Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Not his name

My mom is visiting the Midwest to help her mother prepare for a move. My grandmother will be downsizing and moving closer to other family, in part because of the fairly recent passing of my grandfather. 

One of the big tasks of this move is de-cluttering the house (something that happens to be one of my favorite activities, but that's neither her nor there). One room that simply will not be recreated in my grandmother's new home is an office/den that was strictly used by my grandpa. It's been filled with his paperwork, old work documents, fishing and hunting trophies, old calendars given to him by Hershey Foods—his employer. These things need to be tossed or put into storage, except for maybe the one or two especially sentimental items that my grandma wants to look at on a daily basis. 

It's a draining process, I'm sure. But one surprising thing that has come up for my mother: my grandmother won't let her throw away anything that has my grandpa's name on it. And it's not a security issue. Because we're not talking about bills and bank statements. Even old notes and junk mail with printed labels. 

When pressed for explanation, grandma says, "We can't throw away his name." 

But it's not the actual object with his name. Because my mother is allowed to throw away these things if she takes a Sharpee and blacks out his name. So there's something very specific about the power of his written name that my grandmother doesn't want to see end up in the garbage. 

I find this fascinating. Think about all of the times his name ended up in the garbage, on junk mail or whatever, when he was alive. And I'm sure that was no big deal. 

I've heard more talk from Midwestern relatives about the importance of protecting your name, and it's the only place I've actually heard someone say, "Your name is all you've got." So I wonder if part of this is regional. 

Mostly, I would guess it's just her trying to control whatever she can about death. A way to express her frustration about how unpredictable life can be. Also, she spent quite a few years as his caretaker before he passed. This lets her take care of him again in another way, even though he's gone. It's pretty sweet, even though it's not very effective. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Oprah Cancels Columbine Show

Yesterday, Oprah cancelled the airing of an already-taped show that was to mark the 10th anniversary of the Columbine shooting. 

Clearly, from just the standpoint of informing her viewers, the perpetrators are a large part of the Columbine story. This dilemma of Oprah's brings up an interesting dichotomy that I think much of the media faces whenever there is a tragedy of this sort. 

To some extent, you have to investigate the killers or criminals and give them press or attention in order to get answers to "What were they thinking?" and "Why did they do it?" And isn't everyone wondering that when something like Columbine happens? 

But then there is this guilt that comes along with the fascination. A self-imposed punishment for giving attention to the people who did wrong. And on top of that, I think, an even greater sense that it's wrong to give them any compassion. 

I think these sensations appeal to the smaller part of our nature. What happened was wrong, without a doubt. The killers were responsible, without a doubt. But being curious about them is nothing to be guilty about. And extending compassion their way does not lessen the amount of compassion we have left over for the people they killed. 

Compassion and attempts to understand do not mean we condone. 

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Squirrel Detonation

I don't know if this is making national news, but Spokane, Washington is having problems with an overrun squirrel problem in their arboretum. To solve it, they're blowing up the squirrels!

The parks department has hired a group called Rodenator, which pipes oxygen and propane into tunnels created by the squirrels. Those tunnels then blow up and collapse, killing the squirrels. 

The Humane Societies of both Spokane and Seattle have come out against this method, saying it may not be a pain-free way to kill the creatures. 

I used to live in New York; I certainly understand the need to rid yourself of unwanted pests, and I'm not entirely educated on just what damage the squirrels are doing to the Spokane Arboretum ... but I can't get over the idea that blowing them up is excessive behavior. 

Saturday, April 11, 2009


This week's episode of This American Life tells the story of a cryonics advocate, Bob, and his attempts to help himself and others cheat death. But the technology isn't quite there to reanimate the deceased, Bob's storage facilities are subpar, and funding proves to be a problem. 

The ugliness of the situation snowballs into a complete nightmare and a predictable legal battle. 

When you listen to the story, if you think Bob's ethics are a little shaky at the beginning, just wait until you hear some of the stuff he's saying at the end of the piece. 

For me, this tale is the ultimate in death avoidance. From beginning to end, everyone involved with Bob and his brand of cryonics shows an amazing inability to accept death. They all seem to think the frozen bodies in Bob's cryogenic chambers are in some sort of half-dead state, and it's as though, they don't really have to let go of their loved ones, or accept their own impending deaths, if they have cryonics to fall back on. 

As always with This American Life, it's a fascinating tale, and it's full of lots of murky ethical issues. 

Friday, April 10, 2009

Worst Safety Video Ever!

