Are Processed Foods Bad for Us?
We hear a lot about eating “real” foods and avoiding overly processed foods. Food writer Michael Pollan famously said his rules for the ideal diet were to 1) eat food, 2) not too much, and 3) mostly plants. He went so far as to say that any food with more than five ingredients, or an ingredient you can’t pronounce, is probably bad for you. But what’s the evidence that this is right?
Thanks to the work of investigators at the NIH, we have new evidence that processed foods should not make up the bulk of our diets. Researchers paid twenty volunteers to live in a research hospital for a month. Ten of them were men, and ten were women. The volunteers were randomly assigned to eat either an “ultra-processed” diet or an unprocessed diet for two weeks. The diets were identical in the number of calories and amount of nutrients like fat, sugar, protein, and fiber. The volunteers were observed closely for food intake, and frequent testing was done to determine how many calories they were burning.
An example “ultra-processed” meal was:
mashed potatoes (Basic American Foods)
margarine (Glenview Farms)
corn (canned, Giant)
diet lemonade (Crystal Light) with NutriSource fiber (researchers had to add fiber to the drinks in the processed diet to match the fiber of the unprocessed diet)
low fat chocolate milk (Nesquik) with NutriSource fiber.
In contrast, the unprocessed meal on the same day was:
beef tender roast (Tyson)
rice pilaf (basmati rice (Roland) with garlic, onions, sweet peppers and olive oil)
side salad (green leaf lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers) with balsamic vinaigrette (balsamic vinegar (Nature’s Promise)
salt and pepper (Monarch)
In spite of having equal numbers of calories available to them at every meal and snack, the people eating the processed diet ate about 500 calories per day more than the people eating the unprocessed diet.
After two weeks each person in the study was “crossed over” to the opposite diet from what they’d started on. That is, the processed diet folks started eating the unprocessed diet, and vice-versa.
What the investigators found was dramatic. In spite of having equal numbers of calories available to them at every meal and snack, the people eating the processed diet ate about 500 calories per day more than the people eating the unprocessed diet. This showed up in their weight: the processed dieters weighed, on average, 2 pounds more at the end of two weeks than they did at the start of the diet. All their extra weight was in the form of fat.
This finding could have a real impact on your employees’ health. When you are thinking of food for a large function, or thinking of how to contract food in an on-site cafeteria, it may be worth looking at the NOVA food classification system and working to increase the availability of Group 1 foods, those that are “unaltered following their removal from nature.”
Examples of these would be:
potatoes (fresh, packaged, cut, chilled, or frozen)
whole-grain wheat, oats and other cereals
fresh, chilled or frozen meat, poultry, fish and seafood
pasta, couscous, and polenta
milk or yogurt without added sugar
To better understand Dr. Philip Cox’s sudden activism, it’s worth putting yourself in his shoes. After yet another strained call with a clinic administrator who insists that you need to see more patients, to increase your “productivity,” you knock twice on an exam room door. You enter to the smell of mint and ashtrays, and you greet a rail-thin woman who appears at least ten years older than her stated age. She has scheduled this appointment because she is in desperate need of a prescription for medical marijuana. Through the standard give-and-take of the usual rushed interview and examination, she describes hours upon hours of physical therapy daily for her chronic back pain, so much therapy, in fact, that it leaves little time to do anything else with her day (you know, she says, because she’s too busy with the therapy and whatnot. And besides, she thinks she might have the glaucoma. And she’s been a little nauseous.).
You do your best to let her down easy. You explain that her other medical conditions--to say nothing of the drug enforcement laws in your state--collectively constitute a set of strict contraindications for the prescribing of medical cannabis. And maybe since you’ve made the decision not to mention her history of repeatedly positive drug screens (positive, that is, for a number of synthetic and naturally occurring substances that neither mainstream nor holistic medicine have found to be of therapeutic value), she becomes tearful and thanks you for the seven minutes that the modern medical-industrial complex allows for such interactions.
She stands and strategically positions herself between you and the exam room door. You extend your hand and offer a final “Try these suggestions and we’ll see where you stand in three months.” But so thankful is she for your time and attention, you think, that she grasps your extended hand and pulls your body toward hers. There’s some initial confusion in regards to which arm goes over and which goes under, and maybe this results in some unintentional contact with her hips or flank. You worry about what the risk management department would have to say about such intimacy. Then you wonder: What does she want?
Suddenly (though time compresses a little here) your necks are in contact. There’s the blanch of a tear between your skin and hers, and her makeup stains your collar. Her hair crunches against your temple. Her breath warms your neck. You awkwardly place your hands over her shoulders and feel the crease of her bra strap over a shoulder blade. After three or four seconds of embrace, heavy sighs, the styptic smell of burnt tobacco, the sweet top notes of cheap perfume, and the casual exchange of bodily fluids, the patient takes a deep, premeditated breath.
“You know what? I lost that last prescription for my pain pills. Would you mind giving me a new ‘script now?” As you release and back away, she unleashes a hollow, rattling, expectorating cough into an unwashed hand, and you feel the mist on your face. You don’t have the heart to show her the pharmacy’s record of the last narcotic prescription having been filled or the missed appointment slips from the physical therapist’s office. Here is a patient who wanted a hug.
So enough with hugging, Phil had decided. There would be exceptions: he felt a sincere, oxytocin-tinged pleasure at the contact of his wife’s body against his. And he felt nothing uncomfortable about hugging his children, not even his awkward, blossoming tween daughter. But the rest of the world was, he had decided, going to have a hard time meeting the Phil Cox threshold for hugworthiness.
As Phil pedaled home from that day’s clinic he rode a steady, floating wave of euphoria. He parked his bike in the garage and almost skipped to the door. He approached his wife in the kitchen embracing their tearful eleven-year old daughter.
“I’ve made a decision,” he said. He was pleased with the Churchillian commitment of his voice in his head.
His wife looked up from the soft receding sobs of their daughter. “I can’t wait to hear all about it,” she said. Phil couldn’t quite interpret the look on her face.
“No more hugs,” he said. He couldn’t help but smile as he said it. “I’m on the first train out of huggy-town.”
“What are you talking about?” she asked. She let go of their daughter, who heel-toed down the hall toward her room, crying as she went. Phil’s wife began assembling grilled-cheese sandwiches.
“All the hugs. I’m done with them. I’m the newly elected Mayor of Mind Your own Business City.” His wife looked past him down the hall.
“You mean the kids? She was just upset about an audition. Wizard of Oz. Dorothy.”
“No, no, not the kids,” he replied. “All the other people that are always trying to hug me. Do you know that of the twenty people I saw today, fourteen tried to hug me on the way out? Men, women, everybody.”
“It just means they like you,” she replied.
“That’s just the thing. It has nothing to do with liking me. I’m the messenger of doom in there. I spend all day telling people what I won’t or can’t do for them. They have no reason to like me at all. They hug because they’ve somehow been programmed to hug. It’s the new handshake. And let me tell you: I for one do not want our kids growing up in a world where hugs replace handshakes.” He was happy with this little piece of improv. He’d managed to bring the kids’ welfare into the argument. He went on: “The entire patient interaction is driven by me right up until the end. The patients hardly talk. I keep doing what I’m doing, and people seem pretty happy, and then…” he paused. “They all of a sudden try to hug something out of me.”
“That seems a little dramatic. I hardly get hugged at all,” she said.
“But you’re a gynecologist.” Phil made a pointing gesture with the first two fingers of his right hand. “Half your patients feel traumatized by you by the end of the visit, what with the specula and the probing and whatnot.” His wife tilted her head. He could feel his argument getting away from him. “I’m just saying, my patients and I have an implicit understanding that most of my job is to protect them from themselves: don’t smoke, don’t drink, take your medicines, but don’t take drugs.” He framed “medicines” and “drugs” with air quotes. “You, on the other hand, are coming at half-naked people with medieval torture instruments. Is a patient in a paper gown, open in the front,” he drew his hands across his chest and posed Mick Jagger-style to insinuate breasts exposed by the flimsy gown, “going to de-stirrup, jump off the table and give you a good, old-fashioned bear hug? No, of course not. So you’re protected, at least at work.”
“Well, I don’t get hugged that much outside of work, either,” she said as she reached for the bread.
“Um, your brother-in-law? I wouldn’t be surprised if that guy hugs the drive-through cashier. I’m always fighting him off, and I’m not an attractive…” he started to say ‘middle-aged woman,’ but stopped himself. “...hot little thing like you.”
She furrowed her brow and shook her head. “You know Dwayne comes from a tough background. He’s just happy to be in a family now where he’s loved. He asked if you were coming to the wedding next weekend. Are we still in for the $500 for a gift?”
“I suspect that decision’s not up to me. But if I go, I could stand a little less of the physical act of love from him. When two men hug, it’s like 75, 80 percent erection.”
“Dwayne gets you going, huh?” She aggressively flipped a grilled-cheese.
“No, God, no. Not even if I was gay.” Phil pantomimed a dry-heave. “Goatee and belt buckles? But you know what I mean. Or maybe you don’t. As a male, you spend most of your life trying to avoid public erections. It’s just the facts of life. One day you’re hugging your aunt and you feel this little acorn in your pants, and then...well, men just don’t like having their stuff touch. The other day I was at QuickTrip using the urinal. I heard this guttural noise--’gllrrgh’--behind me. I had no idea. I shook it off, zipped, and turned around, and there’s this smiling guy, Down’s Syndrome, maybe? He smiles really wide and makes eye contact with me. His pants were around his knees. He didn’t wait for me to get out of the narrow little stall thing, and as I tried to wriggle out, his penis brushed against my thigh. I thought I might die.”
“For God’s sake, Phil. You’re a doctor. Get a grip. And what on earth does some poor mentally handicapped guy accidentally touching you with the distal point-oh-one percent of his penis have to do with hugging?”
“Maybe it’s not a perfect illustration. I got distracted by all the Dwayne talk. But what about the overweight middle-aged guy the other night in the ‘Free Hugs’ tee-shirt?”
“You mean the school custodian? He moonlights at Red Robin as a balloon artist, and he offered to cover the school carnival. All he got out of it was a meal.”
“Yeah, well you know what exchanging physical intimacy for money is called?” Phil asked. “Prostitution. So thank goodness Pervy Custodian Balloon Man was giving the hugs away.”
“Would you calm down?” his wife said. “You’re overthinking this.”
“Did you notice what happened whenever he tried to hug a kid? Who had the power in that situation? Was the kid going to fight him off? No! That hug might have been the cost of doing business to get a balloon giraffe; total power play. The kids were just relieved when it was over. Look, I know ‘hugging’ sounds all nice and innocent, like Dwayne with his ‘Get over here, you,’” here Phil gave a small Nixonian jowl-shake. “But there’s no such thing as a free hug, trust me.”
She sighed. “Oh, I trust you, alright. Is this another phone thing?”
Phil knew what she meant. Last year, in an attempt to meet his corporate overlords’ demands for productivity, he'd decided that he could save a few minutes a day by discontinuing the use of a parting word on the phone. No more goodbyes. It hadn't been a disaster, and he liked the old-timey detective vibe it gave off when he simply ended the conversation and hung up, but Phil had needed to resort back to traditional sign-offs when patients started calling back the office thinking they'd been cut off, thinking that they'd missed out on some little nugget of information that would make their sex life better or get them out of an upcoming CT scan. And one of the office staff had misinterpreted his brusque phone manners as a sure sign she was going to be fired.
“Not even close. I’m taking a stand against the transactional embrace. No emotion, no purpose other than to make people uncomfortable. If you commit and really try to show some sincere affection for the other person, you’re a creep. If you try to abort the hug, you’re an asshole.”
Phil’s wife did not seem impressed.
“Look: I’m trying to get things done in clinic. Real work. And all this hugging gets in the way. And outside of work, well, we’re suffering a crisis of personal space.” He pointed his index fingers toward the floor and drew a circle around himself the diameter of his outstretched arms. “And I’m taking mine back.”
