Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Year in Review - 2011

Today is the last day of the year 2011.  In a sense, this doesn't matter much at all as a simply quirky day of an arbitrary calendar.  But for we mortals, the calendar gives rhythm to our lives and helps us understand this odd temporal bubble in which we find ourselves.

I'm musing on everything that's happened this year and how I'm different from the girl I was this time last year.

In January, I broke up with the man I really, truly, completely wanted to spend the rest of my life with.  If you haven't done that, I don't recommend it.  It gets really old to watch your friends get engaged and to hear platitudes from older married folks, and think, "When you found the person you wanted to spend every single day with for the rest of your life, you married him."
I was a complete mess.  I also went to Nebraska for a math conference, where I was a very cold complete mess.

In February, I got the lowest test grade I'd ever received in my life.  That was okay; everyone else did, too.  But this threw my medical school acceptance into jeopardy, and so for the next few months, all in the entire world that I wanted was to pass that class.

In March, my last Lent as a non-Catholic started.  I spent as much time as I could reading and studying, partly out of curiosity and partly out of obsession.  What can I say?  Converts are weird like that.

In April, I actually did become Catholic, and it was one of the best nights of my entire life.  At this point, life begins to get better imperceptibly slowly for me.  I credit the Eucharist.

In May, I passed that class by the grace of God.  My grandmother, who was a female mathematician and computer scientist in the 1960's, met my favorite math professor, who was the same thing except a professor instead. I rode home from graduation in an old Porsche driven by someone who knows how.  This was one of the high points of the year.

In June, I flew sixteen hours to Kenya and spent two weeks seeing things that still blow my mind, like elephantiasis, polio, and thyroglossal duct cysts.  I saw giraffes at dusk.  I snorkeled in the Indian Ocean and saw an octopus hiding in his den.  I drank chai and ate chapatis and rode in safari vans driving on the left side of the road.  I saw crocodiles being fed and watched a tiny premature baby learn how to nurse from his fifteen-year-old mother.  I gave injections and drained hydroceles and listened to the heartbeat of a baby in the womb. This was another of the high points of the year.

In July, I spent two weeks wandering around Europe alone.  This was a series of lots of high points of the year.  I saw London, the ancient and new city that is the beloved gem of all England.  I saw the great David Tennant in the theatre and got his autograph.  I saw the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge.  I adored London.
I saw the shores of France where the D-Day troops landed and walked through the castle of William the Conqueror.  I prayed a Rosary in Lourdes and brought back water from the spring that rose up there, as well as strolling through the beautiful town in the Pyrenees mountains where people spoke French and Spanish, but little English.  I rode trains through the south of France and stood in the Mediterranean Sea and watched the tide come in on the coast of Nice.  I took in the glories of the Italian countryside, each tiny village becoming the one I wanted to retire to someday, imagining watering the mounds of colorful flowers and herbs in the windowboxes and putting out bright white shirts to dry in the generous sun.
And then there was Rome.
I rode a train into the city of Rome, a city so used to being the center of the entire world that it's become part of the zeitgeist.  I saw the ruins of the ancient marketplace and photographed cats sleeping in the sun on the steps of the forum where Julius Caesar was killed.  I went to Mass in the oldest church in Rome (and therefore in one of the oldest churches in the history of Christianity).  I ate way too much pasta and drank red wine with every meal and learned how to make the most wonderful pasta recipe I've ever had.
I stood in line with an old Italian woman at 4:30 in the morning in St. Peter's Square in the Vatican.  We waited together, exchanging broken Italian and Spanish and English, then sat together during a beautiful Mass in St. Peter's Basilica celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI. I discovered that he looks like an adorable old man in person, and that the creepy photos you sometimes see are because he's not terribly photogenic, not because he actually is creepy.  I stood under the Colosseum and cried for the blood spilled there.  I went to Mass in Notre Dame in Paris and heard the beautiful liturgy in a beautiful language.  Back in England, I hiked up to Dover Castle and saw the French coast across the English Channel. I flew across the Atlantic Ocean, twice.

In August, I moved to Houston, Texas and started medical school.  It hit me like a battleship to the face.  I had never encountered any challenge so difficult in my entire life. In August, I met my best friend in medical school.

In September, first exams, first block week, first block party.

In October, Block 2 (of three) hit, and I was even less prepared than I was for block 1.  Block 2 was my worst block.

In November, I went home for Thanksgiving and realized how completely my day-to-day life had changed.  Thank you, medical school.  Also, Advent started, and we began using the new Roman Missal translation.

In December, I took block 3 exams and finals back-to-back: nine exams in two weeks.  Spoiler alert: I passed, by the grace of God.

Now here I am, wondering about the upcoming  year.  When I think back over my college career, I tend to recall individual semesters and wince at how difficult they were.  I don't remember a positive semester since freshman year.  But I remember individual good things happening.  And more than that, I remember the grace.  Even before I knew what I was asking for, the grace to handle the situation was always there when I asked for it.  Even when I didn't ask for it.

So here's to the really bad years that make you beg for the grace.  Here's to not being where you thought you would. Here's to the semesters that contribute to holiness, not to happiness.  Here's to the life that ebbs and flows and sometimes is not fair.  Here's to the God who gives all the grace.  Thank You, as always.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Tiny Sharp Sins

If you have ever had a splinter, you will know exactly what I'm talking about.

Imagine having a bad, crooked splinter stuck in your skin, so that you couldn't move, couldn't do anything without feeling it.  Imagine if it were impinging on a nerve, so that it was either numb or intensely painful all the time.

Sometimes I don't even realize it's a splinter.