This is the goriest, least-effective safety video I have ever seen.

It's nothing but a series of escalating tragic events with vague warnings for the need to be vigilant and safe on the job. 

Funny in a very dark way. I found the link from a coworker. The person who posted it on YouTube claims to have seen the video in an actual safety training. I hope this isn't actually being used to train.

We know from disaster experts like Amanda Ripley that specificity, to the point that your unconscious mind can picture yourself succeeding in dangerous circumstances, is imperative to succeeding in risky situations. I can't image a video like this does much besides sensationalize and scare.

But in its own way, it sure is entertaining. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Facebook Tribute Page to Television Character

Either fans or producers of the TV show House MD have developed a Facebook page as a memorial to the character Lawrence Kutner

I don't watch House, but apparently, Kutner killed himself on last week's episode of the show. The Facebook page includes photos of the character and hand-written notes from his "friends," i.e., other show characters, with their reactions to his death.

It's easy to dismiss this as people going too far for a television character. But, if they're upset about the character's death, I think it's great that they have a place to come together and publicly "grieve" about it. And I've certainly had my share of becoming emotionally invested in characters from television and literature. 

That said, I do wish the language was restructured a bit ... just to make it more clear that everyone involved is really making the distinction in their minds that this is a television character. And that, while they may be sad to lose his narrative, they do realize it's not a real-life death. 

For example, the page's description reads, "Dr. Kutner was a hard working young doctor with a kind, unassuming, gentle manner. He will be missed by all of us." They couldn't have called him a character? I don't think it would have diminished the page to be honest about what it was. 

People become emotionally invested in television characters. There's no shame in that. There's no shame in feeling a little sad when a character dies. And publicly grieving for that character with other fans might be healthy. But let's not get together in a virtual group to pretend that character was a real person who we really knew just because we have new technology that allows for it. That's where this page goes too far, to my mind. 

And thanks Christian Sinclair for the tip. 

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Stars and Stripes

For the first time in 18 years, the press has taken an officially sanctioned photo of a fallen U.S. soldier returning to American soil in a flag-draped casket. 

This is thanks to a change in policy instigated by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and backed up by President Obama. 

Photo from The New York Times

Friday, April 3, 2009

Dying to Live

I received an email about this amazing-looking documentary

It's about Ben Mittleman, and also directed by Ben Mittleman, and follows his journey through what starts out as with a leaking heart valve that needs open heart surgery. An athlete an actor, Ben finds weakness of the body difficult to cope with. 

But it also snowballs into an ill mother, a lover with lung cancer, relationship difficulties, hepatitis C ... all within the course of one year.


Thursday, April 2, 2009

Planning for Your Funeral in Advance ... and Personalizing It

The Today Show has a story about the need to pre-plan your funeral. 

Meredith Vieira interviews the authors of Grave Expectations who were inspired by attending several funerals that did not reflect the character of the deceased. 

From the small amount I've been involved in funeral planning for other people, I find it's usually done in stressful, emotional circumstances, and you don't have the frame of mind to really think through what would reflect that person's personality. 

If you want your funeral to reflect your own style, I think planning it in advance for yourself is a great way to go. Plus, you can really take burden off of loved ones in terms of logistics and finances. 
Also, if you watch the piece, I love the idea of the "vid-stone" ... but would it hold up to the elements?  

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Palliative Care Grand Rounds, Volume 1, Issue 3

Welcome to volume one, issue 3 of Palliative Care Grand Rounds!

Here you will find an overview of what's been happening in the cyberworld regarding palliative care, death, dying, end-of-life care, and all sorts of related topics for the past month. 

Entries in this series are rotating throughout palliative-care-oriented blogs and are hosted on the first Wednesday of each month. Next month's series will be hosted by Thaddeus Pope at Medical Futility on May 6th. 

There is a lot here, so if you want to read a bit at a time and come back later to read some more, that might be a good way to approach it. I do realize it looks overwhelming :)

That said, let's jump right in ... 

This month, a study was released in JAMA telling us that terminal cancer patients who are self-defined as religious are nearly three times as likely to seek life-sustaining measures near the end, and are also less likely to prepare for death—in terms of advance directives, living wills, healthcare advocates.

Also this month, Washington's Initiative 1000 went into law, legalizing physician assisted suicide. One stipulation of the law is that hospitals and individual practitioners can choose to opt out of the legislation. The has the potential to cause massive confusion. As a Washington-based nurse practitioner, risaden of Risa's Pieces, has an excellent post on his thoughts on this law, what he has encountered related to it, and how it compares to Oregon's law.  