Phil’s wife’s niece’s wedding would be a test. He knew what he’d see: the drunken tandem bump-and-grind on the dance floor, the same-side arm neck-crane air-kiss, the shoulders-only three-pat fake embrace, the one-armed “take our picture” and its trashy cousin the “let me feel the outline of your underwear through your satin dress.” Maybe a few bro hugs. The awkward mixing of friends, extended family members, dates trying to fit in, the receiving line: weddings were to hugging what the Javari Valley was to uncontacted tribes. Except that the Javari Valley didn’t have Dwayne Moberly. To Phil, Dwayne was the lost, untamed frontier: a man that came from nowhere and is going nowhere, but is doing it as loudly, and while taking up as much space, as he can. To spend any time with Dwayne was to experience a full-on frontal assault to the senses.
It is worth considering an altogether unremarkable encounter with Phil’s brother-in-law. Maybe you’re at a relative’s house for Thanksgiving. You’re passively learning about the wonders of the Turducken when you’re suddenly thrown off center by a hard slap to the shoulder. Your first instinct is to turn against the perpetrator, but before you can even turn your head you fall prey to the sonic disorientation of Dwayne’s voice in your ear.
“Sonofabitch, great to see you! I wasn’t sure you’d be able to get away. I know you’re busy. Leaving the office costs you guys a lot of money.”
“Uh, good to see you, Dwayne. How about those Sooners, huh? You guys might have a chance this year.”
“Need a running game,” he says matter-of-factly. Then he grasps you by the left shoulder and squares you toward him. Tiny droplets of sweat on his forehead and nose wink in the light. He has tears in his eyes. He initiates intense, uninterrupted eye contact and lowers his voice. His breath reeks of Wild Turkey.
“You don’t know how much it means to me to have you guys as family,” he says, all Hee-Haw and Toby Keith in whispered basso profundo. He puts his left arm over your right shoulder and hooks your left shoulder with his right elbow, wrapping his right arm around your neck. You smell the leather of his Marshall Dillon vest and feel the humidity of his skin through the cotton of his Harley-Davidson shirt. He spills a little of his cocktail on your back, and you, possessing neither the protection of a leather cowboy vest nor the confidence to wear one in public, feel the cold droplets trace a path down your back. Dwayne doesn’t notice. Then he squeezes you. Tight.
“Great to see your wife and kids here. Everybody ok?” you say as you struggle for breath. “How’s the satellite dish business?” The stubble of his beard scratches your cheek and the bristle of his handlebar moustache tickles your ear. The buttons of his vest dig into your chest. His protuberant abdomen juts out over a turquoise belt buckle and presses against yours.
“New belt buckle, Dwayne?” He exhales heavily and steps on your toe. The embrace lasts two seconds too long, and just before you’re released from the maw, he gently sways you to the left, then to the right.
“Grrr,” he says as he shakes, then releases. Axe body spray sticks to you like tar. Here is a greeting from Dwayne Moberly.
Nine times out of ten, Phil would go through the receiving line of a wedding reception without complaint. Back-pat hugs would be transacted with unknown relatives from the other side of the wedding aisle, and faux debutante thanks would be sniffled from the bride.
But tonight was not nine times out of ten. Tonight was the debut of Phil 2.0, upgraded to a faster, more efficient operating system that effortlessly deflected intrusions from outsiders into its personal space. He touched the cold, moist corsage pinned to his chest and whispered to himself, good, good. He knew people would want to avoid crushing it. Furthermore, he’d not only steeled himself against unwanted intrusions, practicing eye contact and a firm, extended-arm handshake in the mirror in the days leading up to the event, he’d made the decision to temporarily suspend oral hygiene. Granted, it wasn’t a strategy that had perfect long-term consequences. He couldn’t skip brushing his teeth forever. But he figured that it could be a reasonable strategy to employ for special occasions, like a relief pitcher who is employed only to face left-handed pull-hitters in late innings. His halitosis hadn’t yet been noticed by his wife or kids, and he had a twinge of disappointment that the buffet wasn’t Mediterranean, Italian, or some other cuisine with the punch of onion and garlic behind it. But he could taste three cups of coffee in a battle royale with a bourbon neat and a caesar salad, and his tongue was the battlefield. Morning breath in the afternoon, he thought. He ran his tongue over his teeth and felt an uneven sheen of plaque. He was ready. He took his weaponized halitosis toward the receiving line.
“Hi Dwayne,” Phil said, emphasizing the “H” from the back of his throat. He crossed his arms and kept his mouth open, directed toward its target. “L’chaim! Hhow’s it hhanging hhombre?” He uncrossed and took Dwayne’s right hand in his and held it firm. He figured if he couldn’t fight off a hug from his brother-in-law entirely he could at least limit the damage to a homie hug. He immediately regretted not having called Dwayne “Homie.”
“G-good, Phil,” Dwayne said. He squinted his eyes and flared his nostrils slightly. He turned his head slightly to the right, then looked again at Phil. “The kids sure appreciate you being here, I can tell you that.” Dwayne seemed to recover slightly from the initial onslaught of Phil’s breath and started to bring his chest toward Phil’s.
“Hhell, Dwayne, hhowever we can hhelp we’re hhappy to.” Phil gave Dwayne’s hand one last shake, let go, and moved on to Dwayne’s wife. He grabbed her by both shoulders, kept her at just under arm’s length, and said,”Hhappy wedding. Hhow’s it been, hhot stuff?” He saw a fine mist of saliva enter the air between them as he finished off “stuff.” It had been unintentional, but he wasn’t displeased with it. She flinched, then recovered and responded that she was tired but happy, and that it had been a great day, and it was going to be a great night, and she was so happy to have another person in the family, and she was so happy that Phil had been able to make it.
“Hhallelujah,” Phil responded as he gave her a little stiff-arm shiver, and he moved on to the bride and groom. He was pleased with his ability to keep both of them at arm’s length, so he then briefly hit the bar before the dollar dance.
Phil was at ease with the extravagance of his family’s gift for the bride and groom. Part of it was good old-fashioned pragmatism: young people needed money more than they needed another place-setting, and maybe Dwayne would see it as a peace offering. But a bigger part of his tranquility was the idea that he could exchange the money at the dollar dance and, in the process, disrupt what he saw as a time-honored paean to wasted false intimacy. High on his newfound dominion over his personal space, and through the magic of a twenty dollar tip to the deejay, Phil had conspired to replace the usual swaying, hands-on-hips ceremony of false affection with an opportunity for an improvised pop-and-lock routine. No way his money to the bride could be seen as being in exchange for anything.
Phil approached the bride in line and nodded to the deejay, and the DJ transitioned abruptly from power ballad to the steady, four-on-the-floor thump of a rap song. Phil initiated his dance. Then, as Phil looked up from his robotic march across the dance floor, he saw his niece looking toward Dwayne. He turned toward Dwayne, raised a finger, smiled, and turned on a heel toward the bride. He had something in mind that was going to make Dwayne very happy. He Dougied toward her, pulled a neat roll of $100 bills out of his breast pocket, and held it between his fingers at arm’s length. She reached for the bills, and Phil stylishly dropped the wad into her hand. She stared at it and held her arms out to him. He reached out with the index finger of his left hand, gently placed it on her chin, and pushed her away as he playfully shook his head. He turned back toward Dwayne and couldn’t quite place the look he got. Phil finished his last, choreographed ten seconds of walking it out to the edge of the dance floor.
As Dwayne walked toward him, Phil turned toward the bride and saw the curl of her lip and a first glistening tear. Dwayne cornered Phil near the deejay booth.
“Phil, we got a problem here?”
“Not unless the happy couple has a problem figuring out how to spend five hundred big ones,” Phil said.
“Well, she don’t look none to happy to me, Phil,” Dwayne said as he tilted his head at his daughter, now soldiering on with a wheelchair-bound great-uncle. “Seems like a girl ought to get a little more attention on a day she’s planned for a year.”
“Dwayne, I think the kind of attention you’re talking about oughtta be reserved for the hotel room.” Phil smiled. Dwayne lurched forward and put his face directly in Phil’s.
“I think you’re treading on mighty thin ice, doc. You might wanna think about the next thing that comes out of that mouth.” Phil suddenly felt a strange sense of respect for Dwayne; this was a side of his brother-in-law he’d never seen.
“I...I just wanted her to know that we love her, no strings attached,” said Phil as he looked over Dwayne’s shoulder toward the dance floor. Dwayne’s daughter was back to slow-dancing with a boy of about fourteen. The boy had a noticeable bulge in his slacks.
Phil looked directly at Dwayne: “I think everybody’s having a good time, Dwayne. Great wedding, really. You nailed it. I’m gonna hit the head.” He patted Dwayne on the shoulder, gave an appreciative point to the deejay, and steered toward the bathroom.
Phil’s wife followed him. “Whatever that little ceremony was, knock it off,” she whisper-yelled to Phil through her teeth, her voice echoing off the tile and painted cinderblock of the back hallway.
“Just giving the bride her money for the dollar dance,” Phil said.
“I saw her try to hug you. You had to be cute, didn’t you?”
“Why do you like hugging so much?” Phil said. “You hate smells. Do you like somebody putting their body against yours so you smell like them the rest of the day? Aunt Sallie smells like cigarettes and onions. They aren’t even serving onions here! You hate onions! Why couldn’t you have given her the money?”
“Certain things like hugging or giving the bride money at her dollar dance are just part of the modern social contract,” she said. “The cost of doing business. Like the ‘Would you like to donate a dollar for starving orphans?’ button at the grocery store checkout. Sometimes if the cashier’s looking at you, you just gotta push that button, Phil. It doesn’t matter if you’ve already given a million dollars to charity. Doesn’t matter if you like it. You gotta push it.”
“Well, maybe my job is to shape, not follow, social norms. Maybe that’s my gift to the world.” Phil straightened and puffed his chest a little.
Phil’s wife’s shoulders slumped a little. “Your ‘gift to the world?’ Thanks a lot, Bill Gates. Dwayne asked me if you were okay. What am I supposed to say? That you’ve had a head injury or something? His feelings are hurt. Here he is, biggest night of his life, and he’s the unwitting subject of your little experiment.” Her voice softened a little here. “And Jesus, Phil, chew some gum or something. Your breath smells like the dog’s.”
As Phil brushed his teeth in the cold, blue light of a hangover the next morning, he conceded the bad-breath trick had probably been a step too far. And the cell-phone footage of his dollar dance routine was a little incriminating; he seemed to be a minor local YouTube sensation. Hurt feelings had not been his intention. He’d given his wife’s comments some thought. The social contract, she’d said in regards to hugs. But what about the rest of his contracts? Phil wasn’t paid for hugs in his professional life, after all. He did the math quickly: twenty patients per day at twenty seconds per hug equalled at least another patient interaction. Another interaction whose care could be quantified, whose outcome could be neatly defined, and whose data could be shoved back at his masters and their push for efficiency. Last night had been a minor setback. He felt he was ready to move forward, and he was ahead of schedule, to boot.
Phil’s wife had scored tickets to see a stand-up comedian, “Mickey Mac.” Mickey was known for his interaction with the crowd. This led to each show having its own signature moment, many of which were catalogued on Mickey’s website. Phil found seats near the front, stage right. To their left sat a couple with an impressive number of drinks already on their table by the time the opening act wrapped up: two empty beer bottles and two cocktails in varying stages of consumption, along with the drinks the couple were working on now. The couple had mostly ignored the first act, a red-haired prop comic that Phil agreed had leaned a little too hard on the bagpipe/Scottish jokes. But when Mickey Mac took the stage, the couple cheered so loudly that Phil wondered if they were aiming to be part of Mickey’s signature moment that night.
“Mickey! Hey Mickey! Let me take your picture!” the man yelled as the woman leaned over the tiny pedestal table, nearly knocking all the dead soldiers off as she tried to get her face between the camera and the comedian. “Let me take your picture!”
Phil’s face got hot. This was not what he’d paid for. Why were they hijacking the show like this?
“We gotta tell them to shut up,” he whispered to his wife. She shook her head and squeezed his hand. Phil craned his neck and looked for the bouncer. This was exactly what happens to me at work, Phil thought. I know exactly how Mickey feels right now.
Mickey marched on into his set and was well into the setup of his first series of jokes, a series of observations about how men could always tell if they were touching boobs, even through a raincoat, down sweater, and sports bra. You can’t fool a man with shoulder or hip-he knows if that’s tit he’s touching, Mickey said. And after the third or fourth “...take your picture!” Phil couldn’t take anymore. He squirmed in his seat.
“Let him do his job!” Phil yelled. He slapped the table and his drink spilled onto the floor. The crowd, for the first time all night, fell silent.