If you can, try to imagine that feeling growing and growing, so that it's not just in one finger but spreading throughout your body in waves of numbness and pain.  Then imagine that it's not a physical pain, but an emotional one, alternating through waves of numbness and pain and fear and feeling empty and dead inside.  Sometimes emotional pain is far more excruciating than any physical pain I've had.  You've probably been there.

But if you followed the first part of the metaphor, you probably also know the feeling of finally gripping the splinter with tweezers and extricating it.  It hurts, but then the skin relaxes back where the splinter was.  The whole limb seems to breathe a deep sigh of relief, feeling the blessed absence of the horrid sharp thing that caused so much pain.  Every few minutes you remember where the splinter was and feel such a depth of gratitude that it's finally, finally gone.

It's not always easy to tell a priest how long (or how not-so-long) it's been since my last confession, and then to tell him I did this, and this, and this, and this.  But nothing in all the world can replace that deep, quiet peace that remains once the dark, crooked splinter is finally pulled.  Much of the time, I'm surprised how much pain that tiny, nasty splinter caused; usually I had blamed the pain on everything in the world but the splinter.  But once it is finally out, I have to pause every few minutes and marvel that it's really, truly gone.  

Once again, how did I ever live before Confession?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Light and the Blind

Hello.  I am the automated robot that writes blog posts for Sarah in the event of her death at the hands of nasty medical school exams.

Just kidding, it's me.  

I said I had things to say after exams, so here I am; let the saying commence.

I left off in Sirens of Insanity by explaining how, for me, the use of reason leads to the death of reason at its own hands.  But I realized a few days after I posted it that I only explained why I don't think we can reason our way to ultimate truth; I did not actually explain what I do think.  The whole post left my inner editor-skeptic thinking, "Well, that's nice that you don't trust reason, but reason is humanity's only way to think about the world and come to conclusions.  So we had better trust it anyway, or else just accept our ignorance and stop trying."

(On the one hand, this is true.  Even though we know reason is ultimately flawed, we still use it to deal with the vast majority of the situations of life.  We know Newtonian mechanics is flawed. But we still use it for the vast majority of problems, because it works most of the time and only breaks down around the edges.  It's the same thing.  I think it is a mistake to turn against reason, and much of the Western world over the last three hundred years agrees.)  

So where do we go from here?  We cannot expect to derive all truths from observation and reason.  As I explained, there must be aspects of the ultimate truth that are immutably inscrutable to us and will therefore always seem illogical despite being completely true

Here is my metaphor.

Imagine that humanity was born into a giant biosphere that was utterly dark.  Because of the dark, we used our senses of hearing and touch to interact with the world and invented lots of tools to help us understand the world and not stub our toes on things in the dark.
(Of course, in such a situation, we would probably eventually invent flashlights, or even just fire.  But this is one place where the metaphor breaks down; no metaphor is perfect. I don't think it affects the conclusion.)

Now imagine that one day in one isolated little corner of the biosphere, light was found streaming in from the outside through a pinprick.  People couldn't touch it or hear it, but they have a seeing organ, the eye.  A part of them is sensitive to the light.

Some people would see it, but shrug it off as a weird... something.  Some people would see it and be forever moved by it in some way.  But some people would hold firmly to their senses of hearing and touch and remember all those principles had done for humanity. Then when the light remained silent and non-material, they would reject it.  Maybe it was a hallucination; many disease processes can cause flashes of light to appear.  Maybe it was a conspiracy.  Maybe it was wishful thinking.  Maybe it was an unsolvable mystery. In any case, they would see no reason to trust their sense of sight, especially when it seemed completely uncorroborated by hearing, touch, or common sense.

In fact, some people might have been born blind, and others might never have figured out how to open their eyes.  Some people's eyes might have atrophied.  Some of those people might believe it anyway.

Studies might be devised to see if consistent exposure to the light could cause any heat changes in a material.  Results would be mixed and probably not very impressive, and the methodology would be questioned extensively. Scientists would show that exposure to the light causes certain brain changes that are also observed under such-and-such other conditions.  They would show that people seem genetically programmed to see the light.
People would use the light and the perceived lack of light as excuses to indulge various hideous parts of themselves and as inspiration to do great things.
But the light would remain, and the sensation of sight would remain, and the objections would remain, and the arguments would remain.

This is how I see humanity.  We were born into a physical world.  But part of us responds to something that is not of the physical world.  This is why the vast majority of the people who have ever lived have believed in a spiritual reality.

One interesting part of this metaphor is that it illustrates how sincerely sympathetic I am to atheists, the people who maintain that there is no reason to believe in the pinprick of light far over our heads.  It would probably be the scientists, the academics, the educated people in the metaphor who would have the sense to not accept what they see at face value. I think their position makes sense. I see their point, I understand their reasoning, and I think they're being very smart about the whole thing.  But at the end of the day, I also think they're mistaken.

Some people just don't seem to respond to non-material things at all, like people in the metaphor who are blind.  The other failure of this metaphor is that a light is non-personal and has no way of knowing of or caring about the people in the dark.  Most world religions, on the other hand, believe in a much more personal being.  In the metaphor and in real life, I hope and believe that those who simply cannot see the light will not be punished for it.  Same thing for those who ignore the light without malice, from a genuine desire for truth.

This is why I believe in God.  I am one of those people who sees the light and is moved to tears by it.  I see in the light something from beyond the physical world, something that transcends reason, and something that offers a way to know truth that does not depend on reason.  This something just might be the answer to the fatal flaws in reason that I mentioned in Sirens of Insanity.

Take my belief for what it is worth, and do what you will with the light.  But just in case, don't keep your eyes shut.  It takes practice to learn how to focus them.  Don't give up.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hi, everyone!

I'm in the middle of block week (that is, six exams in five days), so I don't have much to say right now.

