Where should we take you?

Years ago, when I started working with homeless cancer survivors in Birmingham, Rachael Martin, then-associate pastor at Church of the Reconciler, shared something with me that I’ll never forget. She said that when a homeless person needed immediate medical attention and an ambulance driver asked her where to take the individual, she always aimed high.

“They’re more likely to get better care at a place like UAB,” she told me, than at one of the less funded hospitals with fewer well-trained medical personnel on staff in the city. Rachael’s thinking was that even if a person lacking the necessary health benefits couldn’t stay at a more selective facility and had to be moved eventually, the initial triage care would be better and therefore boost the patient’s chances of getting the right diagnosis and initial care–and ultimately, of survival.

Today, a New York Times article reports on a study in PLoS that adds support to Rachael’s logic.  According to the researchers, patients at less credible institutions were “three times more likely to die” and a whopping “13 times more likely to [suffer from] medical complications” than those who were taken to the best facilities. The full article and link to the published study can be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/14/business/hospitals-death-rates-quality-vary-widely.html?emc=edit_th_20161216&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=44005038&_r=0

Maybe those in need of medical attention need to replace “Take me to the hospital” with “Take me to that hospital.” Unfortunately, for many of the least advantaged in our society, the question “Where should we take you?” is never asked.

My 2nd Act on New Focus Network

The documentary series focusing on My 2nd Act productions in different cities is soon to hit New Focus Network, which will carry the stories of female cancer survivors into viewers’ homes.

According to the following announcement, the Birmingham show in which I participated will follow the debut in the series focusing on women in the Raleigh, North Carolina production.

Let’s go, ladies!

https://t.e2ma.net/message/bm57db/76ytd5

“Am I gonna believe all them bad things?”

Last night, I re-watched The Help, one of my favorite movies about the treatment of Black maids in Jackson, Mississippi during the early 1960s–and the fiery truth-telling words some of those maids with the help of a brave journalist hurled back into the white community.

My movie selection was the right one for the moment. Call it Kairos. For two reasons.

First, I’m at a point in Unlikely Sisters, my memoir about my friendship with fellow breast cancer survivor Edwina Sanders, where I’m trying–somewhat artificially–to capture the baggage of growing up African American in Birmingham, Alabama. Edwina has a talent for describing her life in vivid language, but the fact is that I’m an educated white girl with little firsthand experience with prejudice–at least, of the racial kind. While Edwina’s life was just beginning in the early 60s, the same time period reflected in The Help, her momma and daddy (and their mommas and daddies) endured the kind of ridicule and humiliation that the characters in the film brought to life. And in 2016, I see the remnants of that history, when Edwina accompanies me to a place that caters to a middle class, predominantly white clientele. Edwina told me once that a store I’d taken her into would normally stop her at the door to check her bags or keep a watchful eye on her as she walked around inside.

But the scene from the film that really captivated me was an exchange between the main character, Skeeter, a white woman who ultimately captures the stories of the help in writing, and the maid who raised her, Constantine. We see Skeeter as a teenager sitting outside of her house crying, telling Constantine that she hadn’t been invited to the high school dance, that the boys in her school think she’s ugly. It’s an insult that stings given Skeeter’s mom’s legacy as a beauty queen and all-around popular girl in her hometown.

Listening intently, Constantine reminds Skeeter to ask a key question Constantine has taught her to rely on when hurtful words are sent her way: “Am I gonna believe all them bad things them fools say about me today?” The answer, of course, is no.

Lately, I’ve needed a bit of Constantine’s wisdom. I’m one of five rhetoric scholars in a department of literature folks and I’m frequently reminded of the need to justify the work that I do. I’m all about doing the rhetorical footwork to find an audience for my words and to craft those words (and occasionally, images) in a way that resonates with my readers.

Sometimes, though, I’m confronted by those who don’t understand the power of effectively placed public prose, or the painstaking research that goes into such pieces. Too often, I think, many of my colleagues look at my journalistic work and see fluff–not the hours of interviews; reading of scientific research reports, health data and policy statements; stacks of correspondence with key sources; and most importantly, the continuous refining of language (i.e., multiple drafts) to present my work in the most digestible and credible way.

So, am I gonna believe all them bad (assumptions) them fools throw my way?

I think not.

Mad Science

Today’s New York Times reports on risks arising from an approach for addressing cancer that’s been considered one of the most promising therapies in decades: immunotherapy.

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/03/health/immunotherapy-cancer.html?emc=edit_th_20161204&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=44005038&_r=0

When I attended the Annual Meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research a few years ago, reports on the remarkable results of immunotherapy studies were everywhere. That same year, the publication Science named immunotherapy the most promising cancer advancement of the year.