Mickey turned to Phil and said, “You mean my man Gordon Parks here?” He pointed at the couple. “Let’s all thank him, everybody, for taking time out of the principal photography for ‘Shaft 2’ to come to the show.” Mickey put the mic on the stand and clapped. The audience hooted and clapped along. Then Mickey squinted at the woman and put his hand over his eyes to block the stage lights.
“And is that Twiggy?” he said. “You’re holding up alright, sister. You be good to my boy Gordon there.”
And that was it. Phil felt a soft rush of relief. The couple hadn’t suffered harm. Mickey had gone on autopilot, had recruited the rest of the crowd to his side, and had made the intruders melt away. They hadn’t been kicked out of the show. They hadn’t even been treated particularly poorly. Mickey had simply redirected his show by a few degrees to take them on and, in turn, had actually made his show a little better. By the end of the show, Phil wasn’t sure he’d even remember the intruders had been there. And it had happened in no time! Phil figured the whole interaction, the whole process of getting the couple to sit and watch the show like everyone else, had taken less than two minutes.
Phil couldn’t help but compare this to his experiences with patients, whose insincere attempts at goodbye-hugs seemed to drag on forever. And after all, what real value, what therapeutic code, was there to apply to uncomfortable forced embraces? His mind wandered to a gray office cubicle where a mid-level administrator was assigned to the procedure: “CPT Code: 847xx – Embrace, therapeutic; Procedure includes: Qualitative report as positive or negative.” As Phil thought of this, and as Mickey stabbed ahead with his next setup for a series of jokes about how octopuses must have sex, Phil laughed as hard as he’d laughed all night.
The next day of clinic proceeded mostly without incident. Phil noticed the first patient of the day seemed a little confused by the abruptness of his goodbye, so he decided to spend just a few seconds longer with each patient as they left the room. He had refined his technique into what he called “The Presidential,” a handshake that involved the placing of his left hand on the patient’s right shoulder for depth control as he shook hands with his right. Then he would move his left hand from the shoulder to the patient’s right hand, clasping and cupping her hand with both of his. Two beats of solid eye contact from a comfortable distance, then break. Politicians used it all the time, and people seemed to love it. His life would no longer resemble an infinite junior high dance. He was a solid, reliable component of the medical machine: all business. He thought of changing his practice to an all-telemedicine venture, felt a blush of excitement, and sent a text message concluding with an emoji (of a woman with her arms crossed in front of her) to his wife. She did not respond.
Not even the prospect of Dwayne on the schedule could dampen his spirits. Dwayne was a bit of a handful to take care of, but not because of the usual reasons. He wasn’t addicted to prescription narcotics, which Phil granted might as well qualify him for sainthood in their city. He wasn’t particularly pushy, nor did he have unrealistic expectations of modern medicine. Phil figured this was because while most fifty-year-olds were watching new episodes of House or marveling at the unrealistic speed and tidiness of forensic medicine crime procedurals, Dwayne was watching reruns of John Wayne epics and Elvis teen beach movies. But still, conversations about erectile dysfunction had their place, and that place was not with your wife’s sister’s redneck husband. And, of course, Dwayne had a particular penchant for the visit-ending hug, a tradition by which Phil 2.0 would not abide. Dwayne was always scheduled for the last visit of the day. Unsurprisingly, he never complained about waiting; he seemed to draw his very life force from conversations with random strangers in the waiting room. Phil was consistently amazed at the depth of knowledge Dwayne had in regards to his patients’ private lives.
By the time he got to Mrs. Beekhuizen, the patient a slot or two ahead of Dwayne, Phil really felt like he was getting somewhere. “Look at me,” he triumphed to his nurse as he curtsied a little. “My shirt collar: unstained. My tie: unwrinkled.” He swept his hands from his chest down past his flanks. “My sense of sovereignty over my personhood untrampled upon. And oooooooon schedule!” He smiled a wide, almost surprised smile, walked to the room, knocked twice, and entered.
Mrs. Beekhuizen’s visit promised nothing out of the ordinary: she was an unlucky sixty-something lady with a smoldering case of terminal breast cancer who’d called wanting to be seen for “sadness.” In the gears of the modern medical machine, this generally meant a diagnosis of depression quickly followed by a prescription for one of several interchangeable, mostly benign drugs.
“Since my husband died, I’ve just been so irritable,” said Mrs. Beekhuizen. “I called the girl who bumped into me in the grocery line a ‘little bitch’ yesterday. Who would do that?” Phil turned to the tablet computer he used for charting and made a couple of jabs and drags with his index finger.
“Hmmm. What else?”
“I don’t sleep at night. I’ve been up since two this morning,” she said. Phil noticed his fingernails needed trimming. His right foot was asleep, so he straightened his leg. He pulled the lever to raise his stool a little.
She sighed. “I’m probably making too much of it all. I just feel so emotional; I cry at nothing.”
She kept talking. Phil looked back up at her. He thought about her mastectomy. Had it made her self-conscious? If he didn’t know about her history, he would not be able to tell she’d had the procedure. He thought about intimacy with such a person. Would it feel lopsided? He stole a glance at the clock. During the final years of hers and her husband’s intimate life, had she taken off her shirt during sex?
“Maybe we’d have both been better off if we’d just died together,” she said.
Phil stood up. “I think you’ll feel better soon,” he said. “I just sent in a script for Zoloft. One a day for three weeks and call me back. Don’t give up on it before then. It takes a while for it to get into your system.”
“Is that all, Dr. Cox?” Mrs. Beekhuizen stood and faced him, smiled softly, and nodded. She started to lean in, but when Phil deployed The Presidential, she startled slightly and looked down. Phil released his two-handed grip and waited for the turn toward the door. He saw the glisten of tears in her eyes, then the slow rise and fall of a first sob. She turned toward the door, whispered,”I’m a monster,” and since it took Phil a half-second longer than normal to interpret the language through the crying, her hand beat his to the doorknob.
“What do you mean, Mrs. Beekhuizen?” he asked, but she was on her way out, her back to him, headed toward the nurse’s station.
“I’m a monster and an amputee,” he heard her say to his nurse as she past.
“You’re all woman,” Phil said in response, then cringed as the words left his mouth. You’re all woman? What is wrong with me?
“She’s all woman?” his nurse whispered to him as she gave him a baffled look, then she and Phil watched Mrs. Beekhuizen take her appointment card and open the door to the clinic lobby.
“Words are hard to choose,” Phil said.
It is worth relating the experience of confronting death with a person with whose care you have been charged. You meet, usually in the clinic or in the hospital, but always in a setting in which you as the physician have the power. Your view of the person is focused by the lens of statistics: no advice, no drug, no intervention at all is going to change the cold, hard numbers undergirding her prognosis. She looks at you. Maybe you look over her shoulder and try to feign eye contact. Her eyes find yours again. What is she looking for? What does she think she’ll find in there? Her face slowly transforms from bravery to panic, then maybe to a steady state of fear. You wonder if the loneliness of losing her husband is speeding her death. You move closer to her to show that you’re not afraid of her. You let the catheters and the asymmetry of her body and the smell of iodine and the crust of sanitary dressings touch you. You hear the friction of your hands against the tasteful blouse she’s wearing to cover up the signs of her illness. You don’t move them away. You feel a strange comfort in knowing that vanity persists even to death.
You wonder what else she cares about. Not work, taxes, corporate outsourcing, ISIS, retirement, or an open internet, you think. Her grandchildren? Her cats? The Sunday paper? Good coffee? God? Maybe how many good days she has left? Whatever you feel, whatever oily taste or lump in your throat you swallow, whatever thoughts you have about her or your kids’ school or your wife’s discontentment with your marriage or your own mortality stay a secret.
Your job is to reassure her by your touch that you sense her dignity and her purpose. Your job is to reassure her that she is loved and that people will forgive her for whatever she thinks she’s done wrong. Your job is to ignore the number of beats of the embrace and let her release first, so that by the time you part, by the time she lets go, maybe the tears have started to dry. Your job is not the completion of a simple transaction; it is not the negotiation of some big, sloppy, forced, insincere act. Your job is the dispensing of a therapeutic dose of a medicine that is complex, relational, intense and personal, and it is as carefully dosed as the chemotherapy for which the patient is no longer a candidate. When you release, it is not the patient’s odor or desperation that sticks to you. If dosed carefully, it is some piece of you that departs with the patient. Here is a person who needs a hug.
Phil strode past his nurse without noticing the fleeting brush of her hand against his moist underarm. He pulled open the lobby door, and its moan swiveled the heads of the stragglers in the waiting room.
He started to say,”Mrs. Beek-,” but then he saw Dwayne. Dwayne Moberly, early as usual, in a standing bear hug with a depressed, self-loathing terminal cancer patient, rocking slowly side to side.
“I tell you what, Audrey, Dr. Cox has some unusual methods sometimes, but I tell you, I wouldn’t trust my care to anyone else,” Dwayne said. Mrs. Beekhuizen said something back, but Phil couldn’t hear it. Her voice was muffled by Dwayne’s neck against her face.
Last night I was asked to give an address at the National Honor Society of from my old high school. These are my comments.
There’s a saying in medicine: “Every system is perfectly designed to achieve the results it achieves.” For example, if half the patients admitted to a certain hospital die, it’s because that hospital is set up perfectly to have a fifty percent mortality rate in the patient population it serves. Or there’s a murderer on the loose, if it’s an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. One of those. But where I’m going with this—the system stuff, not the serial killer side-track—is that what you’re about to hear applies to my history and mine alone. My interaction with the world so far has been perfectly designed to get me to this point. Your results may vary.
Step one: Live. I know that some of you are certain that your life will really start in May, after you graduate from Skyline. I know some student in college right now thinks her life will start as soon as she graduates from college. I know medical students who are positive that once they begin their orthopedic residencies, their lives will officially be underway. I know that somewhere there is an endocrinology fellow that thinks his life really starts when he opens his practice this coming July. And I definitely know people my age who are counting the days til their kids are off to college, planning on turning their oldest kid’s room into a gym or a movie theater. All of them are wrong.
You heard in my intro that I went to school for a very, very long time. Let me put it in perspective. When I graduated from Skyline after thirteen years in this building, I wasn’t quite halfway done with my education. I was eighteen when I got my diploma in May of 1994. When I walked out of the University of North Carolina for the last time in June of 2008 I was almost 33. I had never made more than minimum wage. But here’s the thing: I would have turned 33 whether I’d gone to medical school or not. Someday you will turn 40, if you’re lucky. You can spend the time between now and then talking about how great your life is going to be once it starts, or you can accept that you are living your life right now.
Out of my med school class of ~175 people, I know of two who died after completing their training: Shelley was an oncologist who died in 2015 at age 40 from a rare cancer. She was kind and patient. Weesam was my classmate at K-State and at KU Med. He was also the most encyclopedic source of knowledge about K-State football I’ve ever met. He was a vascular surgeon at Stanford when he died of leukemia at age 34, only a year after completing his training. Shelley and Weesam lived noble, meaningful lives that so happened to have been mostly taken up by their training. There is nothing wrong with that. They both lived. They didn’t wait to get a diploma or to walk across a stage or for the passing of some arbitrary date to declare their lives started. School, if that’s the direction you decide to continue, is life. An entry-level job is living. Some of my fondest memories--and it goes without saying, some of my saddest--are from high school, college, medical school, residency, and fellowship. The years since then are the whipped cream on top.
