Compassionate, informed advice about healthcare decision making

Archive for July, 2021

Was This My Life or Just My Memory of It?

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Which event seems hardest to believe?

  1. Viewing, in person, liftoff of the Apollo 11-Saturn V rocket headed to the first moon landing.
  2. Viewing, in a theater, the movie 2001 A Space Odyssey.
  3. Viewing, on television, Neil Armstrong walking on the moon.

Watching billionaires launching themselves to the edge of space recently, I couldn’t help but think back to a stretch of five unbelievable days in my youth.

It was summer, 1969. I was going to summer school at the University of Florida, in a last-ditch effort to get my grades up and avoid being drafted with the next stop Vietnam.

I have been a “space race” fan since my earliest remembrances. More than a decade before the moon landing, in 1957, I recall being disappointed in both the failure of the US’s Vanguard rocket and the success of the Soviet’s launching Sputnik.

From our home in Tampa, we could see night launches across the state at “the Cape.” I actually had a goal of becoming an aerospace engineer as I headed off to college. I crashed and burned in my second semester of calculus and conveniently, the Lord called me into the ministry at exactly the same time.

Here’s how I remember the three events.

  • I hitchhiked the 150 miles from Gainesville to Titusville, Florida on Tuesday, July 15. Slept on a concrete picnic table. On Wednesday morning I stood with a million others and watched the launch of the 364-foot Saturn V rocket with three astronauts in the capsule on top.
  • On Saturday, July 19, I went with friends and viewed 2001 A Space Odyssey — pure science fiction, but, perhaps, one of the greatest “space” movies of all time.
  • On Sunday, July 20, I gathered in front of a black-and-white television set with friends and watched Neil Armstrong take “the first step.”

(As I have retold this story for the past 52 years, I always said that the hardest event to believe was actually standing on that causeway in Titusville on Wednesday morning.)

We were ten miles from the launch pad. On the night before the launch, you could clearly see the rocket aglow from flood lights, even from that distatnce. At liftoff, the rocket seemed to move so slowly it looked as if it slipped sideways before picking up speed to clear the tower. I could hear the roar and feel the concussion of the atmosphere on my chest. In moments, it was gone.

To me, the in person rocket launch was the hardest to believe.

Why is “reality” so hard to believe?

Why? I had been raised to see so much fantasy on TV and at the movies that walking on the moon as televised on the small screen and imagining a voyage to Jupiter on a big one seemed quite plausible. But 3,250 tons of metal, fuel, and human flesh being launched into space before my eyes? Not possible. I get the “moon-landing-deniers.” It seems far-fetched.

Am I remembering all this correctly? …What is memory anyway?

Nobel-Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez once wrote, “Life is not what one lived, but how one remembers it.”

You Can’t “Prevent” Alzheimer’s! But You Can “Reduce the Risk!”

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She was the most unhappy, most angry, and most sad dying person I ever worked with as a hospice chaplain.

She thought she had done everything to prevent cancer. She was a “fitness nut.” She meditated. She did yoga. She read books on spiritual and self-help topics. She ate the healthiest of diets. She got cancer anyway.

Once diagnosed, she turned to alternative medicine to save her life. She had heard so much about those miracle cures and she wanted that, too. She doubled down on her lifestyle she had adopted to prevent the cancer in the first place.

She never got to acceptance. In my view, her biggest mistake was believing she could “prevent” cancer rather than just “reduce the risk.” Even nonsmokers can get lung cancer.

Reducing Risk vs. Preventing

I thought of this patient as I was rereading an article I had found helpful about reducing the risk of dementia. I was surprised how it was titled — “The SHIELD Plan to Prevent Dementia.” (I referenced this “plan” in a previous blog about Alzheimer’s.) As with cancer, you can’t totally prevent getting Alzheimer’s. But you can reduce the risk.

Below is Dr. Oz’s spin on the research of Dr. Rudolph Tanzi (I would drop the word “prevent” and call it  The SHIELD Plan to Reduce the Risk of Alzheimer’s):

Sleep — Aim for at least eight hours of sleep each night.

Handle Stress — Tanzi recommends a short, one-minute meditation practice.

Interact With Others — Loneliness can lead to additional stress. Talking with friends and family members requires the brain to pay attention and builds new neural pathways.

Exercise — Walk at least three times a week for 30-45 minutes.

Learn New Things — “Leaning new skills can build new nerve connections that maintain optimal brain health. Try adopting a new hobby, learning a new language, or playing a new musical instrument.”

Diet — Drs. Oz and Tanzi recommend The Mediterranean diet. “On the diet, you’ll eat more fruits and vegetables, nuts and olive oil and then cut back on red meat consumption.”

There you have it.

Collective Effervescence — Welcoming Back the Joy in Crowds

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Laughter is contagious.

Years ago, I was standing at the front of a church leading a bride and groom through their vows on their wedding day. At some point, the bride started to laugh (was it at “for richer or poorer”? I don’t remember). Of course, the groom chuckled, I laughed, and the laughter spread to the congregation. We couldn’t help ourselves.

These thoughts came back to me as I read a recent article in the New York Times, “There’s a Specific Kind of Joy We’ve Been Missing.” Contributor Adam Grant is referring to the joy of being in crowds; a joy we did not experience during the worst of the pandemic.

Grant found this joy at a concert with 15,000 other fans. The same kind of joy I saw in the crowd pressing around Phil Mickelson at the PGA Championship. I talked about getting back together, in person, with my men’s group in one of my short “Hank’s Deep Thoughts” videos.

