Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Going home

Here's a piece I wrote recently about the last night in Central Asia for my children who were adopted from Kyrgyzstan about 5 1/2 years ago.

It was the night before we were to leave, to return to my home, and soon to be their home. They were now my children. I was now a mother, something I had hoped for, for years, but could only achieve through adoption. Only a few hours left in the Almaty hotel before we took a taxi to the airport. Everything was packed and already checked at the desk. I wished that I had more time to explore Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

In the few days that I had been a mother, I had learned so much. I never knew children could eat so much. They were like hummingbirds who eat three times their weight in food each day. We had snacks of dried fruit and crackers and cereal and bottles of juice. We were sitting in a empty room, just waiting the last few hours before we had to leave to catch the plane. We ordered meals from room service, succulent and flavorful lamb kebabs, and pilaf, pronounced plov, fragrant with saffron and nuts, mild yet flavorful roasted chicken and french fries, the hotel's version of food for children, and milk, their last before the plane. Each of them was so tiny at barely third percentile, at the tender ages of two and four, smaller than American children of eighteen months and three years. Yet, they could out eat most adults.  I had no idea then how much growth that food was to fuel. Katie grew an inch a month for a year, Maxim half an inch a month for a year.

Both the children and I had had a busy day. Getting their visas to return with me to California. Having all the papers checked at the consulate. And then a last bit of sightseeing in Almaty. I wish I had more time. Perhaps my grandmother and uncle came this way as they made their way from Siberia to Persia, after they had been freed. I wish I knew more, but they rarely spoke of that time. The region seemed so interesting to me, not just because my children were born here.  The children seemed to connect me to my family's past. At the time, I did not expect that their questions would make me want to explore the darker history of the region as well as the joy that it has brought me.

Like small birds, the children flitted about while they were awake and still had energy. No wonder they ate so much. After dinner, Maxim curled up beside me to sleep. He wanted to be close enough to touch, perhaps because he wanted to feel the warmth and and hear the pulse of another next to him, something he had not known for four years, since the womb. I sensed that he wanted to bond, yet feared the unknown that he was to face. He still seeks contact, though now he doesn't want his friends to see that his mother still kisses him on the forehead every day.  That night, his small body cuddled beside me was helping me to bond as well.

Katie stayed awake a bit longer. She ran repeatedly across the room away from me, then turned and with her arms thrown back like wings and then,on reaching me, embraced me as she giggled. I realized that I was entrusted with a tiny angel whose laughter was reminiscent of tiny bells. This was the child who had only taken her first steps three months earlier, who I had never seen smile before, who I was worried about being able to bond. The child the adoption doctor recommended against due to her prematurity and delay.  Yet she had clearly made the decision to bond.  And she is no longer delayed.  She was simply waiting to be loved.  Finally that night, she, too, succumbed to fatigue a slept a few hours before we were awakened to leave for the airport.

They were leaving the only home they had ever known to spend their lives with me. I was returning home from the lands of my ancestors' exile and my children's birth, a new mother of two. It would be a great adventure for all of us. The calm sound of their breathing beside me comforted me, as my touch now seemed to comfort them.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Independence Day and Waging Peace

Driving home late Wednesday evening, we say the aerial displays of several community fireworks displays.  I thought about how beautiful the explosions in the sky were to behold.  I also thought of the words of the Star Spangled Banner with its "bombs bursting in air" and "rockets red glare,"  which were simulated by the fireworks. 

I was one of three native-born Americans at the Independence Day gathering of family in California.  Two were born in Kyrgyzstan and became naturalized Americans through adoption.  Three were sisters who had been born in Canada.  They were ethnically Polish and had been married to Polish men, all of whom have since died.  I knew the stories of two of the men, one of whom was my uncle, since his mother later married my widowed grandfather.  They had experienced some of the worst evils of the world.

My uncle was 11 when he was taken prisoner with his family by the Soviets for the crime of being a Pole.  He later was an underage soldier who fought at Monte Casino under General Anders.  His younger brother died in Siberia "because he was too young to live" through their time in Siberia.  His father also died.  His mother survived, but barely.  One other person survived from their town which was large enough to have scheduled railway service.  Even at his funeral, a gap was left for the years 1939-1948 since he spoke so little about that time.

The husband of a second sister was liberated from a concentration camp in Germany.  He had barely avoided being sent to an extermination camp.  His mother died in Auschwitz.  All for the crime of being Polish.  Yet he told his wife and son of his experiences so they could remember.

We had traditional American food--chicken, hot dogs, potato salad, chips.  We are all now Americans.  Independence Day reminds us of the freedom we have.  But, talking about family reminds us that those freedoms are far from universal.  Yet, I believe that all people have similar hopes for their lives and their families.  We all want to be able to provide a decent life for our families.  We want a say in our government so that government acts in the interest of its people.  We want to live in peace.  Which brings me to the second part of this post.

Over the weekend, I listened to a talk about how to make peace in the world.  Clearly, humanity has fought enough "war[s] to end all war" as WWI was described.  Yet fighting wars has not accomplished the goal of ending war.  Wars continue with greater destruction, especially of civilian populations.  Such behavior brings to mind the statement by Albert Einstein that insanity is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  But, war is insane.  Albert Einstein realized that and preached peace. 