Step two: When someone offers to help you, accept. As a student at Skyline I was surrounded by people who showered me with kindness and expected nothing in return. I turned down so many offers from people who wanted to help me. I had no interest in Scholars Bowl. I turned my nose up at help with test prep. I thought I was the smartest person in the room most of the time, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I wasn’t in National Honor Society because my grades weren’t good enough. I wasn’t much better in college. I don’t think many doctors advertise the fact, but many of us have to apply to medical school more than once to get in. I was one of those people. When I was a junior at K-State, I applied to a new program at KU called “Scholars in Primary Care.” It was an early-acceptance program for a limited number of students who agreed to practice primary care (think Family Medicine, Pediatrics, and whatnot) in an underserved area, like a small town or the inner city. My interview was in Garden City, and to say it was a disaster would be an understatement. I sat at the end of a long conference table with six or eight people seated around me. They peppered me with questions. They were local family docs, a professor from the junior college, an assistant dean of the medical school, and some others. I think one of them may have been a preacher. I’m not sure. At one point, they asked me about my future legacy, and I told a rambling story that not only missed the point of the question, but managed to make fun of golfers. To a room full of doctors! I did not get accepted to medical school that day. It could’ve been the unabomber haircut. I don’t know. The bowl cut in my senior picture out front was not the low point of my hairstyle story. At least I never had my brother’s perm. But I digress. It was not my proudest moment. I was not the smartest person in that room. But because this was an early-acceptance program I got a second shot later in the year. I was offered interview preparation help by the pre-med program at K-State, and I took it. In the fall I got another interview in Kansas City, and I managed, I think, not to offend any of my interviewers. One of them asked me what I would think if a student with grades and scores worse than mine, but who had a certain background that the school was looking for, got in ahead of me. This was a way harder question than anything about legacy or golf. I answered that if the school was looking for people to work in certain communities or do certain jobs, I knew that I wasn’t a good fit for all of them.
A couple weeks later I got a letter of acceptance. I was proud. My mom and dad were proud. Here’s what I didn’t know at the time: I was very likely the beneficiary of a kind of affirmative action for farm kids. My application was fine. I had a decent GPA, and I was on my way to graduating with honors, and I got a decent score on the MCAT, the medical school entrance exam. But now, after having served several years on the Admissions committee at KU and interviewing maybe a hundred applicants, I know that dozens of students with identical resumes and scores as mine get turned down every year. I sincerely believe that the reason I was admitted over kids like them was that I had an interesting background that was under-represented in the medical school. When I was in college in Manhattan, there were farm kids everywhere. Everywhere. Aggieville. “Ag.” You know what I’m saying? When I was at KU, there were maybe ten of us, including my wife and I. Does that matter? It depends on what perspective you take. If I look at the problem from the point of view of a wealthy doctor’s kid from Sedgwick or Johnson county who missed out on med school in spite of pretty good scores, it looks like a miscarriage of justice. My own kids are the wealthy children of doctors in Sedgwick county, and if they’re in that situation in the future, I suspect I’ll be annoyed. But from my point of view, I accepted the help I was given, and I’ve gone on to be a fairly competent physician who pays taxes and stays out of trouble. No tragedy was suffered by anyone. Side note: I still hate golf.
Step three: Know when you’re into something that doesn’t fit you before you get stuck. When I was a Senior at Skyline, once I knew where I’d be going to college, my dad asked me if I wanted to rush his old fraternity. I knew nothing about fraternities, but I was game. I went to Manhattan a couple times, and to Wichita once to a greyhound race, and it was okay. It felt weird, like I was trying to be somebody I wasn’t, but I met a couple nice guys. I figured that since I was a “legacy”--that’s what they call the descendants of fraternity or sorority members--I would get in and make friends, and my dad and I would have something to talk about. What I hadn’t counted on was this: They. Hated. Me. Well, “hate” is maybe too strong a word. I don’t think any of them wanted bad things to happen to me. They just didn’t want me in their fraternity house. They wanted to paddle someone else. So I had to make an embarrassing, last-ditch, emergency effort to move into the dorm. I was placed on an “Ag” floor (this was K-State, after all). I was a little bit bitter about that part; remember how I was the smartest guy in the room? I wanted nothing to do with farming, and I thought my experience might be narrower somehow that way. But I made friends on that ag floor that I keep today. One of them lives next door to me, on purpose.
When I went to college I was a journalism major. I liked writing, I love the sound of my own voice, as you’ve probably figured out, and I still consider journalism a very important pursuit, even if it is kind of a hard way to make a living. But toward the end of my freshman year, I was in a class where the professor was teaching techniques about sourcing and finding stories. He kept saying, over and over, how aggressive good journalists need to be. I couldn’t imagine myself being that person. I’ve been on the business end of a couple journalists in my career, and I wouldn’t switch places with them. I don’t like confrontation. I sweat when I’m nervous. I’m sweating right now. One day after that class I was walking through a random building looking at posters (we didn’t have smartphones then), and I saw an advertisement for the school of Human Nutrition. I knocked on the door of the department chair (like a good little aggressive journalist) and asked her about the degree options. That same day I went to the registrar’s office and changed my major. And that fraternity? My sophomore year my dorm hall put together a basketball team. Our starting five included a starting K-State running back at guard and a future second-round NFL draft pick at defensive end playing forward. We played that fraternity in the all-university playoffs and crushed them.
Step four: Try to take a generous interpretation of people. When I was an intern in Spokane, Washington I admitted a twenty-something guy to the hospital with a gruesome arm injury and a gunshot wound to the calf. He’d been running from the police. First they tased him. Then they shot him in the leg. When those things had failed to slow him down (meth is a very interesting drug), they sicced a dog on him that tore the skin from his upper arm.
That night, as I was busy with a thousand other things, as medical interns tend to be, I kept getting paged with requests for pain medication. This is a tough situation. The guy had plenty of reasons to be in pain, and I wanted to treat his pain, but he was also a methamphetamine addict in the midst of withdrawal, and I didn’t want to give him so much medication that he might be in danger. Or more importantly for my ego, I didn’t want to be his one-stop shop for narcotics in the hospital. So after the fourth or fifth call I went to see him.
Understand that sleep deprivation is a little like having kids. You might say you want five kids. But you don’t even have one yet. So don’t tell me you want five until you have four. And you might tell me you operate just fine on a couple hours of sleep a night (free medical advice: you don’t), but until you’ve experienced 36 hours in-house call, don’t pretend to know what kind of decision making you’ll be prepared to do once that happens. Anyway: I went to his room and asked what else I could do for him. I did not ask nicely. He proceeded to tell me what a substandard doctor I was, and how maybe I should have chosen a different career. What happened next is a little fuzzy, with the rage and the sleep deprivation and whatnot, but he and I ended up kind of wrestling around the room. Me in green scrubs, grappling with a recently tased patient with an open arm wound and a fresh gunshot wound who also happened to be in methamphetamine withdrawal and likely intoxicated on narcotics. You’ve never seen that on Gray’s Anatomy. Or maybe you have. Either way it was ridiculous. I knew it was ridiculous as it was happening, but I was reminded of that fact the next day in a tense meeting with the hospital administrator. Lesson learned. What should I have done differently? I should have taken a more generous interpretation of his actions. I should have recognized that however bad my night had been, his had been way, way worse.
Step five: say yes to things. Real, physical things. You’re going to hear a lot of people in the next few years tell you how important it is to “network.” As if you can go to a cocktail party and make magical connections with people that get you admitted to law school or employed somewhere. Well, maybe you can, but I’m the guy who couldn’t even get into his dad’s fraternity. So you can imagine how well I handle “networking” with a bunch of strangers. But when I was a freshman on the ag dorm floor in college, a guy I didn’t know that well asked me if I wanted to help decorate a homecoming float. Decorating a homecoming float was maybe in my bottom ten things I wanted to do that day, somewhere between becoming a Celine Dion completist and having a boil lanced. But I did it. And it was only a couple hours of work for a couple of days. Eventually I was a groomsman in that guy’s wedding, and now he owns a company with over two hundred employees.
Later in college, because I’d changed my major from journalism to Human Nutrition, I met a girl. She asked me if I wanted to join a band of students that went around teaching groups like fraternities and sororities how to keep from getting sexually transmitted diseases. Again: not the way I had envisioned spending most nights in college. But I did it. And you know what? Teaching a bunch of sorority girls how not to get an STD was about the most fun I’ve ever had. Then the girl told me she was going to med school. And because I’d changed my major to Human Nutrition (and thus met the girl) I’d already taken all the prerequisites for medical school. My point here is that if you do things with people you may make a friend. Or better, you may eventually meet a group of people trying to make the world better, who speak a common language, who have a set of shared rituals, and whose cause you want to join. Like I said, I took the MCAT and I eventually got in to med school. Then I married the girl. So maybe I’m giving you a best-case scenario. But the rule applies even to my current life. A few weeks ago, Melissa Jacobs asked me to come speak to Skyline’s National Honor Society. And here’s what I got out of it: instead of a night at home watching Office reruns, I got to spend the night with a group of really interesting people who share a love of baby blue, who have a set of shared rituals, and who want to make the world a better place. All because I said yes.
Last week my mentor and friend Dr. Joe Meek passed away. Today I had the real honor of delivering some words at his funeral. This is what I said:
Over the last few weeks, near the end as Joe was declining I called Bette a few times to warn her I was coming around. A couple of those times I got her answering machine. I’m in the bad habit of hanging up on most people’s answering machines or voicemails. I just prefer to try again later. But I didn’t hang up on hers. I listened. Because the message on the Meek family answering machine was recorded by Joe. Some people have the ability to bring the pulse in the room down a few beats, to calm us down just by the way they sound, or the way they interact with others. It turns out that Joe Meek’s ability to do this extends beyond death. I found comfort in hearing his strong voice telling me to leave a message.
Most of us set out to accomplish something in our short lives, even if it’s just the simple pursuit of happiness. But I don’t need to tell you that Joe accomplished more than most. He married Bette young and had kids, Tom, Nancy, and Kathy. Then he spent the rest of his life talking about them. Or at least the years from 2001 through 2019. I can’t speak for the time before then. But I have my suspicions. He was a Lt. Commander in the United States Navy. As an endocrine fellow at Scripps he discovered that Graves disease, the most common cause of an overactive thyroid gland, was the result of a confused immune system. It was the beginning of a life-long love affair with the thyroid gland. Bette was his wife, but that little butterfly shaped gland in at the base of your neck? That was his mistress. He studied dizziness in astronauts in the Mercury space program and once appeared in Life magazine examining astronaut Scott Carpenter. He was department chair of Internal Medicine, then Vice Chancellor to Academic Affairs, then medical school dean. He was a delegate to the American Medical Society and the Director of Rural Health Care and Outreach. He not only earned the University of Kansas Distinguished Service Medallion; he had at least one award named after him, which may be the most apt description of all, since he never seemed to meet a leadership position he didn’t like: Alpha Omega Alpha, Kansas Medical Society, Medical Society of Sedgwick County, Wichita Grand Opera, Sedgwick County Zoo, and others. Depending on your tastes or your line of work some of these acronyms and organizations may not mean anything to you. Don’t worry about it. It doesn’t matter. What matters is how his position in those organizations reflected his life’s philosophy. He considered himself so privileged. Not in the high income, private school, trust fund sense. Privileged in the sense that he had these opportunities. Joe once told me that there are people in the world that wanted to be somebody, but who didn’t want to do anything. “Justin, don’t be one of those people,” he said. In retrospect, I have to wonder what it was that I said or did that made him say that!
He did it all without ever taking himself too seriously. If you don’t mind, let’s all geek out about hormones for a minute. Remember: he discovered thyroid stimulating immunoglobulin, the antibody that confused immune systems make that overactivates the thyroid gland. But his paper describing TSI only beat a competing paper into the literature by a few weeks. Once, while humoring my questions on his discovery, he confided in me that he thought the main reason his paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences a few weeks before Joseph Kriss’s competing paper in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism was that his own mentor had a contact within the National Academy that expedited editorial review and the penning of the accompanying editorial. He thought this was hilarious. But it says something about his character that from then on, he happily shared credit for the discovery with Dr. Kriss. And that picture in Life magazine? The one of he and astronaut Scott Carpenter? He loved to tell the story of how hard they’d worked to get a good camera angle for the photographer once the initial data collection was complete. And it is a dashing picture. There’s just something about those Navy whites.
I loved his sense of humor, but I admired his enthusiasm. He struck you as the happiest person alive. He was immune to questions of fashion. He flashed his crooked-toothed smile at everyone--and I do mean everyone--he met. He was not a creature of irony. He was sincere to a fault. The act of engaging in our cultural default setting for David Letterman-esque cool, ironic snark would have been like a trip to Mars. Because in my experience with him he almost always took people at face value. I say almost. Once as a student, I reported to him that a patient’s chief complaint was “an impending sense of doom.” He looked at me as he put his hand on the door to go into her room and said, stone-faced, “Justin, she’s not the only one.” But seriously: he operated in good faith, and he expected the same from others. I can’t imagine that anyone else’s opinion of his vocal love for opera or medical history or brown loafers or obscure thyroid diseases ever crossed his mind. I have no doubt that people--maybe even some in this room--had periodic dustups with Joe Meek. That’s the cost of doing business in leadership. But if you managed to make yourself a lasting enemy of Joe Meek’s, I’m not saying you’re a bad person, but I’d encourage a sincere evaluation of your life philosophy. There. I said it.
