Thursday, April 16, 2009

Tooting From Seattle

My second “Tooter” installment, with more “toots.”

The present, 6 PM, Thurs: Just woke up in my hotel room from a much-needed nap. To recount:

Yesterday, 3 PM: On the airport shuttle headed into Seattle, I meet two journalists headed for the same conference I will be attending - the Association of Health Care Journalists conference - and a Biblical Studies teacher. Somehow, talking about journalism fits right in with the Bible, not to mention mental health. You have to be crazy to be a journalist - we’re simply recycled Biblical Prophets living out of time.

3:15 PM: I ask the other two health journalists what is the big story on their beats. Without hesitation, health coverage. Twenty-five percent of the people in the state of Texas are without insurance, Jason from Dallas tells me. Add to that all those with crappy coverage, I reply.

3:20 PM: I’m just getting going. You know, I say, some people from Canada may opt to get operated on in the US, but you never hear any serious conversation in Canada along the lines of: Let’s switch to US-style health care. You never hear in New Zealand: Let’s switch to US-style health care.

Don’t get me started.

Today: 6 AM. I get out of bed to answer my wake-up call. Suddenly, I realize I executed the maneuver without my lower back screaming out in pain. Then, on cue, I feel moderate pain. I can work with that.

7 AM: I register for the conference. At the table, I run into a journalist I met at the American Psychiatric Association annual meeting three years back. Over breakfast, he tells me of a cardio conference where the attendees were eating cheeseburgers.

8:30 AM: 40 or so journalists take off on a bus for a day-long field trip.

Fifteen minutes later: We get out at the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, a nonprofit organization with Bill Gates and Paul Allen money in it. Among other things, the Institute is working on vaccines for TB and Malaria. Unlike Big Pharma, this is “discovery-based,” research moving toward “translational” research. Big Pharma only gets interested much further down the development path.

TB has never gone away from the global scene, with 16 million active cases in the world. Two billion people actually carry live TB, which amounts to a ticking time bomb, Dr David Sherman, who heads up the Institute’s TB research, tells us.

A little later: We learn that the Institute has a malaria vaccine that has been successfully tested on rats and will be tested on humans soon. Dr Stephan Kappe, who is developing the vaccine, tells us that many malaria parasites have developed a resistance to drugs. In his opinion, the only way to eradicate malaria (there are 3 to 5 million cases a year, worldwide) is with a vaccine, like smallpox).

Late morning: I’m in a virtual operating room on the medical campus of the University of Washington applying my stethoscope to the skull of a virtual (robotic) patient. (What is wrong with that sentence? Not telling.) We are about to apply anesthesia to the “patient,” who is to be operated on for an ankle injury. The doctor (a real one) asks the patient how he hurt his ankle.

“I was dancing,” the patient replies.

“What was a white man doing dancing?” I ask.

“I was trying to get a groove on,” he replies. This robot is good.

Later, we send the patient into cardiac arrest. I perform a magnificent job applying the paddles backward.

Lunch: Another part of the UW campus. It’s all about surgical robots and performing surgery over the internet. A doctor live from Munich moves small objects from pegs in a room two stories down from us. Way cool.

A little later: MacArthur Foundation “genius award” winner Yoky Matsuoka shows us the robotic hand she and her team have in development. Super way cool. More Paul Allen money

Late afternoon: Last stop, the Allen Institute of Brain Science. Yes, that Paul Allen. I get to see brain tissue for the first time. I’m about to get out my camera, then put it back. This is not just tissue. The others in the room sense it, too. Cameras go back in the bags.

The scientists here are mapping out the human brain, along with the genes expressed in the brain. Last year, they finished mapping the mouse brain. They’re looking to finish mapping the human brain in 2010.

Back to the hotel, nap, function right now.

More “toots” later ...

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