I'm writing to give a heads-up that I do have stuff to say after block week.  I've had some thoughts and experiences I want to share.

So thanks for reading, and have a lovely week.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Penguin's Life

Do you ever see something and just get wowed by what you saw?  That happened to me at least a half-dozen times in the last half hour.

This video is long (about 33 minutes).  But it's worth it.  You're probably going to watch at least an hour of TV this week.  Make some time for me and watch this.

You don't have to agree.  Just see the connections and think it through. That's all I'm asking.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Sirens of Insanity (or, Why I Believe in God)

Hello, everyone.  I have a problem when it comes to thinking about my faith.

One thing theists and atheists have always seemed to agree on is the idea that a person ought to believe what he does for a reason.  Everyone agrees on this so strongly that no one I have ever met seems to question it at all; the idea of supported, reasonable belief is so obvious that no one even discusses it.

Yet I am not convinced.

(I see the irony of such an inquiry into the reasonableness of reason itself.  If I claim that I do not believe in reason, then I will have to stop trying to support my claims at all, it seems.  To do so would require reason.  But I will make an attempt.)

The universe is full of matter and energy and things behaving in certain ways and causing other things to behave in their ways.  Understanding the goings-on of this universe requires some investigation and learning.  But something with a brain can start to notice patterns and see causes and effects, then use this to predict what will happen under similar patterns and with similar causes.  This thinking is not always a higher-level or conscious function.  Ants manage to carry things (largely by instinct), which requires some instinctive understanding of physics.  They know, consciously or not, that if they pick something up and walk, the thing will accompany them.
  However, if you put them in an area outside their experience, their conclusions about the world do not pan out.  An ant would become as profoundly frustrated as an ant-brain can be by a laser point, which would probably appear as a thing to be picked up but would defy all attempts at carrying it.  (Even cats do not understand that a laser point is not a real object, as many funny Youtube videos will demonstrate.)

In fact, an ant's brain may or may not be capable of understanding the concept of something like a laser point that appears real but is not.  (Perhaps they are; surely somewhere in their instinct is experience with points of light on a jungle floor, for example.  But the idea remains whether they do or do not understand laser points, specifically.)  My point is, their brains are simply incapable of understanding very complex concepts.  Their patterning of neurons just cannot deal with some ideas.

The set of things an ant "knows" and finds "logical" might or might not hold if it were moved to a more complex scenario.  For example, an ant "knows" that if it steps off a tree branch, it falls.  If placed in zero-gravity, the ant would not be able to make the leap of understanding and realize that this, too, is logical and reasonable.  The smartest ant that ever lived could not.  Many generations of ants could not.  They would remain befuddled.

The same is true of a cat.  A cat can understand cause-and-effect and even perhaps some emotions.  But it cannot understand calculus.  Cat brains just don't have the wiring to get it.  A cat's brain would not be equipped to handle the dynamics of movement in deep water or in zero gravity; cats are land animals.  Their sense of what is true or logical or reasonable is a product of their evolution and does not encompass all the experiences the universe can offer.

In other words, there are parts of the universe that do not and will not ever make sense to an ant's brain or a cat's brain.  So in essence, my conundrum is this: why are we all then convinced that the universe's workings lie in that narrow range of complexity that a human brain can understand?

The universe clearly is not accessible to an ant's brain, or a cat's brain, or a lobster's brain.  Why do we suppose it is accessible to ours?
It would seem extremely unlikely that the universe is just complex enough to be accessible in its every fact to the brains of the hominids that evolved on the third planet from one of the billions of stars in one of the billions of galaxies that exist. To believe that we will someday understand it all, or ever could, just does not make sense to me.

The implications have shaken me as I have thought them through in the last few months.  If humans cannot understand all things about the universe, then there must exist at least one thing about the universe that will eternally be inscrutable to us no matter how hard we try.
In other words, facts are out there that will always seem wrong and false and illogical to us.  After all, what does it mean when we say that something is logically true?  We mean that we reasoned it out by making logical leap after logical leap, none of which set off the "untrue warning bell" feeling in our brains. Or maybe we simply got the "true" sensation about this particular fact from the beginning.

Where did we get our sense of logic or truth or our untrue warning bell?  Is it not the result of the environment our brains grew up in?

In fact, that is exactly what we have seen.  Our brains evolved in Newtonian mechanics.  But over the last couple of hundred years, small discrepancies started to appear.  Our sensation of "this-is-not-right" began to go off.  With time, we discovered quantum mechanics, a realm of reality that is very much true but very much illogical to us.  Parts of our reasoning, such mathematics, still hold.  But much of it does not.  Particles can pop into and out of existence.  Tunneling can occur. Cause-and-effect breaks down.

My big conundrum is this.  Why are we convinced that we must only believe what is reasonable to us?  Why is our sense of logic the final arbiter in what is and is not true?  Why not decide instead to believe whatever makes sense to a chimp?  Really, why not?  Is it because we believe we are the smartest creatures that could possibly exist? If we do, what are the odds of that, and why do we think so? If we do not, why do we remain convinced that nothing illogical could be true?

When I find myself thinking differently from other people, particularly if we seem to be talking past each other or if it seems like we are speaking different languages, I find that I am either completely on the wrong track or really on to something.  

So here I am, befuddled by my own brain's insistence that I rationalize my belief in God.  I think I can.  I've tried before with some success.  But why must I?  That's my question.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Little Penguin that Could

Hello, everyone!  I so much appreciate all the great comments.  You know who you are.

I really, really do not have time to write much.  I'll try to put something on here after my block exams.

Block exams mean four exams in five days.  This happens about every six weeks throughout the first semester of medical school here.  It means pretty much non-stop studying for about a week-and-a-half solid.

