Archive for August, 2020

 

Aug 14 2020

Life in the Time of Corona(virus) – Day 152

by at 7:15 am

I am writing on Thursday evening as a busy week begins to wind down a bit. My day was dominated by clinical responsibilities, made a bit more challenging by the unstable internet access I had for TeleHealth. Technology is wonderful, until it isn’t. The rest of the week has been a Zoom parade of meetings related to my lab, research resumption, responding to the implications of COVID-19 and laying the groundwork for our EAC meeting in November.

This will be my last blog before I take a two-week break. I think of it as the calm before the storm. The autumn promises to be pretty crazy, what with the continuing COVID-19 challenges, the looming election of our lifetimes, economic uncertainties and who knows what else is in store for us. I look forward to the comforting warmth of time spent with family and friends. I am sure that some work will creep into this time, and that is OK.

Speaking of friends, Harriet and I just finished participating in the Zoom funeral of our friend Frank, who I wrote about in Monday’s blog. The gallery view showed many old friends and acquaintances. I was asked to read that blog as one of his eulogizers — what an honor. It is remarkable how old friends have mutually reinforcing, almost crazy links of familiarity that allow them to immediately slot right back into easy memories and instinctive patterns of familiarity and warmth. It was nice to see them. And we learned something remarkable and new about my old friend Frank tonight. He once was a priest, groomed for leadership at a prestigious Pontifical university in Rome. You would never have guessed this when watching an Eagles game with him. As is true for so many of us, there was more to him than met the eye. It is a reminder to spend time getting to know, really know your friends and colleagues. There is so much richness in our communal human experience, especially if you are open to and truly interested in people. It’s especially rich if you remember to wear your mask.

That’s all for now. Please remember that the pandemic is not over. Be smart. Stay safe and be well.

See you in September.

Lou

 


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Aug 10 2020

Life in the Time of Corona(virus) – Day 148

by at 7:15 am

Frank died on Sunday morning. You did not know him, and I have not written about him previously. But, he was my friend.

I first met him about 35 years ago, shortly after I took my first faculty position at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. I had moved to Elkins Park, a nearby suburb, across the street from a very cute woman, whom I would marry a few years later. I was drawn into her vast circle of friends and neighbors, two of whom were Frank and his wife, Avalie. He was about 10 years older than me. We got to know each other better over the years, since our kids were about the same age. Frank was a salt-of-the-earth guy, street-wise, gruff on the outside but kind and generous, characteristic of a true “Philly” type of guy. He loved his sports, he loved his family and he cared about his friends. He also loved a seedy bar in our town, where he knew the name of the bartender and every patron. He and I were part of a tennis foursome for about 10 years, and every Monday evening doubles match ended at that bar. Those of you who know me will not be surprised to know that this is the only corner neighborhood bar I have ever been to more than once. I am grateful to Frank for getting me to see the world outside the intellectual bubble.

By the way, he was as smart as a whip and had a passion for social service and outreach to the aged and underserved. About 10 years ago, Harriet and I drove up to Philadelphia to celebrate with Frank, his family and his wide circle of friends, as he finally got that PhD he had been working on for so many years — finishing his thesis to end his “ABD” (All But Dissertation) status. He joined the faculty of Lincoln University, a HBCU in the western suburbs of Philadelphia — this seemingly gruff white guy living his principles to their fullest and finest ends.

Father Time and various orthopedic ailments put an end to Frank’s tennis days, but we stayed in touch, mainly through our mutual friends. About two years ago he was diagnosed with widely metastatic adenocarcinoma of the gastro-esophageal junction. He fought valiantly, and received great care, but his disease kept roaring back — and each time it did he experienced unbearable, untreatable nausea. He suffered terribly. I am glad he is at peace.

We cannot share our sorrow with Avalie and the rest of his family in person due to the pandemic, but will attend his Zoom funeral on Thursday evening. His death is a reminder that cancer statistics are composed of people — many of them with stories that inspire — and we are communally deprived every time someone dies due to cancer, COVID-19 or anything else. We cannot eliminate all death, and perhaps that is as it should be. However, why can’t we eliminate suffering? Why should anybody have to spend the last three months of his life wracked by intractable nausea?

As soon as coronavirus lets us get out for an evening, we are not going to eat at a fine dining establishment, as there will be time enough for that. You see, there’s this bar on the corner of Township Line Road and Cadwalader Avenue in Elkins Park. We are going to pay that place a visit, perhaps with some friends, and I will order a round of beers and raise a glass in memory of my friend, a good man with a big heart who deserved a better end.

Stay safe and be well.

Lou

 


The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.

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Aug 07 2020

Life in the Time of Corona(virus) – Day 145

by at 7:15 am

And so it goes… on and on and on and on. Life is real, yet each day feels like one of those dreams, where everything is normal yet just a bit off kilter. Natural disasters of the infectious variety begat and amplified man-made disasters of the political sort, spiced up by the odd tropical storm and an ongoing financial meltdown. Remember when we thought everything would be fine by summer? I guess we forgot to specify which summer. However, even this summer has had its quirky charms; we take vacations, albeit in altered forms, enjoy the outdoors, and work to craft a new reality. It’s hard work, but worth it.

