DAB What’s New/Matula Thoughts
December 4, 2015
Paris, Band-Aids, & the coarse emotions of mankind
1. December is at hand, although in the busy everyday world of clinical medicine days and seasons seem to blur. Nevertheless, clues abound that make it hard to mistake this holiday month. Above you see the second floor corridor of UM Main Hospital with decorated windows on a previous early weekend December morning. The holiday season has grown from theological roots to a cosmopolitan sensibility of advancing human welfare. This is a time of year we try to think beyond ourselves and the hunger of others is especially compelling whether in front of you on downtown streets of Ann Arbor or in the news reports from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, or South America. Food security is as much, if not more, an essential part of human welfare and health as the specific morbidities that capture our attention as specialists.
Astrologic, seasonal, and meteorological explanations of illness are residues of the more superstitious days of medicine, but with nuggets of truth these links remain in play today. The seasonal and climactic influences on human welfare and health are unquestionably substantial, and as the dinosaurs discovered large extraterrestrial bodies can impact life on Earth. Our bodies down to the cellular level pay attention to calendar, clock, and climate. Illnesses like holidays have seasonality; we know that the incidence and mortality of coronary artery disease peaks in winter and reaches a low in summer while many other conditions also have their own seasons. [Pell JP, Cobb SM. Quarterly J. Med 92:689, 1999] Then, of course, there is the “July effect,” the enduring speculation that it’s risky to be ill in the hospital when new house officers start on the job. Happily today it’s December and all our house officers are well seasoned.
A 1984 music video from the movement called Band Aid “Do they know it’s Christmas?” is a 4-minute classic that is as fresh today as it was 31 years ago – you can find it on YouTube. The supergroup, formed by Bob Geldof of the Irish band Boomtown Rats, raised over $24 million for famine relief in Ethiopia with the video. The most recent incarnation, Band Aid 30, raised funds for 2014 Ebola victims and prevention.
2. We humans, uniquely among all species, are intensely emotional and inquisitive about our health. Healthcare in any season is a matter of attending to small and large problems, from Band Aids to urosepsis 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and each of us needs help from time to time attending to these problems. Victorian novelist George Eliot wrote: “What do we live for, if not to make life less difficult for each other?” This may not be a universal human sentiment, but it surely is a key part of a good physician’s credo and any society must have good physicians. Healthcare workers naturally prefer fixing medical problems and otherwise helping their patients rather than completing electronic medical records or collecting RVUs. Healthcare is also a matter of teaching patients (and learning ourselves) how to live healthier and manage the morbidities and comorbidities of life. We do this work individually, in teams, and across the larger geopolitical world. Tempting as it is, even as specialists in the comfort of our specialized fields, we can’t ignore that larger geopolitical realm. Our urologic cocoon is a fulfilling workspace, yet we have no choice but to also attend to the geopolitical space through curiosity about events around us, by speaking out, and leading when we can. The world is predictably disruptive and explosive, as witnessed just last month in many places from Mali to Paris, the latter more properly an epicenter for peace, as with the Treaty of Paris of 1763 (ending our French and Indian War), the Treaty of 1898 (ending the Spanish American War), and more recent attempts to restore international order.
The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference is now meeting in Paris (Nov 30-Dec 11), nearly coincidental in timing to the recent terrorism events. This is the 21st annual meeting of a team that aims to achieve a legally binding and universal international agreement to reduce greenhouse gases and to contain global temperature within 2 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels. Forward-looking businesses are starting to recognize the simultaneous necessity and business opportunities of global stewardship.