But what I really wanted to put on the record here is that I don't mind it.  Medical students told me that they had plenty of time to have lives, that they often took weekends off, and all sorts of associated nonsense.  I don't want to say that to the kids who are interviewing now.  I want to level with them.

"Listen, guys.  Medical school is hard.  You will learn more facts than you thought possible in less time than you thought possible.  It will take at least 60 or 65 hours per week of your time in classes, labs, and studying. You really can't do it in much less time than that; if you do, you're doing it wrong.  No way around it.
"And putting in that much work would be really painful and awful... if this were not exactly what we want with our lives.  It's so exciting to learn it all.  So yes, medical school is as hard as everyone says.   But it's also as great as everyone says."

I find myself gladly making sacrifices I would have begrudged in college.  Just like waiting for a stranger is annoying but waiting for the person you love is oddly a pleasure, sacrificing for medical school is gladly done.

Have a good week!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

During my White Coat ceremony, physicians put our pretty, fresh white coats on us for the first time.  These are the coats we ordered months ago and lusted over months before that when we first interviewed here.  When we put on the coat and took the Hippocratic Oath, we joined the profession of medicine.  Never mind that we don't know squat yet.  We are now part of the tribe.

But that's not really what I wanted to talk about, so let's talk about humanism.

We also received little gold pins to wear on our white coats for the ceremony.  They were supposed to embody the ideals of compassion and humanity in medicine, but unfortunately what they actually said was, "Humanism in Medicine".  I don't think that word means what you think it means.

I take sharp issue with humanism, so I wore the pin for the sake of symmetry and such during the ceremony and promptly removed it afterward.

Humanism can mean lots of things, but usually it involves a focus on human ethics, purpose, and reason.  It usually also involves (to some degree) some sense that humanity can and should achieve our highest purpose: to become more human, fully human, perhaps ├╝ber-human.  In essence, it's a strong focus squarely on humans.

I was homeschooled, so while certain things may have been lacking my education, an introduction to important world philosophies most certainly was not.  Since I first read about what humanism was, when it arose, and what it means, I have come to believe that humanism is perhaps the single most harmful and potentially dangerous idea in the world.

Humanism elevates humanity as our own ideal.  Man becomes man's own hero.  This idea really came into its own during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.  It drenches the art and music of the period.  It runs throughout the great philosophical works of the time.  It even has fingers in the Reformation and the economic theories of the day.
But I'm no historian, so I'll make only one example.

This is Michelangelo's David, perhaps the most famous statue in the world.  It is easy to see David as a representation of King David from the Bible, and perhaps in some way he is.  However, that figure is not King David's in one notable way: the figure is uncircumcised.

So what is David?  I'll leave the details of the case to the art historians, but some now believe that David was a statement of utter human perfection and of the perfection of humanity.  He towers over the onlooker, and such extraordinary detail and attention has been paid to his every line and feature. Michelangelo was one of the great humanists of the Renaissance, and this was one of his crowning works.

Look for humanism, and see if you can't find it in every seam, every pore, every mindless and intentional action of our society.  We arose from the Renaissance, and it shows. It pervades the fabric of our society, integral and invisible at the same time.  It is so universal in the modern world that it can be difficult to describe what it is.   If you're interested, get yourself a copy of Francis Schaeffer's How Should We Then Live, which chronicles the rise of Western thought and how it influenced the modern world.  (I can't vouch for absolutely everything Schaeffer says, but the historical aspects of the book are excellent.)

I've heard the case made elsewhere that the average Christian thinks like a humanist, not because he wants to, but simply because of the world he lives in.

Let's go a little deeper.  I tend to think of the Biblical Fall as a metaphorical, symbolic description of an actual event that happened in some way, in some sense when human beings first became conscious. 

So is humanism perhaps the oldest lie of all?  How it ingrains itself into us!  How we carry it from birth!  Is this the echo of Adam's sin? Was that our sin: taking into ourselves the knowledge of good and evil, trying to make it part of us, to be found within us?  
This is how I see humanism when its trappings are stripped away: "... you will be like God, knowing good from evil..." 

Humanism is believing that we are god.  Isn't this the root of every sin - that we believe we are god?  Is it not simply a claim to be greater, to know more, to be more perceptive than God?

Is it not the root of our suffering?  How could we possibly be content or at peace while engulfed in such a glaring inconsistency as the delusion that we are god in a universe in which the deepest truth is that God is God?  Is not the source of our deep discontent exactly that we want to be god, believe we are, and yet the universe does not obey our will?  Do we not suffer because we want and do not have, because we lack and cannot fulfill ourselves?  We continue in this delusion that we are god, and the incongruities sting.

We tire, we ache, we hunger, we age.  A god does none of that, so we are frustrated and painfully perplexed.  But who has ever heard of a god who is perplexed?  This is another fresh source of misery.

Then we rage that the true God does not end our pain, stop our dying, and explain our confusion.  In other words, we rage at God for not making us gods.

When I look deep inside myself, I see this so clearly.  I want to be god.  This is my true nature.

So is my fall not of my own doing, when my soul utterly rejected God's supremacy?  What is Hell but having one's deepest longing most absolutely thwarted?  What is Hell but a being who longs for nothing more in all the universe but to be god, but knowing full well that it most certainly is not and never shall be?

Yet I cannot free myself of it!  Some part of me longs to be god so deeply that it believes the delusion that it is.  Yet having my deepest-held beliefs blatantly shattered every day is agonizing. Who will save me from this body of death?

This is just my late-night musings, and only that.  I'm just another human being, and a young one at that.  But this is what I wonder about.