Most species try not to fight each other to the death, but rather only to the point of establishing dominance.  They want their own species to survive.  But humanity has nearly brought itself to the brink of destruction. First, through the arms race during the Cold War, when various computer glitches or weather balloons or the like led each side to think at one time or another that they were under attack by the other.   Thankfully, calm reactions prevailed and no counterattack was launched.  Second, through large scale environmental degradation leading to global warming, which might cause the extinction not only of our own species, but countless others.  And in the past decade there has again been consideration of the use of nuclear weapons.  But like the "war to end all war" was not successful in ending war, building weapons to discourage others from doing the same is counter-productive.

So, what is there to do?  That's where the discussion of "waging peace" comes in.  Waging peace is emphasizing helping others rather than dominating them.  It is non-violence, particularly non-violent resistance.  I have heard it said that non-violence cannot accomplish much except against a civilized country such as Britain, using the example of Gandhi.  Or, the United States, using the example of Martin Luther King.  But, many civil rights workers had their lives ended much too soon, as did many of the Black Americans they worked to help.  Similarly, the role of non-violence, led by Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, in bringing down the apartheid government of South Africa is touted.  Again, many gave their lives in the pursuit of equality.  Many were jailed.  But, finally, they succeeded in ending apartheid.  Non-violence has also brought down other repressive regimes such as communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.  Activists such as Lech Wałęsa were jailed, though finally saw victory.  Unfortunately, many others who struggled for freedom never lived to see it.  So, non-violence can also work against suppressive and violent regimes.  (It has been estimated that as many as 200 million people died at the hands of communist governments or because of their policies.)

Like in waging war, people must be willing to lay down their lives to wage peace.  History shows us that many have.  But, at least there is the hope that things can change for the better.  Fighting innumerable wars has certainly not brought an end to war.  As Coleman McCarthy said “Warmaking doesn't stop warmaking. If it did, our problems would have stopped millennia ago.” But, non-violence has certainly had some impressive achievements in the past century. I don't know if it is possible to end war, but it is certainly a goal worth trying to achieve.  There may be some despots who can only be brought down through violence.  But, overall, it seems violence begets violence.  And the cycle continues.  So, I feel that we must begin to wage peace.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Early July

This week has been a busy one with work--a new batch of residents and recently saying goodbye to the old, Independence Day and a birthday.  Every year, these events all come together.  Unfortunately, writing must be put on hold.  So here are some photos of the flowers I got from my kids with a few more from the garden.  And I have added a short piece that I recently wrote for a writing class.  Unfortunately, my garden is not as productive nor as exuberant in its floral display as my mother's.

The house I grew up in smelled of flowers in the summer, freshly picked from my mother’s garden.  Poppies, roses, iris and lilacs were among her favorites.   We had hundreds of lilacs of every shade, singles and doubles.  Also hundreds of poppies and iris.  She loved the darker shades of both.  Her garden was one of her joys.  But it wasn’t just flowers for their beauty and fragrance.   

As much as she could, she would work in the garden, raising fruit trees of all varieties, vegetables from carrots to zucchini, and melons and strawberries.  Summer was a joy as we worked in the dirt to bring forth the produce.  And then, relax under a tree with a fresh picked piece of fruit, or simply lie on the grass and watch the clouds through the green veil of leaves and branches which swayed in the wind.  Even as a child, I remember feeling that the backyard was a piece of heaven, fenced from the world by lilacs and roses.

In the fall, as the wind turned cool and the leaves from the trees fell to the ground, we would sweep them up to compost to feed the flowers and fruits and vegetables in the year to come.  And sometimes the house would begin to smell of wood pruned from those trees which we burned in the fireplace as the nights grew cooler.  In the fall, too, my attention turned to my studies.  The house was full of books, nearly every wall was covered in bookcases.  And the books added their aroma to the mix of fragrances in the house.  Both my parents had read many of these books, and as a child, I began to add to the collection of books in the house.  

Winter smelled of homemade soups, junipers or pine or spruce and wet wool after coming in from the snow.  My mother regularly made barley, lentil or pea soup which was so filling on a cold day.  She often would prune branches of the evergreens for their beauty and fragrance which we would add to the fire sometimes in the evening.  And the smell of the smoke would mingle with the smell of chocolate or cider and cinnamon in the evenings when there was time to relax.

As the weather became warmer, crocuses would begin to pop up through the snow and then tulips and daffodils, which would find their way to grace jars and pitchers in the kitchen and living room with their beauty.  Spring was often rainy and the smell of the rains permeated the air to mix with the delicate scent of the spring flowers.

The fragrances of flowers or evergreens or homemade soups still take me back to the comfort and security of my childhood.  I recall it as a simpler time, a time I often long for, but to which I can never return.  The house has been changed, remodeled so that it is not the same.  The yard subdivided.  A few of the trees and lilacs remain, though it is far from the same.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Thoughts on Gardening

This morning, like last weekend, I spent much of my time gardening.  Unfortunately, the effort has been somewhat sporadic this year since I was busy with other things when I should have been planting.  But, it looks like the plants are doing well for the most part.