That makes him sound boring. He wasn’t. He and Bette shared the trait of being great storytellers. Fifty years of medical students, residents and fellows--not to mention patients--know how much he loved to tell the story of Dr. Hashimoto, the so-called “thyroid hero of Japan.” And of Robert Graves, whose grave--ironically--he’d visited in Dublin. I actually stole that joke from Dr. Meek, and I’ve used it over and over. It goes like this: Graves disease doesn’t mean you’re going to the grave. It’s just a guy’s name. Okay. So maybe he wasn’t a comedian. But he was funny. He used words that I’d never heard anyone use before. You may know somebody who routinely uses the phrase “to wit.” It means something like “that is to say.” But I dare you to find another person who uses the word “folderol.” That’s f-o-l-d-e-r-o-l. It means “a trivial or nonsensical fuss.” He pronounced “helicopter” “heel-i-copter.” He sprinkled these kinds of words into conversation the way most of us reflexively use “like.” The effect was thrilling. Even through the ravages of a degenerative neurologic disease and sometimes through swollen lips and bandages from accidents and falls, he routinely told me stories that made me giddy.
He once told me a story about a brittle diabetic he’d taken care of named Dora. Even though I’m not sharing it with you today, he still knew her last name, decades later. He wasn’t sure that was a good sign. Dora was in the hospital a lot because of complications of her diabetes, and one day she asked Dr. Meek: “We raise a lot of our own vegetables. Can I bring you in some vegetables?” He wasn’t sure if it was a peace offering or a way to try to get special treatment. But he said yes, stressing to her that it was not a requirement, and she said, “I’ll discuss it with mother, and I’ll bring you in something.” And so Dora showed up to her next appointment with a sack of Brussels sprouts. Not long after, Dora’s mother began calling Bette and Joe’s home phone. One time she called in the middle of the day and Bette answered and said, “Ma’am, he’s at the medical center, and I do not welcome you calling his home like this.” Mother said, “Mrs. Meek, you remember them Brussel sprouts?” Bette’s abject lack of gratitude for the Brussels sprouts was a joke between Bette and Joe after that. Joe admitted in confidence that the Brussels sprouts were really, really good.
He was my portal into a different era. Like a time machine. I don’t mean just to say that he was old. But he had once taken care of a patient who had been cared for at age eight by Dr. Arthur Hertzler, the famed Horse and Buggy Doctor from Halstead. Dr. Hertzler had told the patient’s mother that the daughter needed a goiter operation, and the mother said, “Well, should we make arrangements at your hospital for surgery?” And Dr. Hertzler said, “Madam, I said your daughter had a goiter and it needs to come out!” So mom served as the anesthesiologist, presumably with ether, and Hertzler did the thyroidectomy on the kitchen table. When Dr. Meek took over her care sixty years later she was in good health, with no complications of her procedure. He remembered her name, too.
It was all a reflection of his sense of wonder. He once told me regarding his discovery of TSI, and this is a direct quote: “Leaps forward in medicine were sitting there, just below the surface, waiting to be unearthed.” In clinic he would stand behind patients with his fingers delicately around their necks, feeling the thyroid gland. When a patient swallowed and he felt a thyroid nodule move under his fingers, Dr. Meek would sometimes say “There it is!” And then he’d almost always reassure the patient that it was only a matter of getting a needle biopsy to diagnose the problem, and that it wasn’t a big deal, and that most people with thyroid cancer--if that’s what it was--did just fine.
One time we saw a patient together that had acromegaly, a pituitary condition of excess growth hormone. All that extra growth hormone causes the hands and feet to enlarge, and causes the patient’s skin to take on a particular texture. He and I were examining the patient, and he put my hand over the patient’s and said, “Feel this, Justin. It’s like she’s made out of warm dough.” The patient asked “Is that okay?” And he said, “It’s great.” And then he reassured her that we would get to the bottom of her pituitary issue, and that she would do okay. And she did.
That confidence came with experience. Like any doctor, he often saw patients for whom there was no simple answer. They had problems that were hard to fix. Bad eyes from pituitary tumors or Graves disease. Metastatic thyroid cancer. He would evaluate them and simply lay it out there: We don’t have a perfect answer for you. We have a lot of bad options and one decent option, and the decent option is the one we’re going with. Modern-day practitioners trained in shared decision making--that’s the generally sound principle that patients should have more of a say in their own care--would have raised an eyebrow at this. But I think there was comfort in that approach for a lot of patients. Because this wasn’t some stranger telling them the bad news. He’d never met a stranger. Most of these patients had already been on the business end of one of his so-called “hundred-dollar hugs,” as the nurses called them. So by the time the hard decision making really kicked in I think people thought, “That’s okay. I know Dr. Meek. I know he’s got my best interest at heart. I know that my friend wants the best for me.” Or my group, or my organization. In preparing for this I spoke to a couple docs in town who’d worked with Dr. Meek. He’d had the same effect on them. They would go to him with a tough decision about a patient or their career, and he would have an answer, often quickly, based completely off his own instincts and extensive experience. And more times than not his instincts were right.
In saying my own goodbyes to Joe over the last year or so, I was struck by his dignity in the face of an illness that spared him nothing, dignity least of all. The disease even took his voice, then his laugh, then his crooked-toothed smile. But to the end he insisted on brown loafers, slacks, and a tucked-in shirt. Maybe he was a fashion icon after all.
“I don’t fear death,” he told me once, though he did say how much he would miss seeing friends, his kids and grandkids, and Bette. But I’m comforted by the thought that old endocrinologists never really die. If cowboys ride off into the sunset, endocrinologists just shuffle off into a bright hospital-fluorescent light. And if there is justice in the universe, someday we’ll meet again. He’ll be under that fluorescent light in a perfectly pressed white coat and brown loafers, telling the staff about Dr. Hashimoto, the thyroid hero of Japan, and patiently waiting for the arrival of the next data set.
Last night one of my mentors passed away. Dr. Joseph Meek was a lot of things to a lot of people. To me, he was the Dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Kansas in Wichita when I started school there, then an attending endocrinologist who wrote me a letter of recommendation for fellowship, and later in life a friend.
After he left the medical school to ride out the last few years of his career in private practice we lost touch for a year or two. But then in 2015 I became interested in his role in discovering the autoimmune cause of Graves’ disease.
I started visiting him every week, and every week I seemed to get a better story. So I asked if I could start recording them, and he consented. Dr. Meek told the stories with remarkable enthusiasm. He was a gifted storyteller, even the times he was speaking through a forehead bandage and a crusted upper lip from a recent fall. (note: I’ve not fact-checked these. I’m not a journalist. If anyone finds an error, please let me know so I can note and correct it.):
He had a lot to say about the discovery of thyroid-stimulating immunoglobulin:
Meek: ...at that time, the cause of Graves disease was entirely unknown. And since such luminaries as--I haven’t thought of his name--Sydney Warner felt it was due to a pituitary factor, and the TSH was involved.
Moore: So they thought some over-secretion of TSH was involved?
Meek: Yeah. And about that time a guy by the name of Brown-Dobbins discovered what he regarded as the exophthalmic factor. And so the hyperthyroidism was explained by an oversecretion of TSH and the exophthalmos of Graves disease was explained by the exopthalmic factor, “ES.”
Meek: And so that was where it stood to 1964. Well, McKenzie had developed a TSH assay, bioassay, that involved the preparation of mice. You injected radioactivity into the mice and it was recorded as an uptake. And then the mice were bled and two hours after the injection of TSH or Graves disease patients [ed: I assume he means the plasma/serum of Graves patients] they were bled--the mice were bled--and there was observed a rise in the radioactivity level of the mice.
Moore: That’s interesting. Okay.
Meek: Yeah. And the mice had to be prepared in a special way, and ruled out that it was a stimulation versus an infectious agent that caused the destruction of the TSH. The mice were initially prepared that stimulation was proven and the mice did stimulate and discharge radioactivity.
Moore: And the source of the stimulation was either the TSH or some other stimulation factor in the serum that had been injected?
Moore: Yeah. Yeah.
Meek: And in Graves disease patients there was evidence of a long-acting stimulator, LATS.
Moore: Yeah, yeah. Uh-huh.
Meek: Yeah. And the mice would stimulate sort of at 2 hours, and there was increased activity in the blood 7-24 hours afterwards. And Van der Laan [ed: 4th author on the paper above] came up with the idea (that’s my mentor)...
Moore: Was that in San Diego?
Meek: Yes. At the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation in La Jolla. ...that it would be explained by an antibody. That was a unique observation, although it was copied by a Maxwell McKenzie and, oh gosh...well, this was a race.
Moore: Yeah. I bet.
Meek: Yeah. And the work that I did was to prove that it was an antibody, that it was a 7-S-gamma globulin that was present in the serum of mice and the serum really came from patients with Graves disease. And the stimulator was an antibody. Well, the man’s name was--from San Francisco, and he’s dead now--he came out with a publication about the same time that I did, and he is given credit for this work that he did, and it was published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism [ed: I think it was this paper]. But I beat him by a month through the National Academy of Sciences.
Moore: That was the journal that you published in?
Moore: A better journal! You got it into a better journal. (laughs)
Meek: And it was not peer-reviewed to the extent that it was in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology.
Moore: It wasn’t? That’s interesting.
Meek: And it was introduced by Dr. Astwood, who was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and so there was a race on, which fell in my favor due to circumstances beyond my control by senior men Van der Laan and Astwood. And they had known each other through their collaboration prior. The competitor just won’t come to me… And it culminated in review in Atlantic City. And that was when Atlantic City was meaningful as the senior moment of the Central Society for Clinical Research. They would hold their annual meeting in Atlantic City, NJ, and I was invited back in May of 1964 to give a paper. And so I did. And I remember an anecdote that before I left Scripps I was rehearsed by Dr. Van der Laan and Igray Diamond, who knew me from, because of, medical school days. And he was back in Kansas at that time as chairman of the Department of Internal Medicine.
Moore: And you had gone to medical school at KU, correct?
Meek: Yeah. And he was the speaker at Alpha Omega Alpha (AOA) when I was President of the AOA. And I introduced him as saying that--it was a brash statement on my part--as the erstwhile, but seldom seen, member of the faculty because he was gone so much of the time. (laughs). And he got up and said after that introduction that he had secured a spot for his residency in my favor and he was considerate of my position and he gave me the position as resident in Internal Medicine right on the spot. And so he knew me and said that my slides had not been acceptable because they were all on blue. At that time I couldn’t do anything about it.
Meek: Yeah. He went on and on in remorse, it caused remorse in me, because he said that was not acceptable. They should be in black and white. Yeah. And I came to give the talk in Atlantic City and found out that blue was more or less the outstanding color.
Moore: The industry standard.
Moore: Good. It was really hard to change slides back then I’m sure. You had to go back to the photography place.
Meek: The plates were in evidence and I couldn’t--I had to board the airplane to Atlantic City the next day and there was no way I could get the slides done. Well, that’s an anecdote. The work of mine was justified in my way of thinking because I had done some biochemistry and proved that it was a 7-S-gamma globulin.
Moore: That the stimulator was a gamma globulin?
Meek: Yes. That LATS, as defined by the mouse response, was due to an antibody in patients with Graves disease. And so from that point on the, and subsequent work, and I did a a little of this, was to see if you could convert TSH to a long-acting thyroid stimulator, and conversely, you could modify the 7-S-Gamma globulin by fragmentation and show that it was an antibody on that basis and convert short-acting thyroid stimulator by modifying the gamma globulin.
Meek: Well, then I went back to Kansas and did some clinical work and that was my highlight. And I am proud of the fact that I contributed something to the medical world.
Moore: A pretty big thing, I think.
Moore: Did they--I assume it was pretty well established by this point that antibodies were responsible for other autoimmune diseases, like Rheumatoid arthritis and whatnot?