Last thought of the day -
What, then, does it mean that now we eat the Body and Blood of God, by God's own command?  When God became man, a way was provided to free man from his delusion of being god.  Is Eucharist the antidote to the clutches of humanism?

Inspired by:

Friday, August 19, 2011

Why I Stink

The blogposts about my travels are going to be on hold for a while.  I would love to write more about them, but I simply, honestly, truly don't have time.

I started medical school on Monday, and I do not want to miss the opportunity to write about that.  Also, I no longer have anywhere near as much time as I did.

Since it's Friday, I'll do Seven Quick Takes about Medical School, in honor of Jen at Conversion Diary.

I'm in medical school!  I have this realization every few hours and think once again how very lucky I am.  My dream is happening, and it's wonderful.

Medical school is hard.  

This semester, I am taking Biochemistry, Developmental Anatomy, Gross Anatomy, and Histology. This translates roughly to: 
Biochemistry - 
Chemistry on steroids and chemistry OF steroids,

Developmental Anatomy (aka "Devo") - 
A Baby Story: the Little Blastocyst That Could, 

Gross Anatomy -  
There are twelve thoracic vertebrae.  Each has two costal facets that articulate with the ribs.  These sit superior and anterior to the pedicle and lamina, which form the intervertebral fosamina, through which run the spinal nerves.  The greater dorsal nerve runs distally to the suboccipital triangle, made of the rectus capitis posterior major muscle, the obliquus capitis superior muscle, and the obliquus capitis inferior muscle.  The transverse process of the atlas runs laterally through the triangle, just inferior to the vertebral artery and the suboccipital nerve.
Didn't know this?  Neither did I, two days ago.  

Histology (aka "Histo") - 

The medical students I've met are uniformly brilliant, dedicated, and hardworking.  It's fun to be in class and know everyone there cares just as much as you do and is studying every bit as hard.

Much of what I learned in college about how to learn is wrong.  Well, it's right if you're studying math.  But it's not right if you're studying medicine.
Studying math is like trying to uproot a tree.  You have to know the layout and understand the theory of trees and think really hard and have the right tools, and then in a burst of effort, the tree comes out.
Studying medicine is more like finding that 10,000 weeds have popped up in your yard.  You work really hard and pull up all the ones you can find, trying to get the roots out but not spend too much time on any one.  The next morning, there are 10,000 weeds in your yard...

So I'm not doing as well as I thought I would.  My brain is honed to learn mathematics.  I'm counting on the flexibility of the human brain to let me rewire things posthaste. 

Being allowed to dissect a human cadaver is a supreme privilege like no other.  It's a tremendous honor to be allowed this form of intimacy with this person's body that even she never had.  

It's also a fantastic way to learn.

Being allowed to dissect a human cadaver makes you reek.  I've dedicated a set of scrubs and the lab coat they gave us to just gross anatomy lab.  When I'm not wearing them, they live in a sealed trash bag in my locker at the school.  
I don't think I can do much to get that smell out of my hair, though.

Medical school is taking my life from me completely.  I've abandoned hobbies, down time, and socializing to keep up with it.  
But I can give up those things.  I just can't give up medicine.  It's an easy trade.

Have a good weekend, everyone!

Friday, August 5, 2011

A Little Penguin's Hard Choice


As promised, here I will tell you what happens when we run out of medicine.

But first, giraffes!

The third day we were in Galana Ranch, our host arranged a treat for us after work.

So after we finished clinic for the day, our group piled into our Land Cruiser and Land Rover and set off across the African savannah.

One of our noble steeds

Looking over the top of the truck

We drove off the road for at least fifteen minutes with the general feeling that this was going to be a long, disappointing trek of nothingness while we were hungry and tired.  We saw a few DLA's and maybe a rabbit, but that was it.

Suddenly, the oldest Kenyan guide peered at the horizon ahead and shouted something to the driver.  The driver turned the truck away from the mountain and began cautiously steering the truck through the brush.  Occasionally we would stop and the Africans would peer intensely at various places on the horizon, then we would set off again.

I couldn't see anything.  There were a few tan-colored boulders up ahead, but nothing terribly exciting. 

Then one of them moved.

What I thought were boulders were elephants.  Massive, gentle, and beautiful, they stood in a group and eyed us warily.  A group of zebras stayed with them.

We even saw ostriches!

Here we were, deep in the African savannah, on safari.  There was one more animal in particular I wanted to see.  The elephants and zebras and ostriches had been so amazing, more than I'd ever hoped to see in my life. 

But I wanted so much to see a giraffe.  By this time, it was getting dark, but our guides decided to show us one more place where we just might see some wildlife.

We drove to a sheltered area near the mountain, and there they were.

Our pictures barely turned out, but we saw giraffes.  They were gorgeous, graceful, and timid.  They generally did not let us get very close to them, sauntering on as a herd whenever we approached.  But they were spectacular, and I'll never forget how they looked in the waning evening.

Later in the trip, we got up early before clinic and detoured to a spot on the river where hippos were known to congregate.  We kept our distance; hippopotamuses kill more people in Africa every year than any other animal.  One of our group recalled seeing a video (which I can't find right now; sorry) of a hippopotamus absolutely demolishing a Jeep.

These pictures use a lot of zoom; we were not this close.

This was an amazing way to start our last day of clinic.

Our last day of clinic ended on a much heavier note, however.

The last day of work at any given place on a medical trip like this involves some heart-wrenching rationing.  We cannot see everyone.  We moved into aggressive triage, where the nurses would send only the most complex cases to the doctors.  Most people were simply given vitamins and pain medication and a kind smile.
When we no longer have time to do even that, we each grab several packages of vitamins, parasite medication, and Tylenol and start giving them to people. Nothing could have prepared me for the reality of holding this medication and having to choose who it went to.  The ten-year-old or the sixty-year-old?  The sick baby or the nursing mother?  The working father or the growing child?