Today, we had a harvest of young radishes.  Our first for the season.  The kids began to understand the effort as they tasted the first results. To come are tomatoes, peppers, peas, carrots, eggplants, cucumbers, summer squash, melons, a variety of greens and a plethora of herbs.  I do most of my gardening in either raised beds with landscape cloth under them or pots since the gophers have taken over my yard, and I can't seem to get rid of them, though I won't poison them.  The poison would be in the soil.  Instead, I would like the owl and the hawks to handle the problem.  Once I was working in the garden, dividing iris, when I heard a thump a few feet away.  I turned to see one of the hawks who live here flying off with a gopher.  I was happy that he was so comfortable with me that he flew in so close.

Relaxing after the work is done under an umbrella with a glass of iced tea and taking in the scents, hearing the birds and seeing the butterflies and dragonflies takes me back to a simpler time.  It reminds me of my mother's garden.  I was a child then, and like my children today, was more concerned with playing than with working.  But I do remember the harvests from the garden.  The strawberries, the cucumbers, the tomatoes, the corn.  Everything seemed so much more intensely flavored then.  And it still does, fresh from the garden.  And I can control the use of chemicals on my food, by not using them.  Instead, I have learned about companion planting, using other plants to confuse pests.  I think we did that in the old days too, though I was much less aware of it then.  My mother rarely used any pesticides either.

Gardening also reminds me of the time we visited relatives in Poland.  Several relatives had small farms yet worked in factories during the week.  So we helped on the farm while staying with them.  It was the peak of summer and time to harvest the wheat.  The nearby collective farm where one of the cousins lived had a combine, but for the small private farms of about 2 hectares (a bit less than 5 acres), it was not possible to own or even rent a combine for the harvest.  So the harvesting of wheat was done with scythes.  I remember spending a few evenings swinging the scythe to help with the harvest.  It was certainly heavy work but it made for a good sleep. 

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And that brings me to the picture above.  The scene reminds me of my time harvesting wheat with a scythe. Pieter Bruegel, a Flemish painter who lived 1525-1569, painted many such farm scenes. The wheat was harvested with scythes. Unlike then, when only men would swing the scythe, I did as a teen. My visit to the family in Poland took me back to that time.  It showed me how little had changed for a peasant farmer.

But even the gathering and bundling of the wheat, usually done by women, was heavy work.  In fact, I liked swinging the scythe better because I was upright, rather than bent over picking up the wheat.  That seemed to me to be the harder work.

Jean-Francois Millet composed "The Gleaners" to depict the lowest rung of rural society, those who picked up what was left after the harvest.  In the original, the woman at the lower right was in the painting, working along with the other two.  The photo at left is from the Muzeum Narodowe W Krakowie, the People's Museum of Krakow.  It was posted on Facebook this week and is certainly an interesting take on Millet's classic work.  Even the gleaner needs to take a break.  Unfortunately, for many of the poor who had to glean what was left over, life was very hard with few breaks. 

Earlier in the week, I heard an interview with Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System (  He discussed how small farmers are literally being driven to suicide and millions are starving while 1 billion are overweight.  The mal-distribution of food is not a thing of the past, but of the present.  Global agribusiness is helping to create this imbalance.  I have yet to read the book but it is certainly on my list.

So, I'm back full circle.  To the need for small scale farming with local distribution and home gardens, not just for healthier food, but for a healthier world. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Fear of Surgery, Surgical Intuition and Premonitions

Today we discussed a patient who has had a bad outcome.  He seemed to be doing well before a routine surgery, and only hints of the problems to come immediately after.  Everyone on the surgical team agreed the surgery was appropriate and indicated for the problem at hand.  Everyone agreed at the conference today.  But, before the surgery the patient was resistant until his family talked him into it, then he wanted to proceed, and asked that it be done.

Many times I have had patients initially afraid of surgery then change their minds and ask to proceed.  Most of the time things go well, but sometimes not.  It seems reasonable to be a bit afraid to undergo surgery.  I know I was afraid before my knee surgery, but it went well.  I wasn't actually as afraid of the surgery as of the anesthesia.  I was afraid of losing control.  So some preoperative anxiety is probably normal.  Anesthesiologists often premedicate the patient with an anxiolytic (a drug to block anxiety) before they even come to the operating room.

But what of the patient who is so afraid that he is prepared to sign out against medical advice.   What does that mean when things do go bad?  Did the patient have some sort of premonition?  I have seen it often enough that I sometimes wonder.  One place where I worked had the informal policy that a patient who cancels three times needs to see another surgeon before being rescheduled.  I have tended to follow that policy with my own patients since.

Likewise, I have sometimes had a bad feeling before surgery when I am the surgeon.  It doesn't happen often, but when there is a problem, I think afterward about my feelings.  Was I ignoring something that I should have paid attention to?  Or am I simply overthinking the problem?  Remembering my own anxiety in the situation of a less than perfect outcome?  Are premonitions something real?  Something we should pay attention to?  Is intuition just a subconscious processing of an observation that can't easily be described?