3. On this day, 4 December, in 1918 President Woodrow Wilson crossed the Atlantic for WWI peace talks in Versailles, a suburb of Paris. That made him the first US president to travel to Europe while in office. After a trip back home for 3 weeks in February he returned to Versailles for the duration of the talks until June. Wilson’s personal physician Cary Grayson accompanied him on both trips and remained with him the whole time in France. The outcome of the talks was the Versailles Treaty of Peace with its inclusion of the League of Nations. Wilson believed in the League of Nations as a hedge against future conflict and on his final return home (shown below) undertook a nationwide tour to campaign for the treaty, but suffered a stroke in October of 1919. Grayson and Mrs. Wilson masked the severity of the stroke from the government and the public, while Senate Republicans opposed the treaty. Henry Cabot Lodge proposed a compromise that Wilson refused. Ultimately the Senate rejected the treaty and the U.S. never joined the League of Nations. Wilson’s internationalism didn’t take hold in the USA, but his efforts were admired internationally with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919.
Wilson wasn’t at his best in those days with urologic issues in addition to the stroke. Severe benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH) with urinary retention further hampered his effectiveness as a politician in that critical time. In the days when our Journal of Urology attended to matters of urologic history, an excellent paper by Fogg, Kutikov, Uzzo, and Canter addressed this interlude of Wilson’s health. [J Urol 2011, 186:1153] Historical scrutiny has also revealed Wilson’s paradoxical gaps as a humanist. His racial views and employment decisions, whether as President of Princeton or of the United States, although considered “centrist” for early 20th century America, were strongly bigoted against non-whites and non-Christians. [Berg AS. Wilson. 2013. The case against Woodrow Wilson. New York Times. Editorial November 25, 2015]
4. North of Paris by 24 miles sits the Musée Condé and library at the Château de Chantilly in Oise, housing the manuscript Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry with its beautifully illustrated monthly panels. The December panel is remarkable. While traditional iconography for the Christmas season would feature a more nostalgic visual, this panel shows the more visceral details of dogs dismembering a boar after a hunt with the Château de Vincennes of Charles V on the horizon and the trees curiously still in leaf (a warm winter?). The castle still stands in that Parisian suburb. The scene, as in all the Duc de Berry illuminations, depicts everyday agrarian life with people going about their daily business. Illness, disability, and intimate details of healthcare, urologic issues most particularly, were too indelicate for such public display, although such aspects of everyday life were real concerns for everyone then as they are today.
Urology has progressed with technology and new knowledge, yet it remains focused on its genitourinary geography, staked out in ancient Egyptian times with urethral catheterization, in Hippocratic days with lithotomy, and in the nineteenth century with cystoscopy. Gone are the days of Frère Jacques Beaulieu, the itinerant lithotomist, who travelled throughout France in the early 18th century with his “certificates of cure” and removed agonizing bladder stones with his secretive technique. [JP Ganem, CC Carson. J Urol 1999;161:1067]
Nowadays, urologists work in teams and seek innovation for their own practices while freely disseminating their ideas and techniques to others. Urology, at least as much as the other core facets of medical practice, is a social business. President Wilson’s urologic issues would be treated better and more expeditiously today, and even better tomorrow with, perhaps, the histotripsy technology pioneered here in Ann Arbor by Will Roberts and his team of biomedical engineers and radiologists.
5. Like many of our faculty, I’ve been on the road this autumn in that pursuit of new ideas and knowledge, in addition to dealing with the clinical and administrative work flows at home. In Irvine, California at Ralph Clayman’s festschrift I heard state of the art talks on stone disease. Ralph seems glad to be back to the real world of urology after his five years of good service as medical school dean. In Nijmegen, Netherlands I participated in the 50th anniversary of the excellent Radboud University Medical Center urology unit. Their discovery, education, and clinical work is world-class, and the visit gave me some thoughts related to our impending 100 year anniversary of Michigan Urology. The American College of Surgeons, with its annual meeting in Chicago this fall, is an important avenue of engagement for urologists from the educational, discovery, and public policy perspectives. A visiting professorship in Portland, Oregon game me a chance to see another superb department of urology, formerly headed by John Barry and currently by Chris Amling. My colleague Steve Skoog leads the pediatric urology team, our former medical student Sarah Hecht is performing well there as a resident, and some of our finest Michigan Urology graduates are leading in the regional practice of urology. Steven Steinberg was Michigan’s contribution from the McGuire days here in Ann Arbor and Rou and Jeff are more recent Nesbitonians.