While oncologists and cancer researchers are hesitant to use the word “cure,” more than one expert referred to immunotherapy as the closest to such an outcome they’d seen. While the treatment was (and continues to be) exceedingly expensive, and thus accessible only to a few, researchers had discovered that the immune system “remembers” what cancerous cells look like. As a result, the system responds to uncontrolled cancer replication and the tricky ways in which cancer cells mutate to stay ahead of therapies before the changes happen.

Now, though, the potential drawbacks to the science behind immunotherapy are becoming evident. Tampering with the immune system to make it resistant to whatever ill might come its way can also cause it to attack healthy cells and systems.

As I read the article in the NYT, the phrase “mad science” came to mind. When a finding seems too good to be true, sometimes it is–it just takes time to discover the downside to progress.

I’m hoping that researchers will figure out how to retain the promises of immunotherapy while avoiding the detriments.

Back at the Coop with Edwina

On Thursday, I met Edwina for her doctor’s appointment at Cooper Green, this time with her primary care physician Dr. Hamby. While Edwina hasn’t been feeling well in recent months–during which she’s taken several trips to the emergency room, some in ambulances–she looked happy and healthy.

Edwina, smiling in pink

Edwina, smiling in pink at the Coop.

Edwina was in a great mood, despite her aches and pains.

She asked me to help her send a form to somebody who “was gonna help get [her] some glasses like the ones you wear, Miss Rayan,” so I took a picture of the form and sent it on its way.

We talked about her son, Steve, who seems to be staying out of trouble, and her husband, Tyrone, who can’t say the same.

I filled Edwina in on the trials I’ve been experiencing with my family and with work. She listened intently, nodded her head up and down in agreement that times had indeed been tough, and lifted me up when she said that “God be lookin’ over all y’all, Miss Rayan–your momma and your daddy and even your brother.”

We’re heading back to the Coop again the week after Thanksgiving to see Edwina’s pain doctor. In the meantime, Edwina wants to see Madea’s Halloween. If it’s anything like the Christmas movie featuring Madea, it’s sure to be a rocking night out for the two of us.

My 2nd Act hits Birmingham

Check out local television coverage of My 2nd Act, a stage show about cancer survivorship that hit the stage in Birmingham this past Sunday.

http://abc3340.com/news/local/ten-cancer-survivors-telling-their-story-one-city-at-a-time

The show offered an emotional mix of voices and I bonded with some remarkable women, from ages 14 to 72. A televised program featuring the show and the backstories of local survivors will be hitting the air in the months to come. Stay tuned for more!

A long walk

On Monday, I left my office and headed to my car after an exhausting rollercoaster of a day.

My brother, about whom I’ve written many times on this blog, has been a patient in a psychiatric ward for the past several weeks following an unfortunate incident in my hometown. On Monday, I learned that he was to be discharged from the ward and sent to a nursing home for care. I was stunned by the news.

Joe is 56 years old, and while he’s spent decades abusing drugs and alcohol which have taken a serious toll on his health, I never expected him to end up in a nursing home so soon. He’s been in and out of rehab centers, jails and prisons, and homeless shelters much of his life. But a nursing home is another thing altogether, a place people go towards the end of their lives when they can no longer function on their own.

Truth be told, I don’t know with certainty how incapacitated my brother is right now. I hope his stay at a nursing home is driven more by the lack of a space in another sort of facility than a testament to how desperate his situation has become. Still, I couldn’t (and still can’t) stop thinking about how my brother got to this point, about all of the years during which–bit by bit–Joe found himself less capable of pulling himself back up when he hit the pavement.

On my way to my car on Monday, I found myself standing next to a homeless man at a stoplight. He asked me how I was, and while I typically would have offered a brief response and forged on, I turned towards him and locked eyes with the man. He looked to be somewhere in his 50s, and his blonde hair had grown into a long tangle that escaped the sides of his worn baseball cap. His cheeks were red and he carried a strong scent of whiskey on his breath.

He and I walked side-by-side for a couple of blocks until I turned off to find my car. And we chatted, about the weather–“still warm in Birmingham”–the day we’d had and where we were heading to next. The man told me that he had a long walk ahead, since he was “going up to Vulcan, up on top of the mountain,” an uphill climb from where the university sits in the valley.

“Have a good one,” I told him.

“You too, Mam,” He replied.

I climbed into my car, thinking about my brother’s fate and how much the man I’d just met reminded me of a gentler Joe, still wandering to an identifiable destination.