My new normalcy horizon is summer 2021. By then, perhaps, the outbreak will have begun to subside in the way that pandemics do, perhaps abetted by a vaccine or two. Until then, I fear that in-person education will not be generally feasible, and even more of our favored restaurants, entertainments and retail stores will be gone, never to return. The political class will be blamed, rightly, and the legacies of many of our current leaders will have been tarnished for all time. How will history judge them? As the amplifiers of this disaster, or as the poor souls who were in the room where it happened?

The answers are never simple. Those of you who have read my blogs know how I feel about the factors that have given coronavirus free rein in the United States. Coronavirus was inevitable, and some people were destined to die. But not so many. Too many political leaders have been highly effective, remarkably efficient viral vectors.

Now, what about the knuckleheads who fail to comply with common-sense public health measures?  By this I mean the screamers in the Walmarts. They should be ashamed of themselves. But, what about the rest of us? Who among us does not cross the line, if only just a little? Is everyone to blame? Why have we failed when other countries have found durable ways and the discipline to ride out the pandemic?

The United States has the singular distinction of being the world leader in coronavirus cases and deaths, while possessing the greatest wealth, the most sophisticated medical system and the demonstrated will to make great sacrifices when necessary. So why the paradox?

American exceptionalism, which was discussed in a recent Washington Post article, is a real thing. The focus on individual liberty, opportunity, social mobility and accomplishment, however imperfectly realized, has been the not-so-secret sauce of the American success story. Everybody believes he or she is special; invulnerable, even. Until they are not. Then they want to stay alive, no matter what. When individualism and social responsibility collide with this virus as they battle with each other, people die. Perhaps America’s distinguishing strength is its Achilles’ heel when it comes to the coronavirus.

But our greatest strength is to soldier on, doing work that matters, aiming to eradicate cancer. We do this while keeping ourselves and those we love safe, and by turning our individually best selves towards the common good.

Have a great weekend. Stay safe and be well.

Lou

 


The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.

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Aug 03 2020

Life in the Time of Corona(virus) – Day 141

by at 7:00 am

I fear for the short-term prospects of the NIH. The suspicion and hostility of populist elements against expertise in all its forms has eroded confidence in so many of our nation’s institutions and assets — be they the rule of law, our standing in the world order, environmental science or the role of public education. Surprisingly, most aspects of science and medicine have largely escaped the Luddite wrath of our nation’s leaders, due in no small part to Congress, which has set aside partisan political warfare to unite against the misery of human disease. Until now. The deplorable hounding of Anthony Fauci during last week’s congressional hearings, followed by a hostile tweet storm, leaves no doubt in my mind that Fauci is clearly in the crosshairs.

Government, famously described as being “of the people, by the people and for the people” by Lincoln, has been under attack since Reagan described government as the problem, not the solution. Such attitudes have deteriorated over the past 40 years to the point where I wonder if the fundamental credo now is that government is “against the people,” unless they are rich. The debate has degraded from “big government” vs. “small government” to “government” vs. “no government.” Could you have imagined an America where the federal government turned its back on its citizens as we grappled with a pandemic that has thrived without a government to organize the response? If only the more than 150,000 Americans who have succumbed to coronavirus had a voice in that debate.

I believe we are witnessing the agonal spasms of the populist reaction against progress, and reject the notion that this is the ominous dawn of an era of populist authoritarianism that further degrades our nearly 250-year-old American experiment. I have previously described the populist revolution as a “Battle of the Bulge” against a society that is moving inexorably — based on demography, as well as changes in our perceptions and behaviors — toward genuine justice and inclusiveness, developing and evolving, based upon ever-better factual understanding of the world around us. Hence, we can expect reprisals, and increasingly outrageous attacks on the future from those who wish to live in the past. Science in general — and biomedical research in particular — are how we explore and shape that future. In other words, buckle your seatbelts. Keep them on for at least six months. It’s about to be our turn in the crosshairs.

So, that leads to my short-term nightmare scenario. The upcoming election will be, at least partly, a referendum on how the coronavirus pandemic has been mishandled. Scapegoats will be identified and then eliminated, if only to divert accountability from political leaders who failed us when we needed them, but need campaign talking points. Science will be the handy scapegoat. If, as I fear, Francis Collins is instructed to remove Fauci, I expect Collins will resign, and the NIH will face the fury of an administration that has been imperiled, or possibly rejected, by the American people. With the NIH then led by a political appointee hell-bent on its dissolution, it could take years or decades for this crown jewel of American progress to recover. Perhaps there are enough legal and legislative guardrails to protect against this scenario. I sure hope so, because without a vibrant NIH, the very core of our cancer research mission is imperiled.

I’d like to think I am wrong. Perhaps Dr. Fauci’s approval rating is so good that the political risks of sacking him are too high. Perhaps Congress, fearing further backlash in an election year, pushes back on intemperate actions. Most important, perhaps enough Americans yearn for real progress, and that desire will prevail. So, I close today’s entry on that hopeful note, as we begin to resume research on our campus in earnest.

Stay safe, and be well.

Lou

 


The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.

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