This is what happens when we run out of medicine, and it's heartbreaking.

On the way back to Malindi from Galana Ranch, one of the sweet young ladies on our trip got to talking with our guide, who told her that the whole Galana region was going into drought and devastating famine. 
Shocked, she looked up. "So what will happen to those people we saw?"

"Many will lose everything they have, and many will die." 

I'm a bit glad I only learned this after we left, not while we were still meeting people and playing with the beautiful children.  But this still haunts me after nearly two months.  I try to remember that we improved these people's health and gave them the best possible chance to withstand the famine.  At the end of the day, however, I simply have to offer up a prayer for them and try to get some sleep.

Next time: the last of Kenya and walking into a whole new world.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Little Penguin and the Poor Goats


I have a bit of free time, so I'll proceed to write about our first week in Kenya.  We spent the first few days traveling.  British Airways treated us with the typical British courtesy.  It was the best treatment I've ever received on an airplane.  They brought us tea.


Kristi, Pingu, and me on the airplane
This thing was on the back of the seat in
front of each passenger.  We could watch as
our plane passed Greenland, or crossed into
England.  Awesome.

Finally, we arrived in Kenya.  I definitely had to remind myself that this was not Houston, Texas.  We were in KENYA.

I kept thinking things along the lines of, "Whoa, we are in Kenya, guys. Like really really.  This is Kenya. See that tarmac? That is Kenyan tarmac..."

Our team was split into two groups.  My group (of about fifteen: two doctors, two nurses, four medical students, and various administrative people and translators) left Malindi and traveled to Galana Ranch.  Malindi is along the eastern coast, so it's lush and green.  But Galana Ranch is further west into the savannah, and that area was rather dry.  
We traveled in a mutatu, which is a safari van.  We were told it would be a two-hour drive, roughly.  I failed to anticipate that "two-hour drive" does not mean two hours of interstate highway.  It means two hours of this:

(Not our photo)

It was fun, nevertheless.  I kept looking around, as we left the city and passed into native villages with mud huts, and thinking that this was very nearly the "human wild-type".  Human beings are thought to have evolved in Africa.  It was really interesting to "get back to our roots", so to speak.  

Eventually, we arrived at our tent camp.  Galana Ranch is a government-owned game preserve, containing something like 1.6 million acres of land.  The administrative area has a dispensary for the park employees, which is where we would be working.  Several tribes live in the preserve, and we saw mostly people from those tribes.  
Every day, we drove about 40 minutes from our tent camp to the administrative center.  We rode in the back end of a Land Cruiser, which was bumpy but afforded us a great opportunity to talk and get to know each other.  

Wazungu in the back of the Land Cruiser

We also got to see plenty of wildlife.  We saw so many impalas, dik-diks, and similar creatures that we took to calling them DLA's: deer-like animals.

Two DLA's (deer-like animals)
We also got to see warthogs, monkeys, and lots of birds.

We ate all our meals in the house of a local official named Jerma.  He treated us like kings in every way, even bringing in a nationally-renowned chef to cook for us.   

The second day, the tribe we were treating was so grateful that they gave us two goats in thanks.

We ate goat stew with rice, chapatis, and cabbage for lunch and supper every day we were there.  With meals and in the afternoons, they brought us chai tea made with goat milk.  We were all very, very tired of goat stew (and of African food in general) after the third or fourth time, but still felt like honored guests.  The natives might only have meat once or twice per month.  In their kindness, these people provided our group with roasted, stewed goat twice a day for a week. 

Jerma's house was along the Galana River, and the views were breathtaking in every direction.

The first day we arrived, while waiting for lunch to finish cooking, they called us over to the river's edge.  The park guards went right down to the bank and began whistling and beating on the bank with a fresh goat skin.

A few feet offshore, something began moving in the river.  They pointed it out to us, and told us this was the mamma, the second-largest of the family.

She approached frighteningly fast, climbing up the bank.  They threw bits of goat skin to her, which she eyed carefully and snatched in a lightening-fast motion.

They even gave her whole legs, which she crushed with her jaws and swallowed.

They called her Mrs. Gibson, and she was an African crocodile.  Her legs, as you can see, are so powerful; she could propel herself up the bank in no time at all.  

Her mate and baby remained in the river for the most part, but this amazing "calling of the crocodile" was repeated almost every day.  We eventually saw all three crocodiles come up the bank at different times.

We waited safely on a rock outcropping during this display.  None of us got very close to the river.

The medical work was the most memorable part of the trip, however.  We had to work through translators, sometimes one who translated English to Swahili, then another who translated Swahili to the tribal languages.  Most of the complaints were very similar: muscle and joint aches from carrying heavy loads (and heavy babies) over long distances, parasites, infected wounds or bug bites, and sinus problems due to the smoke from indoor cooking fires.  We gave them what we had and arranged surgeries in Malindi where we could.
I spent most of my time taking vitals.  But I also got to float, working wherever people were piling up. This enabled me to see the pharmacy work, the blood tests, and the doctors' work.
Dad eventually took to calling me the "Rocephin Queen" because I gave so many injections of Rocephin, a powerful antibiotic.

Thanks to some dedicated mentors, I learned more medicine this trip than I ever have on a mission trip.   I got to listen to a fetal heartbeat and feel the baby's head.

Dad showed me a case of elephantiasis.  Elephantiasis is an incredibly rare parasitic disease in the United States, so much so that most physicians will never see a case of it in real life. Luckily, it's easily treated.
Elephantiasis in right leg

Probably a parasitic infection.  This
parasite may or may not have ever been
described by modern medicine.