When I think of the topic of premonitions, I remember the series of dreams I had for months before my mother's death.  She was not ill, though had some chronic conditions.  And she was well enough to travel and walk for hours on cobblestones.  Hardly, someone I would have thought on the verge of death.  Yet, I had dreams for months before her death of trying to resuscitate a family member.  The dreams stopped immediately after her death.  It was as though I was rehearsing resuscitation techniques in my sleep for when I needed them to try to save my mother.  More of the details are published at:

Yet, as I think about this topic, I am left with more questions than answers.  Premonitions certainly seem real to me at times, yet I cannot come up with a scientific explanation.  The closest I can come is to say that I simply cannot put my observations into words, so get intuitive feelings about something.  Yet this doesn't apply in my mother's case, since she had been living on a different continent for eight months and I did not see her until about a week before her death.  So what kind of subtle observations could have prompted my dreams to begin two months before her death.  Yet, that is when they did.

So what do I do when I feel such a sense about surgery as the surgeon, or when a patient expresses more than the typical anxiety?  I listen.  I recheck everything to see if I am missing something.  I don't rush to the operating room.  But, if I can't find a reason not to proceed, I usually do if I think the procedure is indicated and the patient agrees.  And, most of the time everything is fine.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Father's Day

My father has been dead for nearly two years.  He lead a long and productive life, dying at age 96, just a year short of the 97 years achieved by both of his parents.  Every day when I drive the kids to school, I pass by where he used to live.  The kids and I remember the frequent visits.  They often comment that they want to go back to see him, but I have to remind them that he died.  The finality of death is hard for children with much to look forward to.   It is interesting that they have commented that they feel that he was their "daddy" as well, since he was so close to them.

The photo to the right is a perhaps a graduation picture.   It is certainly from the right era.  Below is a photo taken in the last year of his life.


The kids have often asked about my mother as well, who didn't live to meet them, though many pictures of her hang on the walls of our home.  My daughter feels a bond, saying that she thinks she looks like her, in that both have round faces and dark hair.  In a similar way, I felt a bond to my mother's mother who I never met.  Her younger sister even commented on meeting me how much I reminded her of her sister, even to the point of mannerisms.

But, back to my father.  He was a scientist who was committed to truth.  In his younger years he was quite an outdoorsman, though he would not hunt or fish.  Rather he was an explorer who took only photos.  He walked everywhere, and in the summer encouraged me and my cousins to hike and camp.  He also loved to swim.

The photo to the left is when he was hiking at Ash Cave.  The photo to the below is from a trip my parents took to Cuba before I was born.  I was fortunate to recently find the pictures.
 Later, he caught the travel bug, which he transmitted to me.  In my teens, I was fortunate to accompany my parents on many interesting journeys.  I recall four trips to Europe and one to Japan with my parents while in my teens and twenties.  We often went off the beaten path.  These trips were some of my favorite memories of him.

It is always hard to lose someone we care about.  He is certainly remembered.

Thoughts on writing while working

Writing can take a lot of time, but work is great for people watching.  Since I have worked as a neurosurgeon in public hospitals, I have observed a lot of people whose lives are very different than mine.

My observations of the homeless I care for has been extremely helpful in writing about the period of homelessness in my novel's main character's life. (Yes, my first novel, though not the first I started on.)  Observing both patients and staff has given me insight into personalities, and some of the stories I have heard from patients would be fodder for great stories.  It is indeed hard to believe what people do every day.

And, being in a largely male profession, I have had the opportunity to observe men up close.  One colleague who read a few pages of a draft commented that he was surprised how much I understood of the male mind.  Another commented that he could feel the character's beard growing.  Likewise, seeing people from other cultures has given me insight into how to write about a given culture.

The downside of working is the time commitment, which means that I don't write every day.  I wish I could, but I'm often just too tired after the kids are asleep.  But, I observe, I read or just reflect on writing everyday.  I have also noticed that I have learned a tremendous amount about my subject on facebook by becoming involved in groups on the topic about which I am writing my novel.  Time limitation is the main reason that my blog posts are so sporadic. 

Perhaps writing classes have been the most distracting when they are off topic and too directed.  Yet, I know that learning craft also has a role, so have tolerated the absence from my novel, knowing that I will come back more skilled and will be able to revise my work with new eyes.   And some of the directed assignments may grow into stories someday.

So, in a sense, I'm constantly working on my writing, even when I'm doing other things.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Reading addiction

Several years ago, a friend proposed that education could be addictive, and that she and I were both addicts.  More recently, this topic came up in a writing class and I drafted this piece about reading addiction. 

Addiction can take many forms.  Best known are the chemical additions such as alcohol or drugs.  But humans are capable of making their own drugs called endorphins which can cause behaviors to have addictive potential.  Running, gambling and video games are well known behavioral addictions.  But there are other, less common, though equally severe addictions which can disrupt lives.  One of these is the addiction to books, which can take two forms:  the addiction to owning books, where a person may literally fill their entire home with books, such that they can’t even find a large enough book free zone to take a nap, and where they may bankrupt themselves by the purchase of so many books; and second, the addiction to reading to the point of neglecting self care such as eating, bathing or interacting with other humans.  