Here is a little of what Grant had to say about “Collective Effervescence”:

“Research has found that people laugh five times as often when they’re with others than when they’re alone. Even exchanging pleasantries with a stranger on a train is enough to spark joy.… Peak happiness lies mostly in collective activity.

“We find our greatest bliss in moments of collective effervescence. It’s…the sense of energy and harmony people feel when they come together in a group around a shared purpose. Collective effervescence is the synchrony you feel when you slide into rhythm with strangers on a dance floor, colleagues in a brainstorming session, cousins at a religious service or teammates on a soccer field. And during this pandemic, it’s been largely absent from our lives.”

And I would add, it is the collective effervescence you feel while laughing with a congregation at a wedding…even though you don’t know what the bride thought was so funny.

During the lockdowns we discovered that, indeed, “peak happiness lies mostly in collective activity.” You can binge watch comedy specials on TV, but it is nothing like physically being in a comedy club. Same goes for watching a movie at home versus joining others in a movie theater. Or participating in a Zoom church service as opposed to being in a room with your fellow worshippers.

Think about that — the content of each of these events is exactly the same: same jokes; same movie; same sermon and songs. Yet, experiencing them “together” makes a world of difference.

(The skeptic in me says crowds can be misled by false prophets or corrupt leaders. History — including current events — is replete with examples of these charlatans. Humor me and assume we are attending fun, positive, non-controversial events devoid of those who might lead us astray.)

When this pandemic has had its run, it will be a relief to finally be able to enjoy the best of an event with fellow humans by our side. To absorb each other’s energy. To do what we do best, by making a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Our lives are not just enriched by the content we experience. Another key part is that “collective effervescence.”

Can I Trust the Russians? — Absolutely

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Would you trust someone who contacts you by email, claims to be from Russia, and wants to publish your book in their country? This happened to my publisher and me almost two years ago. Can we trust them?

Trust, but verify

I am reminded of a Russian proverb that Ronald Reagan was fond of quoting as he negotiated arms treaties with what was then the Soviet Union, “Trust, but verify.”

Twice before this, I was contacted by foreign publishers out of the blue requesting the same thing. As a result, Hard Choices for Loving People is now available in Japan and Taiwan.

You know — I am so thankful these people contacted us. They could have stolen my copyrighted material and published it without us ever knowing it had happened. I am sure there are international agreements that supposedly protect authors like myself. But if they were to publish without contacting us, it would be highly unlikely we would find out — and very expensive to try to stop them if we did.

We live in a state of trust

Come to think about it, we all live much of our lives in a state of trust. I occasionally find myself on a rural Mississippi two-lane, and suddenly, it dawns on me I trust those people in the other lane will stay in their lane. Or trust that people are going to stop at a stoplight as I go through the green. Or that the bank is going to keep my money. Or that the building I am in is not going to collapse.

The Russian Hospice Charity Fund that requested to translate my book seems like people I want to trust. From their website:

Someone who can’t be cured can still be helped.

The mission of Hospice Charity Fund is to make sure that every terminally ill patient in Russia has access to quality hospice care and pain relief – regardless of their age, financial and social status or place of registration.

Regardless of the differences we may have with other countries, on an individual basis, human compassion is universal.

So is trust.


The Collapse of Hope

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Here we are again. This time a beachside condo building near Miami has collapsed. Distraught families are praying for a miracle — praying that someone they love will be found alive. Others are only hoping for the recovery of a body so that they can say properly their goodbyes.

I write this five days after the tragic event. Much can change by the time you read this.

This tragedy feels familiar. Mass casualties in a seemingly random occurrence, like 9/11, mass shootings, or airplane crashes.

I remember writing a piece around September 11, 2002, a year after the terrorist attacks killed over 3,000 people. While I acknowledged that those deaths had huge implications for national security and our nation’s foreign policy, I disagreed with those who believed there to be some special meaning to the individual deaths. Those 3,000+ deaths were not unlike other random, sudden deaths I had seen countless times in my years in the ministry.

I admit, when things like this happen, I look for reasons why I am exempt from such randomness. I don’t own a condo on the beach in Miami. I don’t fly on airplanes in Africa. I don’t go to gay night clubs in Orlando. No wonder I am still living, and those unfortunate souls are not.

This doesn’t happen here

Even the mayor of the town where the condo high-rise is located sought refuge in the “this-doesn’t-happen-here” mentality.

“‘It would be like a lightning strike happening,’ said Charles W. Burkett, the mayor of Surfside, Fla., where the collapse occurred. ‘It’s not at all a common occurrence to have a building fall down in America,’ he said. ‘There was something very, very wrong with this situation.’” (New York Times, June 27)

Mr. Mayor, it does happen here. It DID happen here. And in your town, on your watch. (By the way, on average, 26 people die in the U.S. of lightning strikes each year.)

No trite platitudes for these stunned families

If I were called on to offer pastoral care for these worried families, I would try to meet them, and be with them, where they are in the process. If they were still praying for that most unlikely miracle that someone they love is alive — I can pray with them for that. If they had moved to mourning without a recovered body — I can be with them, too.

What I would NOT do is try to offer “solace” with such platitudes like, “God never gives you more than you can handle,” or “With God, there are no accidents,” or the absolute WORST, “Everything happens for a reason.”

So, once again, we all stand vigil. Indeed, most of us truly empathize with these poor families. We will watch with interest how they get through these coming days. Most will move into a normal, sad grieving process. An added pressure on these families, that most of us will never experience, is that many of them will mourn on national television. God help them.



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