[Nesbit alumni Jeff Wheat and Rou Wang, now of Portland, during my visit]
In Baltimore the 100th anniversary of the Brady Institute coincided with the Clinical Society meeting hosted by Alan Partin and Pat Walsh. We heard superb presentations from Hopkins faculty, including Ken Pienta (formerly with us in Ann Arbor) and Nobelist Carol Greider who discussed her work on telomeres. She extolled the virtue of “curiosity-driven research” and told how her work was inspired by investigations of Tertrahymena thermophila. (In this odd single celled animal, with only 40,000 chromosomes, the telomere was recognized as tandemly repeated hexanucleotide sequences.) [EH Blackburn, JG Gall. J Molec Biol 1978;120:33] A number of Michigan names showed up in slides of other talks presented in Baltimore: Chinnaiyan, Feng, Tomlins, and Roberts, for example. Hopkins’ new clinical facilities are lovely and functional, yet they have artfully left strong structural remnants of their rich history as a storied urology department.
[Picture: Carol Greider advocating curiosity-driven research and showing slide noting that “New discoveries come from unlikely places”]
6. Ann Arbor’s first snowfall took place this year, somewhat early, on November 21. With winter many plants go dormant and others self-destruct, while most of us animals simply endure the cold and prepare for the next warmer seasons. What’s New, our monthly newsletter, is getting ready for a new calendar year. This communication began in the dean’s office of Allen Lichter around 2001 and morphed into a Urology Department weekly profile of individuals and teams in 2007. On the first Friday of each month we have carved out an issue for my gratuitous thoughts. Nearly 3 years ago we mounted a simultaneous version of the first Friday piece on a blog site and called it Matula Thoughts, with the idea that older pieces could be archived and that the communication could be accessed more easily than email that has become too crowded and too painful a place for most of us to linger. The blog site (wordpress) also allows us to visual the reach of this monthly habit of our Department of Urology.
[Above, 2015 blog visitors, geographic distribution. Below, histogram of last 3 years.]
For me this communication is a periodic Band-Aid for the excessive emails, endless Twitter feeds, and other electronic distractors. Matula Thoughts also provokes curiosity, for example, with the word Band-Aid, that you might consider a brand name. Invented as recently as 1920, the story goes that Earle Dickson (1892-1961), a cotton buyer at Johnson & Johnson, had a wife named Josephine who often cut or burned herself while doing housework and cooking. His handmade prototype (squares of gauze kept in place by crinoline on a roll of tape) allowed Josephine to manage her own wounds. Dickson continued to refine his product and by 1924 the company had a machine that could mass-produce sterile adhesive bandages. With trademark genericization Band-Aid lost its protective status and became a generic term for all adhesive bandages.
[Thank you Wikipedia. Our annual $100 contribution is in your bank for 2015, and no doubt you’ll need another one in 2016. “The Story Behind Band-Aid Brand” Changing Times; The Kiplinger Magazine December 1964: p. 32]
7. In 2016 we will begin a new iteration of administrative structure at the University of Michigan Medical School and Health System. Except for a several year interlude after February 1930 when the regents fired Hugh Cabot as dean (he was Michigan’s founding urologist-educator), the University of Michigan Medical School has always had a dean. On January 1,2016 the duties of the dean will be added directly to the job description of Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs, Marschall Runge. We must thank our outgoing dean, Jim Woolliscroft, for his 8 years in associate dean positions and 9 years of service as dean. Jim has been a superb internist, educator, and statesman of medicine. We hope he will remain with us for in these tricky times and turbulent socioeconomic waters we need his good counsel and intellect. The clinical chairs established an annual lectureship on medical education in Jim’s name and a perpetual full tuition medical student scholarship. [Picture below Jim Woolliscroft and his early mentor and previous chair of Internal Medicine at Michigan, Bill Kelly at the UM vs. MSU game this autumn]
[Picture above: Clinical chairs & Dean Woolliscroft after presentation of Woolliscroft Lectureship and Scholarship]
8. Preview of 2016. I can’t predict much of anything for the upcoming year, other than to say we should expect the unexpected – we should anticipate surprises that may be planetary and in our ecosphere, geopolitical and terroristic, economic, healthcare related, regional, and intramural here at the University of Michigan. We can’t change the occurrence of most of these events, but we can reinforce our values and rehearse our responses. A recent article in Pediatrics by Plant, Barone, Serwint, and Butani called “Taking humanism back to the bedside” concludes with a quotation from George Eliot in Middlemarch that might help reset our humanism thermostats [Pediatrics, 2015; 136:828].