There is even a facebook page, “I have more books than friends,” dedicated to those with this affliction.  Unfortunately, this page does not discuss the downside of addiction.  Certain locales even cultivate such clientele.  Libraries are one of the primary sites dedicated to the second type of addict described above, and to those of the first type who have bankrupted themselves and need a place out of the weather where they can read for hours.  Bookstores with coffee shops cater to those who still have some financial resources to be exploited, and link the book addiction with another addictive problem, that of caffeine addiction.  Similar to drug addiction, this is evidence of the addictive personality where people may suffer from multiple addictions.  It is also reported that many writers of books, most of whom also suffer from book addictions, may also have tobacco, alcohol and occasionally other drug addiction.

There is certainly a significant degree of overlap between these two types of behaviors, so they will be considered together.  Lest some say, what harm is there to books, I would suggest the situation of a parent who cannot interact with her children, has lost her job and is on the verge of bankruptcy due to reading addiction is harming both herself and her children, and setting a very bad example of what can happen to readers.  Reading while driving has even been observed and is extremely dangerous.  Even audiobooks, while safer, can distract a driver and cause accidents or death.

I would thus propose that a twelve step program be developed for such people.  Like with other 12 step programs, they need to be able to see the damage that their addiction is causing in their lives and those of their family.  Support groups similar to Alcoholics Anonymous could be formed to help people see that they are not alone in fighting their addiction to books or other reading material.  

Similarly to food addiction, simply avoiding the offending material is difficult, if not impossible, which makes relapse more likely.  Reading material is available from bookstores, libraries (often associated with schools or supported by public money), bookstores, on airlines, through the mail (often at discounted postage rates) and shockingly even in doctor’s offices.  Thus, support from others is essential to recovery.

In conclusion, many people suffer from book or reading addiction and need help now.  We need to join together, acknowledging our problems and work to help each other to overcome them, with the help of a greater power.  Lives may hang in the balance.

OOPS!  I'm a writer now.  Perhaps I should appreciate readers, regardless of their addictions.

Sunday, April 1, 2012


I see all the beautiful pisanki on posted by fellow Poles on Facebook.  I know that this is part of my heritage, yet not.  I've never made them or lived with them in the house. 

My aunt had a crystal basket with about six of them in it displayed in her living room all year, sitting beside a lamp on top of a crocheted doily.  I thought they were so beautiful and intricate in their designs.  But, I never learned how to make them.

In college, every year there was a "Slavic Festival" at the University.  I often worked a booth or explained folk art, mostly things that we had collected in our travels.  One year, I bought a kit to make pisanki.  I never used it.  It was one of few things stolen in a break in at my parent's home.  I wonder why someone would break in to steal a pisanki kit.  Even now, they start at less than fifteen dollars on Amazon.  It really doesn't seem like something most people would think of taking.  Yet it was taken.

My mother was never into domestic activities.  She never made pisanki or taught me to make them.  I know that she crocheted tablecloths, but mostly before I was born.  She was too busy afterwards, caring for me and working for her causes.  By the time I was ten, I was doing much of the cooking at home.  I learned to read recipes, so taught myself to make many of the dishes I make.

As an adult, I've become like my mother, too busy with work and family and my causes to make such beautiful works of art.  Instead of cooking traditional food, I too often simply thaw something out and heat it.  But, every once in a while, I think about such things and wish that my life was less hurried and I had the time to enjoy more of the beauty of life.

This year, again, seeing the pisanki photos posted makes me remember this.  I would like to be able to share this with my children.  I looked at the kits on Amazon, yet know that I won't have time to order a kit and make them before Easter.  And, I have to finish preparing a talk for a professional meeting in a couple weeks.  

I also realize that I don't have the artistic ability to make such beautiful works of art.  But maybe someday I'll try.  For now, I simply ordered some wooden eggs painted to look like pisanki.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Reflections on altruism

In an earlier post, I wrote of my mother's involvement in human rights issues.  Over the weekend I attended a reception for EMERGENCY, a group of doctors who provide care for civilians in war torn parts of the world.  I have long thought about becoming involved in such work, with this organization as well as others.  I remember trying to volunteer in Bosnia, where I had visited years earlier, as the war heated up.  I said that I was a fully trained, though relatively newly minted neurosurgeon, and that I had studied two Slavic languages, so picking up a third did not seem too daunting.  I also told the organizations that I had no family from any part of the former Yugoslavia, so I "didn't have a dog in the fight" there.  It didn't work out then, but I still find myself drawn to such involvement.  Much of the time since I have worked with underserved populations here in the US.  Many other relatives have also done this, whether in health care or education.

As I was driving back in the rain after the reception, I thought also of the story of one of my mother's cousins who had a pharmacy in the area of Krakow that was to become the ghetto under the Nazis.  He lived above the pharmacy, so both his business and home were there.  As the ghetto was being closed off, Christians were ordered to leave.  He initially boarded a streetcar to leave, then decided to return, because that was where he felt he belonged.  He stayed there and did what he could to help those who were forced to live in the ghetto.  When the ghetto was emptied and the residents were sent to death camps, he fully expected to be killed as well.  After all, he knew that the penalty for a Pole who helped a Jew was death.  But, somehow he survived and later wrote a book, The Cracow Ghetto Pharmacy.  His name was Tadeusz Pankiewicz, and he was later honored by Yad Vashem for his activities.  I have a vague recollection of him though certainly recall hearing his story from his daughter as my mother and I were leaving Poland.  At the time he was being denied an exit visa to visit Israel.  So, I wanted to go there to take photos to send to him.