Meek: Yes. Rheumatoid arthritis. Although they never--RF factor, which is an antibody in rheumatoid arthritis, was never injected into a patient and produced the joint destruction. And I, for long time, believed that the uniqueness of Graves disease was due to two factors: one, it was proven to be an antibody, and two, that it was a 7-S-gamma globulin antibody that was unique to, based on the fact that it stimulated the thyroid gland.
Moore: So you could actually reproduce the disease by introducing the antibody?
Meek: Yeah. And that sort of is where it was in 1964.
Moore: You know, the fact that it was a race, as a lot of these things are, interests me. Nowadays when you submit a paper to a pretty high-end journal like the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, you have a response back in hours to days, at least an initial response.
Moore: So you can go from a completed paper to having something submitted for publication in the course of a few weeks. If you’re lucky. I assume that back then there was a huge element of faith involved. You had to send off a manuscript that got distributed out and it might take months to get edits back. Is that how it was?
Meek: Yes. The editorial that the edited version of the paper came out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences pretty much on--I think it was accepted for publication in May of 1964, and published in July issue. Whereas Kriss! Joseph Kriss! That was the author that did the companion. He did the work about the same time that I did, but he went through the channels of the JCEM, and got his published in September (laughs) [ed: it was October]
Moore: Somebody held up the editing process, somebody didn’t get their edits back in time. That’s the way it always goes.
Meek: Yes. Well, Chris is subsequently referred to--what’s the word? Referred to as the contributor to that just as frequently as I am. And to this day it’s still holding up. It’s an antibody, and the locus is sort of where TSH is, and it stimulates the patient to develop hyperthyroidism, and it, based on the TSI (thyroid stimulating immunoglobulin), it’s pathognomonic for Graves disease. So it’s still valuable information.
Moore: Yeah. I agree. Someone at the time must have thought that it was important to have solicited an editorial to accompany the paper. That doesn’t happen every day.
Meek: No. And subsequently the EPS, the Brown Dobyns work, has faded from the scene. I know that his assay was an Atlantic minnow, and the Atlantic minnow developed exophthalmos (laughter). The lateral displacement of the minnow’s eyes was measured with a micrometer.
Moore: That’s amazing.
Moore: Would they just put the stimulator in the water?
Meek: They injected it into the animal. The Atlantic minnow.
Moore: Very interesting.
Meek: Yeah. I never did that assay. But I remember hearing about it.
Here’s one about the Mercury Program:
Meek: Yes, and I was found to be acceptable, and so Diamond wrote down to Captain Greybill, that was a Navy Captain, and he was in space medicine at Pensacola. And accepted me to avoid the draft and I went into the Navy and was assigned to Pensacola dispensary or flight aviation for two years. Well, Greybill was into flight disorientation.
Meek: Now, it was kind of ironic that my trouble--current trouble [ed: at this point, Dr. Meek was suffering from frequent falls and dizziness]--preceded that. And his claim to fame was disorientation about space sickness, which was brought about by circular rotation of the spaceship to create artificial gravity so the astronauts would have an up-down location/knowledge base.
Moore: So they were thinking of designing spacecraft that rotated to generate centrifugal force so that an astronaut would have some artificial gravity as it were?
Moore: OK. I’m following.
Meek: So the work really was brought to a head for NASA’s standpoint by the space race which we were engaged in in 1962. We participated in that because we in the Army and Navy were the only ones doing disorientation. So I was appointed as a research assistant, a typical post-doctoral fellowship.
Moore: You were out of residency at this point?
Meek: Uh-huh. Although just out of residency. And it was before I had seen Van der Laan [ed: 4th author on the above paper] and before I arranged for my endocrine fellowship at Scripps Clinic and Research Institute. Well, I thought that was a pretty good deal to be established in the Navy stateside for the following reason: captain Greybill had an understanding with the United States Navy that he would never be transferred from Pensacola.
Moore: That seems remarkable.
Meek: Yeah. And they were willing to do that because he was a student of Paul Dudley White, and White was Mr. Harvard Medicine at that time. And they wanted somebody to head up their space program, so many of the astronauts were navy recruits or marine recruits, including Scott Carpenter and John Glenn. So we did some preliminary data on the original seven Mercury astronauts, and, so, NASA was in a race with the Russian cosmonauts, and the cosmonaut fell into space at that time, certainly in the capsule…
Meek: Yeah, Yuri Gagarin. That name is familiar to me only because the space race was going on in full intensity at that time, and NASA had not considered it until Gagarin became violently ill in space because of the tumbling.
Moore: Did the Soviets admit that he’d been ill, or was it just intelligence? Somebody on the inside who’d passed along the information?
Meek: That’s how it all happened. So NASA said, “Where is our counterpart to this space station to be?” And the answer was Ashton Greybill.
Moore: He was the guy to solve this problem?
Moore: got it.
Meek: And so I was assigned to the recovery of Scott Carpenter on the space flight. I went for seven days on special assignment to sea. And I was assigned to the recovery ship the Intrepid.
Moore: Very famous ship.
Meek: Yes. The Gray Lady. Had a colorful history of being sunk but not being sunk, and being towed into Australia and refitted, and went out to sea. She is parked in the--because of her history--she is parked in NYC, and I went aboard her some years after I got out of the Navy. Well, there is a little anecdote around that which I will refer to at a later date. So the recovery mission of Scott Carpenter ended up 40 miles off range. 40 miles.
Moore: 40 miles away from the intended spot of impact, or whatever?
Meek: Yes. Drop. And so we were on the flight deck of the Intrepid and craning our sights to the skies and seeing if we could see the ship come down. Only to learn later that she had--that Scott Carpenter had landed 40 miles downrange, 40 miles off the target area. And the plans were diverted on the spot to a destroyer picking up Scott Carpenter. Well, the Navy, in contrast to the marine corps, had Jet-assisted helicopters [ed: he pronounced “helicopter “heel-i-copter,” which is officially the most Kansan thing ever], and that was in the early days of jet-assisted helicopters, and Huey current breed of helicopter which followed that. And that had the range of 40 miles. But the Marines didn’t have that, so the Navy left the Intrepid the original plans were adhered to. Well, there was a big folderol and I was in my moment of glory, and I gave Scott Carpenter the original assessment to see if there were any remains of space sickness occurred. Including a ice water bath to induce nystagmus.
Moore: You mean irrigation into his ear canal?
Meek: yes. I only mention that because my hands were steady during the entire procedure and the intrepid was under full steam to make it to the islands, Grand Turk Islands, and the ship just yawed and strained and it was awfully difficult to hold a steady hand.
Moore: Well that’s a very difficult environment to evaluate someone’s balance, I’m sure.
Meek: Yeah! And Scott Carpenter was a wonderful guy, and he’s still alive--or just died [ed: he died October 10, 2013]--and he played it to the hilt. Now there was this about it: Scott Carpenter had been out on the Caribbean sea for a long time waiting for his recovery. So if he did show any deterioration in his baseline figures, including the threshold caloric test, it would have been seasickness rather than space sickness.
Moore: Because he’d been bobbing in the water forever waiting for someone to come pick him up?
Meek: Yeah. But we played it to the hilt and I received some notoriety about that. Because you can’t imagine how the people stateside were enamored with the space program.
Moore: Those guys were the rock stars of their day.
Meek: They were, and they handled their fame beautifully, as would be expected, as they had so much training to do prior to the selection for the space program, and even today the space station is not accommodated to generate artificial gravity. And that remains to be seen, whether NASA intends the space station to be constructed to generate artificial gravity or not. It doesn’t take much: 3-6 rotations per minute in weightlessness corrects artificial gravity to a point that, up and down, is reproduced artificially.
Moore: Was that at a specific radius?
Meek: Well, we did some preliminary space sickness, and we felt that everybody was subject to space sickness, although you adapted to it over the long haul.
Moore: How long did it take?
Meek: 72 hours, +/- their sensitivity, as determined by the threshold caloric test. And whether you had been a seasoned aviator or not, that helped.
Moore: Meaning experienced pilots got over it a little more quickly?
Meek: Yes. They were subject to less of it, although the seasoned aviators, including the astronauts, could always manifest space sickness by sweating. They couldn’t control that. But the nausea and vomiting that accompanied that--car sickness would be the closest we could come, land-locked selection, and not everybody was subject to car sickness, but everybody would, if they had normal semicircular function, was subject to nausea and vomiting.
Moore: Did you guys consider using anti-cholinergic medications?
Meek: Yes. Scopolamine. And that masked it, but it brought out some undesirable side effects from the scopolamine. And the patients were subjects in the slow rotation room environment, and then re-adapted to space sickness symptoms upon entering weightlessness. And there was a little readaptation. And I think it’s been proven enough of a problem that they don’t create an artificial environment because of that single effect. And they always give the astronauts time to re-adapt to weightlessness and following their return to earth. You aren’t aware of that, but they sit out on the space recovery mission after that, and they’re a little wobbly.
Moore: You mean after they launch they get some time to adapt before they’re assigned any tasks, and after they re-enter they get a little while to re-adapt before anyone asks them to do anything else? I see.
Moore: That seems cheaper than building a rotating spacecraft.
Meek: The human is--particularly the seasoned aviators--used to that through their flying
Moore: Was the idea with this slow rotation room, was that something they tried to do pre-launch to get them accustomed to it?
Moore: From what you’re telling me I assume it didn’t work very well.
Meek: No. Well, the history of the intrepid was such that its glory days were extended through the second World War, the Korean War, and other war duty.
Moore: All the way into Vietnam, right?
Meek: Yes. They put a pictorial essay, pictures, up when we, just prior to when we went aboard the time it was tethered in NYC. And you could go aboard and see the Intrepid. The pictorial essay of space was pictorially depicted about the Intrepid’s life at sea. And the time aboard we took time aboard, they had just done the pictures--taken them down--and so we thought that it was all over, although we had no idea that they’d depicted the shot that showed me administering the Heath Rail balance problem to the astronaut, to Scott Carpenter.
Moore: So there was a photo in the exhibit showing you doing this with Scott Carpenter? How about that.
Meek: Yes. And it had been in Life magazine.
Meek: And the Life photographer, who was a neat guy, captured that when Scott Carpenter was interviewed after the tests were administered. And so sick bay was converted into the ability to do the threshold caloric test and the Heath Rail. So Scott Carpenter came in to pictures being taken, flashbulbs going off.
Moore: (laughs) More things to add to the validity of the testing.
Meek: Yes. And because the Navy wanted maximum publicity on this, the results were negative plus or minus three, the threshold caloric and the Heath Rail test was administered by me, and you had to stand up on the rails, which looked like a railroad yard, for so many seconds, and there’s Scott Carpenter with his arms folded and looking intently down on the Heath Rail and balancing. Now, that wasn’t the purpose of the picture, to get my picture in with Scott Carpenter, but it added to my luster. (laughs)
Moore: I would have put that in my application to fellowship, for sure.
Meek: Well, that was it. That was my claim to fame. Six days aboard the Intrepid, and subsequently the falderal and attention that I got as…
Moore: Were you allowed to publish any of the data you got out of this experience? It wasn’t classified then?
Meek: No. Although my publications were on the experience I had in the slow rotation room in Pensacola. That’s in Aerospace Medicine. [ed: paper regarding monkeys and slow rotation here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14472044] And that was one of the publications I got out of it in my quest to enter academic medicine.
Moore: How much time did you have in the Navy after this experience was over? Was this near the end, or was this...
Meek: This was right during the end. I got out in July of that year, ‘62, and went to my fellowship and discovered the antibody formation of LATS [ed: long-acting thyroid stimulator] that we have discussed prior to that. But even though the ENT work was instrumental in that period, it was never exposed beyond the publicity on that, although when we went to Pensacola some years thereafter, after I got out of the Navy, the slow rotation room was still in operation.
Moore: Is that right? Were they using it for just routine flight medicine stuff then, or was it still affiliated with NASA?
Meek: No, the building was semicircular, a full circle, and that was constructed because of the human centrifuge that had gone on prior to that. But Captain Greybill slowed the centrifuge down and found out that we could reproduce the symptoms at a very slow rotation. So he had done all that work prior to my entering the Navy. And I developed the threshold caloric test and Heath Rails that were part of the experience--part of the “package”--that astronauts were put through as well as the Navy recruits that came in.
Moore: I’m sure they cursed your name if they knew.