These are people from the tribe waiting after being seen
to walk back to their village.
We treated a lion bite.  The man inadvertently herded his goats into the lion's territory.  His back had some deep scars where the lion attacked him.  The locals said that if the lion had wanted to hurt him, he'd be dead.  Apparently, the lion only wanted to give a warning.

Next time: giraffes, and what it means when we run out of medicine.

Thanks for reading!

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Adventures of a Little Penguin

Jambo, good day, bonjour, buon giorno, and hello!

Thank you for all the good wishes while I was traveling.  It meant so much to get to leave with such encouragement and support.

One of the objects of my time abroad was solitude, so I corresponded very little with anyone and posted nothing here.  But now that I am back, I hope to write a bit about where I was and what I saw.  I hope to provide those curious with the stories and pictures.  I also want to share my experience and advice with anyone who plans a trip like mine.

Here is where I went.

Where I Went:
(with medical mission team from Lubbock, Texas)
June 4 --- Home - Dallas, Texas - Houston
June 5 --- London, England - Nairobi, Kenya
June 6 --- Nairobi, Kenya - Malindi, Kenya
June 7 --- Galana Ranch, Kenya
June 8 --- Galana Ranch, Kenya
June 9 --- Galana Ranch, Kenya
June 10 --- Galana Ranch - Malindi, Kenya
June 11 --- Malindi, Kenya
June 12 --- Malindi, Kenya
June 13 --- Malindi, Kenya - Mshongoleni, Kenya
June 14 --- Malindi, Kenya - Mshongoleni, Kenya
June 15 --- Malindi, Kenya - Mshongoleni, Kenya
June 16 --- Malindi, Kenya - Mshongoleni, Kenya
June 17 --- Malindi, Kenya - Mshongoleni, Kenya
June 18 --- Malindi - Nairobi - London
(with Dad and family friend)
June 19 --- London
(only with Pingu, my stuffed penguin)
June 20 --- London
Pingu at DFW airport
Pingu at Buckingham Palace during the Changing of the Guard
Pingu and Buckingham Palace

June 21 --- London - Portsmouth, England - Caen, France
June 22 --- Caen - Paris - Lourdes, France
June 23 --- Lourdes - Nice, France
June 24 --- Nice - Ventimiglia, Italy - Genova, Italy
June 25 --- Genova - Rome, Italy
June 26 --- Rome
June 27 --- Rome
June 28 --- Rome
June 29 --- Rome
June 30 --- Rome
July 1 --- Rome - Milan, Italy
July 2 --- Paris, France
July 3 --- Paris - Calais, France - Dover, England
July 4 --- Dover - London
July 5 --- London - Houston, Texas
July 6 --- Houston - Dallas - Home

All told, this is a distance of about 36,000 kilometers, roughly 4000 kilometers short of the circumference of the Earth.  I am not, of course, in the running for "furthest distance in a single trip".  That belongs to those who flew to the moon, which is nearly 400,000 km!

My dad and I laughed a good deal over our boarding passes:

According to British Airways, I am Sarah, WORLD TRAVELLER.

My grand overseas adventure was actually two separate trips, put end to end.  The Kenya trip was a medical mission trip organized by Monterrey Church of Christ in Lubbock, Texas.  We spent two weeks providing medical care to the Kenyan people.  This trip alone was life-altering.
In the months before the trip, I noticed that our connecting flight was through London.  I began to think about postponing our trip back and spending a day in London with my dad.  This evolved into spending a couple more weeks in London after that.  At the suggestion of my mum, this then evolved into traveling about Europe. It seemed silly to pay for the flight across the Atlantic Ocean and then never do anything.
Thus, a solo trip through Europe was added at the end of the Kenya trip.

I hope to write about everything I saw and did.  But for readability's sake, I will plan to break the account up into more manageable pieces and post it a bit at a time.

So this is where I have been.  I picked up words in four languages in four weeks and saw bits of culture and history that blew my mind.

Next time: Kenya, Galana Ranch, and extensive musings on stewed goat.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


Hello, everyone.

Starting this Friday, I will not be posting much here until I return to the United States in early July.  I am a bit terrified; prayers are greatly appreciated.

However, I would like to say a few things before I leave.

I'm a Catholic.  It feels very strange to stand out so sharply from all the people back in my hometown.  It feels very strange to see old acquaintances at Mass, wondering if I should say something explanatory or just let it slide.  It feels very strange to rush in late to my parents' church's service, fresh from Mass, just trying to be quiet (and to not genuflect or cross myself at any point).

A gentle peace has come over me.  Normally, going back to my parents' house is very difficult for me. It tends to draw me into an immaturity I thought I'd left behind. It's been a bit easier this time, though.  Going through with my conversion, an act so blatantly contrary to their wishes, has set me free in many ways.  Graduating has probably helped as well.  In ways I don't begin to understand, the grace of the Eucharist seems to almost carry me.  I'm not sure why I'm surprised; that's what the Sacraments do, after all.  I wish so much I could give that grace to the people I love, but I can't think of a gracious way to say it without watering it down.

I remain as convinced as ever that this is the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me.   It's a strange state of thankful incredulity.  Such a wonderful gift has been given to me!  Why has the Lord God chosen this, and this to me?  Why me?

Now, switching gears completely...

I am getting quite incredibly excited about my birds.  I am planning to get one or two parakeets when I get back.

These are parakeets:
They are also known as budgerigars, or just budgies.

Budgies are incredibly social animals, known to form deep attachments to their lifelong mates. They are very intelligent creatures with a sweet disposition.