I began to wonder why so many people in my family had stories like this.  Then I recalled that I had heard about some reseach a few years back about a so-called altruism gene.  Apparently there are variants of the oxytocin receptor which are more or less associated with altruistic behavior.  This makes some sense in that oxytocin is also involved in maternal bonding.  It is the hormone that allows women to breast feed.  Clearly, the decision to care for a helpless infant is an altruistic act, though there are also elements of selfishness in the desire to pass on one's own genes.  It also makes sense that a gene of this sort would potentially lead to increased survival of infants whose mothers carry it and thus might be carried on in a population.

Other studies suggest that altruism has more to do with how an individual sees the world.  And if the right posterior superior temporal cortex lights up differently during action perception vs. action performance.  Danusha Goska, author of Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture, even suggests that "Polish Catholic peasants, in accord with Polish, Catholic, peasant values, did good things."  I do think that this last point has some validity, since Catholicism does value caring for others.

My sense is that the truth is closest to the last.  That this is more of an environmentally influenced trait.  I certainly have felt that I have to try to do what I can to help others, since I have been relatively well off.  A sort of noblesse oblige.  I think that knowing about the heroes in my family just makes it seem all the more necessary to give to others since they gave so much with so much less than I have enjoyed.  I hope that I can live up to the expectations.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Child Soldiers


The recent interest in Kony and the conviction of Thomas Lubanga have brought the issue of child soldiers to the public consciousness, where it should have been for a long time.  There was also a recent discussion of the indoctrination in the Hitler Youth on one Holocaust site.  I remember an Iranian friend telling me about children being sent into mine fields during the Iran-Iraq war because they were seen as expendable.  Clearly children are easier to indoctrinate than adults, which is why many groups have chosen to use them.  They don't ask as many questions, but just do what they are told. 

Several years ago, I interviewed a woman who had worked educating former child soldiers, who often had been denied basic education but simply taught to kill before they could distinguish right from wrong.  She commented on how difficult it was to work with them, because they lacked such basic concepts and had essentially no formal education. 

All of these cases show that children were used because of their trust, yet in all cases, the trust was clearly misplaced.  Most regarded even the children fighting on their own side as expendable, showing little regard for their lives or future.

A recent opinion piece in the LATimes comments on this:
Child soldiers: A worldwide scourge

I think about my uncle who lied about his age to join the Polish Army under General Anders and fought at Monte Cassino when he was only 15 or 16.  He was one of many boys who did this.  He knew that his country was being devastated by the Germans, and had himself been imprisoned and deported by the Soviets after they invaded eastern Poland in 1939, shortly after the German invasion from the west.  He felt that it was his duty to help free his country. His father had died during the time in exile, so he was alone with his mother, and she was frail.  All his other family and nearly everyone from their village was to die during the war.  

I think of my mother's cousin who at age 16 helped to steal a V2 rocket and deliver it to the British.  In this way, the British learned how to disarm the V2s that didn't explode on impact.  But this cost the lives of nearly everyone from my grandfather's family, leaving only his niece to tell the story.

I also think about the children who fought with the resistance, even meriting a statue in Warsaw of a child soldier. This is shown the photo above.

My uncle, my mother's cousin and some of the other children who fought in the resistance did so by choice.  At least, that is how they told it years later.  And I view their actions as heroic.  But they were teens who were forced to grow up too soon by the war and occupations that engulfed their country for several years before they became combatants.

Nevertheless, I think that there is far too much violence in the world.  Enlisting children to fight wars is something that needs to stop.  Perhaps if old men were forced to fight wars they would not choose to go to war so easily.


Saturday, March 17, 2012

Saint Patrick's Day

Today is St. Patrick's Day.  This morning, my son awakened telling everyone they had to wear green today because it was St. Patrick's Day.  Indeed, all of us did, though none of us have any Irish ancestry. Throughout my childhood, St. Patrick's Day was always celebrated.  Many people wore green, though increasing people don't.

The Irish have had a difficult history.  When many came to the US after the potato famine, they were greeted with discrimination. Yet they have become an accepted ethnic group in this country.  About forty to fifty years later, Poles began to arrive.  My grandparents arrived early in the twentieth century, though maintained connections with Poland.  My grandfather returned for a visit in the mid-1930s.  Some family members even chose to return permanently.

Today, I saw an article about the Polish-Irish connection.  The link is below.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Ides of March


My mother was born on the Ides of March.  She loved to quote from the play Julius Caesar, "Beware the Ides of March."  She was often a firebrand, so the saying applied to her as well.  She fought for justice for all.  She was involved with resettlement of displaced persons, migrant health care and education and non-violence.  As a child, I often went with her to her various activities.  I know that they helped to form my view of the world.  She certainly was a great influence for me in many aspects of my life.