Meek: Yeah. (laughs) They did. They forced me to ride aboard the spacecraft, slow rotation room, and experience first hand the adaptation that occurred. And we had dials that you had to set up here and over here to bring out the case of space sickness. Because if you kept your head in the plane of rotation you could avoid the adaptation.
Moore: You had to move around?
Moore: That is so fascinating.
Meek: The experiments at that time were pretty crude, and they consisted of a water bath and temperature adjustments which were displayed on a human--I forget what we did to keep the water bath temperature and they syringing adjusted to threshold as determined by nystagmus.
It was so fantastically great hearing those stories and others. It was good even after he lost the ability to talk and we just watched baseball together for 30 minutes a week.
I’ll miss him. I’ll miss his excitement at nailing down a straightforward diagnosis of Graves disease. I’ll miss the enthusiasm with which he told the story of the time he discovered and successfully treated a case of thyroid lymphoma. I’ll miss the way he tried to hug everybody, including me, even though I hate hugging.
But I won’t forget him, and that’s all most of us can wish for.
After my excitement about dockless e-bike share in Washington, D.C. last spring, I started shopping around for an e-bike for Double Arrow Metabolism to use for short business trips.
I wanted a bike that was adjustable so that more than one person could use it without much trouble. I tried to find refurbished Jump bikes, but I struck out. I think they’re just too new. Many of the purpose-built bikes on the market are really expensive and/or look like Kawasaki motocross bikes (you really get how some people are complaining about e-bikes being e-motorcycles in disguise).
So it took some looking. I really like the retro fabulous looks of Faraday bikes. I love the looks and techie features of Stromer bikes, but the price is way too steep (especially for Stromers), at least until I really know what I want. And for the money, the looks of the mainstream bikes like Specialized and Trek just aren't what I’m looking for.
I considered building my own e-bike by adding an aftermarket hub motor and a battery to a bike I already have. Then I looked around and found a page for refurbished Riide bikes. The price on these was what really attracted me. They don't cost the three or four grand that some of the other bikes mentioned above cost. In fact, they're within a few hundred bucks of the Money Mustache conversion that piqued my attention toward e-bikes in the last couple years. Riide has an interesting subscription-based business model for its new bikes, but more important to me, they’ll sell their old ones:
They'll allegedly fit a rider between 5'2" and 6'2". That easily fits my wife’s and my height, and it gets close to my daughter's. So I hit the Add to Cart button and waited. Unfortunately, when I ran out giggling to greet the FedEx guy, I found an open box and no front wheel. Somebody decided they needed it more than I did:
But not to worry. I got to spend some time talking with Riide founder and owner Amber Wason via email (and even with a personal call to my cell phone [!]), and we got it straightened out. We got the missing wheel replaced, and we had a new e-bike in no time.
The ride of the bike is different than the Jump tanks I rode in D.C. First, the bike is a fair amount lighter, since it doesn't have the built-in racks and electronics of the Jump. Also, Riide isn't controlled by pedal assist. Instead, you twist the throttle like you're riding a Yamaha.
This doesn't really affect the sensation of riding the bike. When you twist the throttle you still get a satisfying little kick from the motor. It does affect the appearance of the bike, though, since you can easily cruise along without even turning the pedals. I’m not in love with the twist throttle, though. My thumb and forefinger get crampy from holding it in place. I think I would like a thumb throttle better.
One feature I really like is that the brakes kill the motor. My son learned the value of this the hard way on about day two, when he accidentally twisted the throttle as he was dismounting and skinned a knee. Use the brakes.
I eventually rode it to work:
After taking these pics, I immediately deleted the rides from Strava. Strava is the de facto place to log rides, but it doesn't feel right to post e-bike rides on it. Strava's for human power only. But I can't help but obsess over data, so I put Map My Ride on my iPhone for ebike use only. Then after a few hundred miles I deleted it and just let the abject lack of data wash over me. Digital minimalism forever.
The advertised speed of the bike is ~20 mph, but I think that estimate assumes a new bike and battery, and I think it assumes a smaller rider than me. I can only get ~17-18 mph out of the Riide on flat ground. That’s still pretty good. It gets me to where I'm going faster than I could get there on the fat bike I often commute on:
At the end of the day, I think the Riide may be what I want, not the bike I ride while I'm deciding. It looks good in a way that doesn't draw a lot of attention, it is inexpensive and comes with a warranty that I've already tested and that works, and it gets me around in a satisfyingly blue-collar way.
Now I’ve ridden it a thousand miles, maybe, and I feel pretty good about it. The bike didn't come with any rack or panniers, so I had to add one. No problemo. Because buying bike stuff is. The. Best. The front rack from Velo Orange. It looks great and can hold a ton (or at least a case of beer). I’ve found it easier to strap my soft-side briefcase to the front rack than to stuff it in a pannier bag or strap it to a skinny rear rack like I do on my fatty.
A few Riide-specific tips, if you care:
Don’t air the tires up to the maximum pressure. It’s tempting to do this to try to maximize battery efficiency, but the bike rides like a lumber wagon that way. And remember that higher pressures aren’t always better. It’s way, way more comfortable to pump the tires up to a nice, soft-ish pressure to allow a little give over the bumps.
The battery is really glitchy about over-charging. I’ve found that if I accidentally leave it plugged in overnight it’s out of commission for the day. I don’t know why, and I’m no stranger to plug-in electric vehicles:
The phenomenon is reproducible. In my mind it’s a complication of over-charging. But that could be my imagination running wild. Anyway, either set up the charger on a timer that shuts it off after ~3 hours or set a manual timer to remind yourself to unplug your Riide.
Finally, if you have multiple people using the bike you’ll need to put the brake levers in a medium position. Since I’m a foot-and-a-half taller than the other people riding it but I use it 90+% of the time for work, I keep the levers pointed down a little. But not as far down as I would if I were the only rider. I tip them up just a little to make them reachable by everybody else.
I took the ABIM endocrine maintenance exam a couple months ago.
Spoiler alert: I passed. But this isn’t about my ability to pass a standardized test designed to fail only the small number of docs who can’t achieve a minimum level of competence. This post is about how good it feels to set aside the distractions of the world for a fraction of the day and really concentrate on learning something.
Ironically, the format of the exam was new. The test now includes sections in which UpToDate is available for reference. These were tricky because the availability of a reference was so seductive, much like the availability of the internet in your pocket at all times is so seductive. Lucky for me, my preparation had somewhat steeled me against this. I forced myself to use the physical version of the Endocrine Self-Assessment Program (ESAP), and I forced myself not to look up answers on the computer or my phone willy-nilly. I read through the questions, answered, read the responses, and took old-fashioned analog notes that I reviewed later. I studied around 30 minutes a day, five days/week for September and October. I kept a “30 min board review” item on my daily to-do list. I attended the Cleveland Clinic review course, which was helpful. I was amazed at the new diagnoses that have come about since I last did full-time endocrine practice. Pigmented macronodular hyperplasia? Okay then.
Ironically, I’ve somehow activated notifications on my computer so that Apple News headlines keep popping up in the corner of my screen as I’m typing this, which only serves to show how much attention residue I avoided by doing it the old-fashioned way. But even still, the first section that allowed access to UpToDate almost tripped me up. I found myself second-guessing even simple answers and clicking on the UpToDate icon to double-check myself. Even though I’m a pretty fast test-taker, and even though every UpToDate check took only a minute or so, they really added up, and I had to really hustle toward the end of that section to get done on time. For the next two sections I forced myself to finish the questions to the best of my ability and then go through any that I’d marked as potentially wrong to check them. This method left me much, much more time.
When I finished the test, mostly sure that I’d passed, I felt a sense of satisfaction that only intensified when I got my test results back. I had prepared for the test, performed well enough to pass, and legitimately increased my knowledge of endocrine diseases and their treatments. As big a pain as the board certification process is, it ultimately made me a better doctor and reinforced some of my technological minimalist views of the world.
Many of us do the same job tasks day after day. I’ve warned med students and residents about the “Groundhog Day” phenomenon. If you go into general surgery, you better like gallbladder disease, because you’re going to see it all day, every day, forever. If you become an endocrinologist you better like hyperthyroidism, because again, it’s gonna take up a lot of your day. (I would have said diabetes there, but it’s so rapidly automating that I’m not sure it will be part of the day-to-day of endocrine practice for much longer.) I’m sure the same thing is true of banking, law, manufacturing, farming, or a thousand other professions. But by going deep, you can find new sources of pleasure and satisfaction even in work that has a tendency to become rote.
And I just can’t help but think about picking it out of my teeth. I know, I know, it’s the seeds that are edible. Still.
Microplastics are everywhere. In salt. In your poop.
I’ve been to Strataca in Hutchinson, Kansas, an old salt mine-turned-storage facility and tourist destination. I highly recommend it. One of the curiosities of Strataca is the ancient, undecomposed trash, having spent the last century in 70 degree dry air without UV light. So it was interesting that rock salt in this study was relatively free of microplastics:
“In another indicator of the geographic density of plastic pollution, microplastics levels were highest in sea salt, followed by lake salt and then rock salt.”
And levels varied according to geography, mostly in parallel with the amount of plastic pollution in the environment:
“…those from Asian brands were especially high, the study found. The highest quantities of microplastics were found in salt sold in Indonesia. Asia is a hot spot for plastic pollution, and Indonesia—with 34,000 miles (54,720 km) of coastline—ranked in an unrelated 2015 study as suffering the second-worst level of plastic pollution in the world.”
Why does this matter? Well, besides the very depressing thought that we’re polluting the planet with infinite amounts of unbiodegradable trash, plastic contains chemicals that fool our bodies into acting weird because we misinterpret those chemicals as signals. And while I worry that this will turn into some kind of fetishized quest for microplastics that will detract from bigger issues like the source of all that plastic pollution in the first place, the idea that there is invisible plastic in our environment that we’re almost powerless to avoid is…kind of scary.
Just like 40% of murders overall.
And did you know that Tylenol comes from the chemical name for acetaminophen? aceTYLaminophENOL
First Oklahoma City killed Seattle’s supersonic transport business. Then it took Seattle’s basketball team named after Boeing’s supersonic transports
(fast forward to 23:50 in the podcast)
(but the rest of the podcast, about the land rush and the founding of OKC, is good, too)
(and please note the satisfying inclusion of a former Wichita State University Wheatshocker in the slightly racy video clip)
After President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush were diagnosed with Graves disease, and family Dog Millie was diagnosed with Lupus, the water at the White House, their personal residence, and the Vice President’s residence was tested for lead, iodine, and lithium
None were found
Carnism is the belief system that conditions people to eat certain animals and not others. Firing a chef for serving kangaroo—a perfectly acceptable part of millions of people’s diets—is a manifestation of carnism.
And it’s intentional:
‘Denise Lauritsen, a spokesperson for Lego, says that the “broad variety of minifigure emotions is to help encourage different kinds of role play; adventure, exploration, friendship, action, nurture, storytelling, mission, conflict play and so on…”’
If you’re “only” 6’8”? 0.07%
When you read fiction that makes you read between the lines to decipher the characters’ feelings, you get better at knowing people’s feelings in real life
‘In one study, kindergarten children heard stories such as Rosie’s Walk, in which a hen walks through a barnyard, appearing to be blithely unaware that she is being followed by a fox. A second group of children heard the same stories, but with mental states clearly identified. “Rosie heard the loud BUMP but did she figure out that the hungry fox was behind her? No, she didn’t turn around. She doesn’t know that he’s behind her.” The first group, forced to read between the lines, later performed better than the second group on a test that required them to infer the beliefs of others.’
See also: Read some fiction. It’s good for you
My middle school-age daughter has to take a class once a week that is essentially “social education.” She does not love it. But her teachers might be on to something:
“…according to a recent report by the healthcare company Cigna, nearly half of adults in the U.S. reported sometimes or always feeling alone. Marriage rates and religious-participation rates are also dropping, which are both risk factors for social isolation and loneliness. And the prevalence of loneliness seems to be especially acute among young adults: One study last year found that Americans between the ages of 21 and 30 reported feeling lonely for twice as many days as adults between ages 50 and 70, despite having larger social networks. The health consequences of loneliness can be severe: Studies suggest chronic loneliness is linked to a variety of health issues, like decreased immunity to viral infections, poor sleep, and cardiovascular issues like hypertension.”