Taking a harder look at the risks of skiing without a helmet, and the signs of serious head trauma in the wake of Natasha Richardson's death—a sad reminder that death by falling is the third most common cause of accidental death

60-Second Psych in Scientific American takes a look at whether the suicide of Nicholas Hughes, the son of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, was due to hereditary causes. Children of mother's who kill themselves are more likely to commit suicide ... but is that correlation or genetics?

If the Rapture occurred, what would happen to your bank account? That's right, the Christian Rapture. Well, Mark Head thinks that in the event of the Rapture, in the midst of God's eternal glory, you will still be worrying about what is happening to your financials down on earth, So, for a $40 fee, he has a service that sets up an email that can be sent to your relatives with your bank account information. (And you can totally trust Mr. Head with your financial information.) "Christians on call" for the site log on to it to keep it going. If no one logs on for three days, it is assumed Rapture has taken place, and the emails are sent out. I guess you'd want to pick your most heathen-y relatives, just to ensure they're left behind to receive the email. How do you start that conversation?

This piece is a real doozy. How you go from normal life and a simple spinout in snowy conditions to freezing to death, or nearly freezing to death. And what it's like to freeze to death. Fascinating. Well-written. From Outside magazine online. 

A story about taking care of Sean, a former Fortune 500 company worker with early onset Alzheimer's, from the blog Confessions of a Young Looking Social Worker

A geropsychiatrist writes about two old goats—one figurative and one literal—both using the same meds to good purpose. Funny!

A touching piece that comes very close to my interests. A medical librarian writes about her mother-in-law's good death from cancer—thanks largely to the help of good hospice care—and the bittersweet satisfaction that brought the family. 

The blog Palliative Care Success discusses a NEJM article that shows high-spending regions of the country are more likely to recommend hospitalization for an 85-year-old patient with an exacerbation of end-stage congestive heart failure. They were also three times as likely to admit this patient to intensive care, and 30% less likely to discuss palliative care with the patient and family. The post suggests Advanced Palliative Care Organizations (APCOs) can help reduce the number of people dying in hospitals and reduce the number of days patients spend at the hospital near the end, but APCOs are limited in how many physicians and other professionals they are drawing. 

The relationship between palliative care and the church, the spiritual role of palliative care ... but also the palliative care needed by a dying church (in this particular community) are all addressed in this beautiful blog entry written by a former pastor and Tampa-based hospice worker. 

Fran Johns, one of my favorite bloggers, has a beautiful piece on the therapeutic and restorative qualities of pulling Oxalis. Fran is part of the slow-blogging movement and does not update often, but when she does, it is always something amazing. Be sure to bookmark her site. 

At The Mom and Me Journals dot Net, Gail Rae writes about donating some of her mother's items to a garage sale. The need to de-clutter leads her to rid the place of her deceased mother's items as if they are just things, but one special piece, a tiara, needs an important home. 

Dethmama finds welcome relief from her work as a hospice nurse in the form of a new puppy named Olive. She has also posted a long-awaited sequel to a great story, Hospice Hitwoman and the C.Y.A., about a family who is anxious to see their loved on pass away, before the right time even. 

At the Pallimed blog, Dr. Drew Rosielle discusses a study that shows most people do not understand the actual details of resuscitation, and many would choose to not have chest compressions, shocks IVs through the groin, even though those are sometimes regular parts of resuscitation. Dr. Rosielle also has an excellent post on JAMA's series on palliative care of latinos

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Seth Grahame-Smith has reworked Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice to include zombie battles. You can find a fantastic (in every sense of the word) excerpt here

If you want some death at the movies, check out Sunshine Cleaning, an irreverent and touching comedy about two sisters who open an industrial cleaning business—specifically cleaning up after dead people. The film stars Emily Blunt, Amy Adams, and Alan Arkin

Is it ethical for a wife to use a deceased spouse's sperm for artificial insemination? The Health Monitor at Radiography Schools takes up this issue and contrasts it with other sperm-donor controversies of late.

Is there such a thing as a style for your illness? Dana Jennings writes about getting a buzz cut to develop a tough, "Prison Break"-esque style for his prostate cancer treatent. For him, the haircut is a "visible bulwark against the tide of emasculating side effects caused by the treatment of prostate cancer."

Thanks to all who sent in suggestions! I'm sure there is even more out there I couldn't get to. And if you're interested, here's where you can find issues 1 and 2