I thought about writing something for International Women's Day, but reviewed the history.  The holiday had started as a holiday in 1909.  It was originally started as a holiday by the Socialist Party of the United States, but later was adopted by the Soviet Union after the October Revolution of 1917.  After that it was mainly celebrated in communist countries.  In the West, it began to be celebrated after the UN proclaimed March 8 as the International Women's Day in 1977.  More recently, it has drawn attention to women and families displaced by conflict, rape as a form of oppression in conflicts around the world and families of those who are missing.  These recent issues were all issues my mother concerned herself with during her life.

The photos above are of my mother with her mother (who died in 1942), at her wedding in 1939 (she is the woman on the right, my father is in the center) and with me as a baby.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Book Review of The Whipping Club by Deborah Henry

As the adoptive mother of two children who spent their first years a foreign orphanage, I found Deborah Henry’s book The Whipping Club to be very interesting.  Though my children are doing relatively well, I do know of others who have died due to inadequate medical care (by American standards) in such institutions, and many who have behavioral problems stemming from years of institutionalization.

Set in Ireland of the 1950s and 1960s, the book begins as Marian learns that she is pregnant.  While very much in love with her boyfriend, Ben, she is pressured by her uncle, a Catholic priest, and the reaction of her boyfriend’s parents on learning that she is not Jewish, into going to a home for unwed mothers.  Since the women there are deemed to be sinners since they became pregnant out of wedlock, they are punished and shamed for this sin.  Marian’s son is then taken from her and placed in an orphanage, rather than being adopted to an American couple as Marian is led to believe.  

She then returns to Dublin and marries Ben.  They have another child but both remain silent about Marian’s time away and their first child, until a woman from the home for unwed mothers seeks out Marian to let her know what has become of her first child.  Marian and Ben try to get their child back, especially as they learn more about the abuse that the children suffer in the orphanages and later in industrial schools for the older children.  After the death of his friend in the school, Marian and Ben become even more intent on removing him from the dangers of the school, even if they are unable to keep him with them, since they are unable to get legal custody despite being his biological parents.  In addition, the boy shows behaviors common in institutionalized children, who often develop oppositional defiant disorder because those in charge of them have not shown them appropriate behaviors for living in a family.  Marian feels tremendous guilt for allowing her firstborn to have been damaged in this way.  

The novel exposes the scandal that Ireland had for many years imprisoned many of its citizens in the Magdalene laundries, industrial schools and psychiatric hospitals, with the complicity of the government and the Catholic Church.  In these institutions, women and children were exposed to emotional, physical and sexual abuse.  Should they try to escape, the police would return them.  The novel helps to understand the experiences of those interred in such institutions.

A second theme is the bias of the time against intermarriage between those of different faiths in the conservative culture of Ireland.  This placed additional stress on the relationship between Marian and Ben, as their families gradually come to accept that their marriage can work out.  This pairing echoes the mixed background of the author.

Though the initial discovery of what has become of their son stresses the marriage, helping him to get out of the industrial school seems to bring Marian and Ben together.  In addition, Marian’s uncle begins to question the system that he had supported, unaware of much of the abuse under the surface.

Fortunately, the Magdalene laundry system has ended in Ireland, but the scars it left on many of its victims linger.  In addition, there are still millions of children worldwide who live in institutions simply because their parents cannot care for them. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Personal essay published

Although I have written scientific medical articles, I have recently been venturing into more creative and personal writing.  My first personal essay, about the death of my mother was recently published.  Here is the link:

It was certainly a difficult and painful experience to live through and even to write about all these years later.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

There but for the grace of God go I...

There is much of life that is random.  I think first that where we are born may give us a good start or not.  I was fortunate to be born in an affluent country.  I didn't experience hardship as a child and had the security of loving parents.  We weren't rich, but we weren't needy.  I also was fortunate to have a mother who helped others, whether helping with resettlement of displaced persons or health and education services for migrant farm workers.  Hearing their stories taught me how fortunate I was indeed.

My children didn't have the luxury of love and security for the first few years of their lives, which were spent in an orphanage.  My older child constantly worries that this period of security with me will come to an end and he will be alone again.  My younger child seems to accept that she has a forever family, and that things will work out well for her.  I wonder how much of the difference between them is due to innate personality differences and how much is due to their early experiences.

Last weekend, I listened to a radio program about happiness.  Happiness, it was said is 50% genetic, 10% environmental, and 40% due to personal choices, especially in relationships, and trying to help others.  Even the environmental seems only to be an issue if there is true hardship and loss, and so is not proportional to income.  This certainly seems to be the case.  I have met very many poor people who seem happy and rich people who don't.  As the saying goes, "Money can't buy happiness."

I do think that a portion is intrinsic, whether genetic or not, I can't say.  Some people certainly seem more able to find happiness than others and even seem to make those around them happy.  I am fortunate there, too, in that my mother was one of those people.  My younger child is as well.  I'm trying to help my older child find that much of happiness is within himself.

The last part is due to personal choices.   I agree that seeking money or prestige doesn't help to achieve happiness.  Happiness has to be in relationship to helping others.  This seems obvious when I see my older child helping the younger to learn a new skill.  He seems happy then.  And he is a good teacher.  I hope that with time he learns to value that more in himself.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Are we civilized?