See also: Good neighboring is good medicine
John Matuszak, the former overall #1 NFL draft pick who played Sloth in The Goonies, died of a narcotic overdose at age 38
He was tragically ahead of his time.
There is a secret world of secret restaurant menus, visible only to those brave enough to order the “McLand, Air, and Sea”
I have a friend from college who is notorious—notorious—for ordering things from restaurants that are not on the menu. Nothing crazy. He doesn’t order shrimp cocktail at a hot-dog stand or anything. But asking for melted cheese to be spread on his burrito? Oh yeah. That’s the stuff. Turns out he’s not alone:
“That menu hacks are generally customer imposed, not instigated by the restaurants, shows in the character of the items themselves. They tend to be things that only those who don’t work in the kitchen would come up with. Such are composites of menu ingredients or entire items. At Taco Bell, one secret-menu item, known as the Incredible Hulk, consists of a five-layer burrito with guacamole instead of nacho cheese. That’s nothing but an ingredient swap.
Some well-known McDonald’s mash-ups are especially clunky. Secret-menu items such as The Pie McFlurry, a pie blended into a McFlurry shake; the McCrepe, a pancake filled with McDonald’s fruit-and-yogurt Parfait; and the McLand, Air, and Sea Burger—the innards of a burger, a chicken sandwich, and the Filet-O-Fish between the buns of one—are Frankensteinian.”
One of my co-fellows at UNC was fond of ordering pickle-less hamburgers from a McDonald’s on the West Virginia turnpike. His reasoning was that anything he special ordered would be guaranteed to be made on the spot. He didn’t like the texture of burgers that had been under the heat lamp. This seems reasonable and relatively kind to the workers at the restaurant, at least in comparison to some other tactics:
“Amid the din, once in a while, I heard a different voice. On social media, a restaurant worker would chime in, usually to counter a myth or plead for patience with or politeness to the restaurant staff. Here’s ‘Kathryn Erwin’ setting customers straight in the comments section of the ‘Nachos’ listing for Chipotle at HackTheMenu.com on December 2, 2015:
‘I work at a Chipotle and if you ask any of our crew members we will tell you that we do not have nachos. Nachos normally mean that the cheese is melted and we cannot melt the cheese for you. We can however put chips at the bottom of your bowl and then build a normal bowl for you. They are not called nachos though.’
It’s really her final line, however, that drives home the annoyance that menu hacking can bring for restaurant workers: ‘And please,’ Kathryn implores, ‘do not be rude to an employee if they refuse to call a bowl with chips nachos.’ In the conversations of menu hackers, I seldom heard such a distinctly labor point of view.”
And they punish the docs who won’t:
“Few physicians achieved even the 50th percentile of satisfaction while maintaining low rates of antibiotic prescribing. To reach the top quartile, a physician had to prescribe antibiotics at least half the time; almost all physicians above the 90th percentile had a rate of antibiotic prescribing greater than 75%.”
It was taken down after 48 hours. And now the US is one of only two countries worldwide to allow direct-to-consumer advertising of drugs.
I grew up in a farmhouse that was originally an in-ground house and, well, you know how this ends. The basement, which was originally just called “the house,” leaked like a sieve. This led to chronic, unrelenting nighttime exposure to mold in the nooks and crannies of the place. I never felt like it made me sick, but relatives tell me it makes them feel bad. It’s a bummer that medicine can’t tell them whether they’re wrong or right.
In my day, we were happy with an orange decorative guord that you could hold in your hands and gently disembowel for purposes of internal illumination. We didn’t want anything to do with these monsters that gain 50 pounds a day to deform under their own weight and need a forklift for transportation. But I do admire they’re trying to do it a different way:
“…weights in the United States and Europe have long passed 2,000 pounds. In Canada, where regulations prohibit some of the chemicals used elsewhere, they have yet to hit this mark. Getting there has become a point of national pride.”
FYI: Pumpkinnook.com tells me the current world record is owned by German Mathia Willemijn at 2,624.6 lbs in October, 2016:
23 master sommeliers have been stripped of their title for allegedly cheating on the exam, and is there no one I can trust to tell me whether I’m drinking Mad Dog?
The candidates allegedly had insider info on the tasting portion of the exam, when they were expected to “clearly and accurately describe” six different wines, including grape varieties, origin, and vintage, in under 25 minutes.
I suspect (without any sommelier data to back it up) that this portion of the exam is poorly reproducible anyway. The American Board of Internal Medicine, but not other specialty boards, eliminated oral exams eons ago because of this.
If you’re taking an OTC supplement for sex, weight loss, or muscle mass, it’s astonishingly likely you’re getting a prescription drug mixed in with the sawdust
776 (!) tainted supplements were in the database from 2007 to 2016.
“Of the tainted products in the current study, 45.5 percent were marketed as aids for sexual enhancement, 40.9 percent for weight loss, and 11.9 percent for muscle building. They contained pharmaceuticals such as sildenafil, which is the active ingredient in Viagra; sibutramine, which is the active ingredient in Meridia, a weight loss drug removed from the market because of links to stroke and other cardiovascular events; and anabolic steroids or steroid-like substances.”
Tractor rollovers are the #1 cause of death on American farms, but social marketing is a surprisingly cost-effective way to reduce death
Now if we could only use social media for good in other arenas…
Uber—not a bus company—has proposed a formula for optimization of curb space that makes buses look pretty good:
(quoting directly from the article)
Activity/(Time x Space)
“Activity” is the number of passengers using the curb space by a specific mode, “time” is the duration of their usage, and “space” is the total amount of curb footage dedicated to that use.
Here’s the example that the consultants use in their report, where a 20-foot length of curb is used for four hours as a parking spot by a single car carrying two people:
2 passengers/(4 hours x 20 feet) = .025 passengers/hour-feet, or 0.5 passengers per hour per 20 feet of curb
But if that space is instead used as part of an 80-foot bus stop serving 100 people in that four-hour block, the equation looks like this:
100 passengers/(4 hours x 80 feet) = .3125 passengers/hour-feet, or 6.25 passengers served per hour per 20 feet of curb
Clearly, the bus stop is a better use of public space. And naturally, those Uber cars that don’t take up curb parking look good, too. No surprise there, considering the source.
John Gagliardi is dead, which means that the Nick Saban school of coaching just got a little stronger. That’s a tragedy
My antipathy toward football is cresting (just search for “football” in this site and you’ll see why). But who can argue with a philosophy like this one?
“Gagliardi essentially preached a philosophy of anti-coaching, one that prized self-reliance and self-motivation and abhorred cruelty and authoritarianism. These were not bullshit, repackaged, supposedly out-of-the-box ideas like you find coming out of Silicon Valley. Gagliardi’s philosophy was deeply HUMAN, and deeply trusting. It also happened to be highly effective, so much so that similar techniques are now widely used in parenting books, academic teaching, and other fields.”
One thing the best coaches I’ve had did well—in sports, medicine, music, or other—was to make me feel good about what I was doing. They made me feel good about the process of improvement, no matter my starting point in terms of skill. They essentially told me, “I know you’re a person who tries hard. Let me help you direct that effort in the way that will get the most out of your foundational ability.”
When I was a resident, a local doc prescribed so many narcotics to so many patients at such outrageous doses that admitting one of his patients was a near certainty on any overnight call shift. But what did the guy in wasn’t that he was committing malpractice on a daily basis; it was that he improperly supervised his wife as a mid-level provider, leading to money laundering and conspiracy convictions.
We in medicine do a bad job of policing our own. The surgeon who body-checked Dr. Death away from the operating table in Texas deserves major credit.
Don’t mind if I do.
Close this window, turn off your device, and go ride your bike or take a walk or read a book or go to the library or call a friend or volunteer at a charity or write a letter or…
I still think fitness devices are overrated, fwiw, regardless of what the Community Guide says.
But your doctor will probably try to talk you into it, anyway (paywall):
“Although current guidelines are at first sight cautious with treatment recommendations, more than 90% of persons with subclinical hypothyroidism and a thyrotropin level of less than 10 mIU/L would actually qualify for treatment. However, results of this meta-analysis are not consistent with these guideline recommendations.”
This paper is complex and paywalled, and I won’t pretend to understand it. But yes, it does seem that altruism is related to choosing lower-paying specialties and more underserved areas:
Let’s all share a collective shiver at the thought of a communal, stall-less bathroom with sponges on sticks, shall we?
Since I’ve been hustling to finish a couple big projects the last month, we’ve fallen behind. Got some catching up to do!
I've watched that giant 'stache ride away from me in approximately 1,000 gravel races.
Your favorite party story about how doctors used to manually "stimulate" the genitals of hysterical women with vibrators? That one? It's probably a myth.
And we're all worse off for it.
“Look, it's not that hard. All you need to do is lift weights six days a week, stop drinking alcohol, don't eat anything after 7 p.m., don't eat any carbs or sugar at all, in fact just don't eat anything you like, get the personal trainer from Magic Mike, sleep nine hours a night, run three miles a day, and have a studio pay for the whole thing over a six to seven month span. I don’t know why everyone’s not doing this. It’s a super realistic lifestyle and an appropriate body image to compare oneself to.”
No more cultivation of mass for Mac. I hate, hate, hate the culture that pretends that models and actors/actresses can eat all they want and somehow magically stay thin. Maybe Rob McElhenney gets to say things that actresses can’t.
Within reason, no. (registration required)
Speculation: 1) cost (and by extension, prior authorization requests); 2) residual fear from fen-phen, as one of the docs interviewed alluded to. We can surely put this to bed, since the current crop of meds has been on the market much longer than fen-phen had been when its harm was revealed; 3) nihilism. Five percent weight loss is meaningful from a medical perspective, but unless the doc is consciously, prospectively measuring outcomes like blood pressure, lipids, and fasting sugars, it won't knock her socks off. Patients won't be thanking her for getting them ready for bikini season; and 4) the old Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS) for Qsymia was such a PIA that it scarred some docs to prescribing these meds.
What's a 32% increase in mortality among friends? Investigators (in a study that, to my knowledge, has not yet been published, so caveat emptor) found an association between the lowest quartiles of carbohydrate intake and death:
Remember: we can't draw causality from this. There is some chance that people who are sick and more likely to die from heart disease, cancer, or stroke are more likely to adopt low-carbohydrate diets. But it doesn't seem likely. The people at highest risk in this study were those over age 55 and "non-obese."
Reason # 1,001 I'm not a pediatrician:
Can. Not. Do. It.
Special shout-out to the 100 cell phone text alerts during the video.
Aaaaaand I've found my new favorite study. It replaces my old favorite, which included the line "Detailed retrospective history also confirmed accidental inhalation of the condom during fellatio."
Jordan Peterson's family seems to be on a "beef cleanse." Do we even need to point out that this is a bad idea?
No. We don't. But we do it anyway:
[Jack Gilbert, the faculty director at the University of Chicago’s Microbiome Center and a professor of surgery] has done extensive research on how the trillions of microbes in our guts digest food, and the look on his face when I told him about the all-beef diet was unamused. He began rattling off the expected ramifications: “Your body would start to have severe dysregulation, within six months, of the majority of the processes that deal with metabolism; you would have no short-chain fatty acids in your cells; most of the by-products of gastrointestinal polysaccharide fermentation would shut down, so you wouldn’t be able to regulate your hormone levels; you’d enter into cardiac issues due to alterations in cell receptors; your microbiota would just be devastated.”
While much of the internet has been following this story in a somewhat snide way, Gilbert appeared genuinely concerned and saddened: “If she does not die of colon cancer or some other severe cardiometabolic disease, the life—I can’t imagine.”
“A company [in Japan] there created a man-po-kei, a pedometer. And man stands for ‘10,000,’ po stands for ‘step,’ and kei stands for ‘meter’ or ‘gauge.’” Ten thousand, it turns out, “is a very auspicious number” in Japanese culture, said Theodore Bestor, a Harvard researcher of Japanese society and culture, in an email. “That is, it seems likely to me that the 10,000 steps goal was subsidiary to having a good-sounding name for marketing purposes.” Whatever the reason for the adoption of this particular number, “It resonated with people at the time, and they went man-po-kei-ing all over the place,” said Tudor-Locke.
Pubmed indexes 175 articles published since June 2015, the date of the linked article above, containing the phrase "10,000 steps". And as weird as its origin story is, the recommendation has been validated, more or less, and has gone on to be endorsed fairly universally.