“We do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all of human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrels’ heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”
George Eliot was the pen name of Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880) about whom much more could be said than space now permits. Her only known photograph is an albumen print from around 1865 and held in Paris at the Bibliothèque Nationale.
9. Beaches. On that recent trip to Portland, Oregon as visiting professor, my friend Steve Skoog (former resident of mine at Walter Reed and subsequently our Duckett lecturer here in Ann Arbor) took us to Cannon Beach, where we saw Haystack Rock, shown above. Beaches like this are places to find relaxation, recreation, and inspiration among the waves, seaweed, seagulls, crabs, fish, and bivalves that are doing their daily jobs. We all need moments to unwind and walk around, although perhaps not so obtusely as Eliot believed “well wadded in our stupidity.” For us humans, the beach is expected to be a place of peace, so we are shocked when we encounter perversity there in the form of fatal riptides, tsunamis, the terrifying fiction of Jaws, or real sporadic shark attacks. The predicted rise of the oceans should give us pause as well. Perversity is a word that fits nicely here, meaning something so wrong that it is strange or offensive. Such things are wrongheaded, that is turned away from that which is right or good. Perversity is something that is obstinate in opposing what is reasonable or good. Perversity persistently intrudes on humanity, as we have seen most recently in Paris.
10. By now most people have forgotten Aylan Kurdi the 2-year old boy who drowned with his mother and 4-year old brother in the Mediterranean off the coast of Turkey while fleeing the civil war in their native Syria. Their intended destination was the island of Kos. This was the site of the Hippocratic School of health, education, and the enduring oath 2.5 millennia earlier. Perversely, the bitter irony of the image of Aylan Kurdi lying on a beach to the east 20 miles away is less enduring in our minds than shark attacks in the recent news. Shark attacks on humans occur on an infinitesimally small scale and the Kurdi family tragedy is just one of millions this year alone. How can it be that our brains lead us to fear sharks more than ourselves?
The innocent suffer the most from mankind’s follies such as self-righteous tyrants, political and religious zealots, bigotry, corporate greed, failed national policies, and diplomatic breakdown. The staggering numbers of international refugees (60 million by last count and half of these are children) will exhaust all nations. Any solution to this crisis, if there is to be a solution, is not a matter of expanded quotas in kindly nations. Solution is beyond the ability of any sovereign nation. The solution requires strong international agency that demands national responsibility and accountability, enforces national borders, stewards human future by means of planetary sustainability, and protects the common man above all ideologies, religions, economic theories, biases, and disputes. Wilson’s League of Nations was a valiant, but failed attempt. The United Nations of today is a weak work in progress, although clearly better than nothing as we hope for a favorable outcome of the human experiment. We need some sort of vaccination against the ideological and sectarian viruses for which human brains seem so susceptible. The current crisis of 60 million refugees fleeing civil wars hasn’t been enough to galvanize international response. Greater crises are likely to come from instability of climate, geology, cosmos, and terrorism. With 2016 at hand, we have to hope our species can get its act together soon. While science will provide some tools to that end the essential political solutions will come from educated and humanistic world citizens. Art, in particular, can pull us out of the cocoons of daily life and serve as an antidote to our “well wadded stupidity” for in the words of George Eliot: “That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind.”
Thanks for reading What’s New and Matula Thoughts and best wishes for 2016.
David A. Bloom