Yesterday the journalist Marie Colvin was killed in Homs, Syria, just one day after she reported on the death of an infant from shelling and the lack of medical care.  She was an American who reported for a British paper.  She has previously been in other dangerous places including recently reporting on Libya.  While she is well known, she is just one of many casualties in the civil war racking Syria. The French photographer Remi Ochlik was also killed.  Their deaths attract attention for two reasons, one is that, as reporters, they are celebrities of a sort and second that they are Western.  Unfortunately, some people's lives still seem more important than others.

In Syria, like so many other places in the world, civilians, including young children suffer and die.   The number of civilians as a percentage of war deaths has been increasing especially over the past hundred years or so.   The increased technology of killing allows armies to kill at greater distances, thus making "collateral damage" more likely.  In addition, since more conflicts are civil wars, the site of combat is more often in cities and villages.  So, it is more difficult to distinguish who is a combatant.  In some conflicts, there has been an attitude of "to kill the big rats, one must also kill the little rats" as was expressed by a Rwandan political commentator.

As I am writing up some of my family's stories from WWII and the communist era, I see many similarities to current wars.  Hearing my family's stories caused me to hate war, though a more careful review of history has taught me that it is occasionally necessary.  Nevertheless, I think that we must all do whatever we can to protect life, especially innocent life.  Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik were doing their part, as journalists, making it known to the world.   Others, such as Gino Strada, of Emergency, and Medicins Sans Frontiers help by caring for the civilian victims.

It is my dream that humans can evolve to settle conflicts in other ways.  Only then can we truly call ourselves civilized.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Birthday of Copernicus

Today is the anniversary of the birth of the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543).  His Polish name is Mikołaj Kopernik.  His greatest work was De revolutionibus orbium coelestium.   In this he described the heliocentric, or sun centered, solar system.  At the time this was seen as revolutionary since the Catholic Church taught that the earth was the center of the universe.  Yet he observed movements of the sun and planets that could not be explained if the sun revolved around the earth.  So the earth and other planets had to revolve around the sun.  We have now come to accept this, though we know that the orbits of the planets are elliptical, rather than circular, with the sun at one of the focal points of the ellipse.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Fiction as autobiography

All fiction may be autobiography, but all autobiography is of course fiction.
  • Shirley Abbott, quoted in Mickey Pearlman, Listen to Their Voices (1993), ch. 12
The past two weeks have been exciting in my journey as a writer.  First, I received notification of my first acceptance of an article other than a traditional medical journal article.  This surprised me greatly. Two other pieces I submitted elsewhere were rejected.  This is not a big surprise since most submissions are rejected, but still is disheartening.  And the most important is that through a Writer's Workshop, I learned a very important lesson--"write the pain."  This is why I think the one was accepted and the others not.  It showed the pain.  The others seem to be more interesting topics, but I think the emotion wasn't raw.  It wasn't on the surface. 

The piece that was accepted showed the pain.  It was my experience of the death of my mother.  I have long understood that the experience has helped me in relating to patients when I have had to deliver bad news.  My mother and the stories she told have been a major inspiration to my decision to write, even though I lost her just over thirty years ago this week.  Perhaps that anniversary was also important at the subconscious level in my sense of feeling the pain.

I also realized with the help of my instructor and other students in the workshop how my novel is autobiographical in an emotional way, and how when I can feel in some way what I have my characters feeling that my writing is better.  So, I need to "write the pain" in order to feel genuine.

My pain and loss is very different than that of the characters I am writing about, but my experience of my mother's death helps me to understand both the pain of my characters and the pain of my patients and their families.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


A few years ago, I began to write up some family stories.  This began when my adopted children asked about their past, where they were from.  Additionally, several friends suggested that I write up stories that I had told orally.  I decided to start with the overlap between the history of my biological family and the part of the world where my children were from.
I came to realize how much I enjoyed retelling the stories of my family, including some about relatives I had never met.  Some of the stories seem heroic to me.  Others are more ordinary.  These people are the ghosts of my title. A few of these stories are also the core of a novel I am writing, tentatively called Living with Ghosts, about relatives in Poland.
As I begin this blog, however,  I realize there are far more ghosts that surround me, and may share their stories as well.  These include the ghosts of my American relatives. I grew up in a family where both my parents and two uncles had worked on the Manhattan Project, certainly the fodder for interesting stories.  I was fortunate to hear these stories from my mother, a masterful storyteller.  She also told many other stories, both about her experiences and family.
As a young person, I was also fortunate to travel, and have continued to enjoy travel to out to the way locations, leading to more stories.  I then chose professionally to become a neurosurgeon, and to specialize in treating malignant tumors and neurotrauma.  Thus I have had to live with the ghosts of patients and have heard many more interesting stories, and seen much heartbreak.  Clearly the details of these are confidential, but often their stories have taught me much about the human condition.  I feel that this experience has helped with my writing.
Thus, this blog is to be a collection of stories of a life spent among ghosts, as well as with the living.  It also looks at lessons we can learn from those who have gone before.