Originally from Australia, budgies in the wild live in enormous flocks.  Despite their highly social nature, among themselves they are purported to have no pecking order or sense of rank.  This is highly bizarre to me, as I've never known a species that had no sense of rank.  Dogs, cats, most birds, and even humans do.

But anyway, I love birds very, very much.  Budgies are easy to care for and make good first-time birds.  I plan to eventually have at least two, as a solitary budgie will probably be unhappy. (Keeping one is not too awful, if you can provide the many hours' worth of daily social interaction the birds require.  If you have two, however, they are much happier and do not rely on you to act as their flock.)

So yes, I am very much looking forward to having goofiness of this nature in my abode next year.

Please say prayers that we are all safe!  God be with you.

Monday, May 9, 2011


Today I'm studying at the library and will be pretty much all day.

As the moments I have left in college wind down, the worth left in each one seems to condense.  They all pass with a deep thump of some significance, and I feel the time slipping away acutely.

This was supposed to be the best time of my life.  Is it really just downhill from here?  If this was the best, where do I go from here?

All my life, I was raised to look towards college like many girls look towards their weddings.  When I came home sad because I'd been snubbed at school, or when I opened with, "Guess what, Mom?!  Guess what we learned!!!", I was always comforted and encouraged with,
"Wait until you get to college."

And it was magical in every way, completely full of all the things I'd wanted it to be.  (I had hoped to be planning a wedding at this point.  But that was not to be, and probably for the best.)

But now it's over.  Where do we go from here?

Soon it will be finished, and then I'll feel it all slip away.  When it's gone, I'll look up and try to figure out where I am and what's left.  But I don't want to move on a minute too soon.  As long as I'm still here, I want to keep it close and cherish it.

It's a precarious balance, but I feel nothing else will do.

I've been thinking about the song I linked a lot today.  For some reason, it seems appropriate.  It's about the end of Eva Peron's life, when her illness leaves her of little use to her husband and political partner, Juan Peron.  Thank you for giving me a chance to say the things I was concealing.  God be with you.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Raindrops on Roses, Whiskers on Kittens, Bright Copper Kettles, Confession

Today I went to Confession for the second time.  I know, I just went before Easter.  But I feel I should err on the side of more frequently, at least at first.  I am still a young penguin in the faith.

(Really I just wanted an excuse to put a baby penguin on my blog.)

The two times I've been to Confession, it's been a profoundly beautiful experience.  I've dreaded it both times, waiting in the line with my heart pounding.  Both times, I've left with an overwhelming sense of gratitude.

The examination of conscience does a lot.  I think through my life, going over the Ten Commandments guide in my booklet, and try to think about the times I'd rather forget.  It's a process of opening myself up, and every new memory of sin that emerges crushes me in its own small way.
But in the weirdest way, being crushed bit by bit is wonderful.  I find a quiet rest in realizing that I am not good, but God is.  Comparing myself to God during an examination of conscience produces both the painful realization of how base I am and the glorious realization of how good God is.

Then I drive to the church and wait in the chapel.  That is, I look up at the crucifix, with images of the stations of the cross all around me, and hold a list of my sins in my hand.  I know what is about to happen; that's why I drove across town to be here.  I'm about to be absolved of my sins.
But in those quiet moments, it sinks in how and why and by Whom my sins are forgiven.

Both times, the priest was nicer than I had expected.  Maybe he's just bored, but he's kind and patient and does not reply, "You did what?!?!" or "Oh, is that all?" He may be making faces at me behind the screen; I do not know.  At that point, I do not care.

Then he gives me absolution.  But the priest himself does not forgive my sin.  He also gives me my penance.  But my penance does not forgive my sin.  Jesus Christ forgives my sin, and as I left the confessional, I was once again overwhelmed by the mercy that had been shown me.  At that point, little is on my mind except, "Thank You.  Thank You.  Thank You..."

And then I do my penance, and I have just received one of the Sacraments of the Catholic Church.  I've been humbled by my penance, thinking, "But Jesus was crucified for me.  All I have to do is ____?"  But in God's wonderful way, it's not about me.  If it were, I might start thinking I'd earned it.  My penances have also both surprised me in how relevant and effective they were.  For example, this time, I was given a prayer by St. Augustine to meditate on.  The priest had no way of knowing that I'm named after St. Augustine and find his work inspiring.  Yet there the prayer was in my hands, reaching out to me and wrapping in new and beautiful ways around my soul.
We are Easter people and Alleluia is our song.  Let us sing "Alleluia" here and now in this life, so that we may sing it one day in the world to come, when we are set free.
How happy will be our shout of "Alleluia" as we enter heaven, how carefree, how secure from any assault, where no enemy lurks and no friend dies.
Advance in virtue, in true faith, and in right conduct.  Sing up!
 I wondered on the way in how I ever lived without Confession.  Confession is a "Catholic thing", but I'm starting to see the beauty of it, the benefits of it.  Far from tying me down to lists of my sins, Confession is so freeing.  It appears that God in His wisdom recognized that the girl who can't remember to take medication without helpful little boxes might need a Sacrament to remember His mercy.

I want this for my loved ones.  I'm toying with the idea of suggesting some of the aspects of Confession to my closest friends and family.  Even just writing down my sins is spiritually helpful to me.  Even just bringing them up is therapeutic.  I think confessing them explicitly to God would be beneficial, and knowing that the price has been paid for that sin, specifically, could be life-changing.  It has been for me.  (Of course, I feel there is an even better solution, but won't bring that up to them.)

In any case, I'm beginning to feel about Confession as Jen Fulwiler did: "I can't believe this is free!"

(I'm smiling now, because when I went to get that link, I noticed what else she said about Confession: I don't see how people live without the sacrament of Confession.  I'm glad I'm not the only one.)

God is good.