole had been punched in the towering wall that separates them from mainstream society.

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Me and V. Narsappa- current chairman of  National Forum of India for Leprosy Affected Persons

Thanks to this national conference, a nationwide organization of people affected by leprosy called the National Forum—now National Forum India—was established. I regard its members as my brothers and sisters and we have shared many joys and sorrows dating back from before it was founded, right up to the present day.

What words of advice do you have for people that want to be involved in global health issues?

Let’s just say I would like to see many people get involved. A problem may not easily be solved, but don’t give up if you fail. You need to tackle it with strong conviction and courage. …My watchwords are “passion, perseverance and persistence.” I regard this as my life’s work, and my intention is to keep going without giving up.

Udaipur: that time I got kicked by a horse and rageslept for 6 hours

ImageA quick weekend trips roundup. I am too proud of my weekend exploits and the pictures I took to simply spare my audience. So sorry.

First up is Udaipur- the “Venice of India.” I went with my friend and WHO colleague Adriane. It was easily one of my favorite trips that I took. The high and low lights are as follows:
The overnight train and ragesleeping. This was a cool experience. Amazing on the way there and quite restful. But on the way back we were in 3 tier AC (3 bunkbeds on each side) and 3 men got on at 11pm even though there were only 2 available seats/beds. One was a “local politician” (hint: corruption gets you anything) of the gold chain/track pants variety and the others were his minions I guess. I was on the bottom bunk and one corpulent minion just set up shop on the ground about six inches from my ear and proceeded to talk/snore/stare at me for the whole night. I had an eye mask and ear plugs but I couldn’t sleep because I was enraged. Have you ever tried to rage-sleep? I don’t recommended it. The next morning I came out of the toilet (read: hole) between train cars and the three of them were smoking there. In very broken English I ascertained that they were asking me for my “contact details.”  This provided a small opportunity to unleash my rage and snarl that I didn’t even have a phone (a lie). I think my anger was lost in translation but it felt oh so good.
Visiting a mountain fort. We ended up meeting a young Indian family and spent the day with them and their adorable 2 year old.

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Horseback riding and being oh so wrong. Adriane chickened out on this activity despite my assurances that “it won’t be scary! They will be gentle trail horses!” Famous last words. I ended up on a horse that “hadn’t been ridden much due to the monsoon.” Long story short the horse was absolutely wild and was bucking and galloping off at every opportunity. She ran right up to the guide’s horse who delivered a swift back buck- kicking me square in the knee. I was in tears and the guide (who spoke about 3 words of English and looked about 14) clearly was horrified and had no idea what to do. I left with a massive bruise (on my knee and on my ego…recall that I was on the equestrian team in college) and proceeded to limp around the city like a drunk, uncoordinated pirate with a pegleg. Would I do it again? You betcha.
The view from the hotel. Our budget hotel had an amazing lake view from it’s rooftop restaurant.

ImagePlaying tag outside a Jain Temple. Asked two girls where the bathroom was and ended up playing an elaborate game of tag with her whole extended family. Welcome to India.

IMG_5183Visit to the spice market: color explosion in my brain. Ended up having chai with one of the spice vendors and then wandered around for a bit.IMG_4629

I like myself better when I travel

ImageI like myself better when I am living in a different country. ButImage I don’t think it’s due to some neurochemical reaction to foreign soil. Rather, it has to do with how I approach life when I travel. I thought that by dissecting it, perhaps I could import some of these attitudes. I can think of no finer souvenir.

I accept minor setbacks:  Somehow when I am traveling I find it easier to understand that the journey is the destination. When I am abroad, minor (and major) inconveniences of life become hilarious- part of the experience! But when I am home, they grate on me and try my patience. I want to remember that patience and a go with the flow attitude should not be exclusive to international travel. And while a delayed train from Penn Station isn’t as exotic as a lost rickshaw driver or a cow-related roadblock, it would behoove me to remember that life is not about rushing from point A to point B.

I am more accepting: I am also more inclined to be accepting of others when I Imageam a guest in another culture. Certainly I don’t believe in cultural relativism when it comes to “big” things like child abuse or domestic violence. But for the small tensions of daily life I endeavor to understand others instead of judge them. But a quote I once read said something wise: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” (attributed, most thing wrongly, to Plato). And that is no less Imagetrue of what I consider boorish behavior in the US.

I am kind to myself: I am also more accepting of myself. I don’t know why this is. Perhaps because travel brings out what I feel is my best self? Or maybe I am too involved with immersion to be preoccupied with the narcissism of daily life? Or conversely, I am more introspective? ImageImageWhatever the reason, I find that negative self talk is minimized when I get off of the plane.

I am a “yes woman.” I am more open to new experiences. I am the consummate “yes woman” when I travel. Eat this homemade food? Read this book? Wear this dress? Meet your friend? Dance in front of a crowd? Try to cook this? Explore an unknown street? Have a cup of tea with you/your brother/cousin/wife/cow? Don’t mind if I do. This led to me playing an elaborate game of tag with a huge extended family outside a Jain temple, eating as the guest of honor with a Gujarati group at an ashram, dancing in front of a large group of Indian women during a holiday celebration and countless other memories.

I would do well to import this adventurous spirit and open myself up to new things even if they make me anxious.

I push myself. Similarly, this “yes” attitude leads to a commitment to squeeze the marrow out of my experience. I push myself to plan weekend trips, savor moments, take photographs, make new friends. Something about the experience being finite leads increased motivation to Imagemake the most of my time. But my time in any place is finite and there is no reason not to expend the same energy and create memories on US soil.

Letters

Dear girls on the metro,

I am aware that I’m white. And that there are no other white people on this metro. And I know I’m pretty darn good looking. But seriously, this is New Delhi- I’m sure you’ve seen other white people. Do I really merit a sneaky cell phone video? I mean, staring and/or smiling/giggling- not an issue. A picture…sure. “Look at this white girl on the metro! She is really tall! And pale like a sickly ghost!” But a video? I wasn’t even doing anything except reading. And did you really think that I couldn’t see? This is 2013 ladies- everyone knows a sneaky cell phone pic when they see one. And the lady behind you was watching your footage over your shoulder and grinning up at me. A budding Ken Burns I suppose.

Hope you liked my purposeful wink at the end. And I really hope that in India a wink isn’t construed as some kind of insulting gesture implying that I wanted to defile your mother or something. On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t have winked?

See you next time girls. We both know I’m not mad. I already signed over my privacy when I opened a facebook account. So thanks for making me feel like Brangelina for the day.

Best,

Tired white girl on the metro

Unhealthy eating

I published another article in The Hindu and it’s not even about leprosy. It’s about the unhealthy eating habits of Delhi University students. Which is not something I (or my college friends) know anything about. I have never even heard of soft serve mixed with peanut butter and Cracklin’ Oat Bran. That must be another Brown U alum you’re thinking of.

Check it out!

http://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/health/nutrition-takes-a-backseat/article5076029.ece

In honor of this occasion: here are some food/eating related pictures for your viewing displeasure (I’m pretty much the world’s worst food photographer):