Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Hitting home

The problem, as I see it, is that we become used to our environment. Bad things happen, sometimes at great frequency, and in order to survive, we become immune to some of them so we can be happy in spite of the fact that circumstances sometimes suck. I think it's an admirable trait - this adaptability - to be content in a world that is so clearly less than ideal. But sometimes it makes us tune out some critical piece of information and we lose part of ourselves.

Pre-clinical work can involve animal studies, often using rodents. The idea behind many studies requires sacrificing the animal to look at what's actually going on inside him. Then you know if your acquisition parameters are slightly off or your reconstruction algorithm isn't performing as it should. Maybe your model isn't quite right, or the organ system didn't respond as you'd predicted.

The rationale behind these animal studies is clear to me. We need to know exactly what it is we're doing and how accurate we are before we move these techniques into human clinical trials. But the idea of drugging a tiny mouse, forcing it into some immobilization contraption, then keeping it sedated for hours on end while you try to fix any number of errors is difficult for me.

I've always loved animals. I can never remember a time when I was afraid or nervous around them. We always had pets in my family. Even as a toddler, I knew you were supposed to love the animals, pet and feed, cuddle and love, and always be gentle so they knew you wouldn't hurt them - even on accident.

When I was in high school, we had mice. We started with 2 for a science project, then we ended up with somewhere around 10, I think. Shortly after the birth of the mouse babies, we implemented male/female cages. And we were gentle with our little mouse population. I remember buying them fancy cages with tunnels and tubes. At listening across the hall as they ran in their little exercise wheels. My most vivid memory is of feeding them these blue and red treats that looked remarkably like little crunch berries. They would stand on their back feet and reach up with their little front paws to take the treat. And we'd hold it between our fingers and say

"Berries from Heaven, little guys. Come get your berries from Heaven."

My distaste for the animal studies continues, but my hope is that I can do it enough to desensitize myself to it. If something makes you scared or nervous or upset, you just do it ad nauseum until it’s so normal that it can’t bother you. So that’s my plan with the mice.

But my fear is that I grow to find the clinical environment somewhat irrelevant. That I see so much disease and pain that it becomes normal. Something to mention in the introduction – “my technique aids in diagnosis or treatment” – then forget, because it doesn’t really relate to my work. It’s rare when I see patients, get a chance to talk to them, find out about their families, their priorities, their lives. When I do have that contact, I walk away being impressed by their strength, saddened by knowing what they have to endure, and supremely hopeful that by participating in a study, they’re helping someone who might suffer through this disease later.

I was reminded today that cancer affects people in major ways – their families, jobs, how they feel, what they think about. Sometimes a parent has to tell a child that she must have yet another surgery. Sometimes a son has to pull over so his father can be sick after chemotherapy. Sometimes women have to give up on their hope of having children because treatment has stolen their reproductive ability.

Tonight finds me curled up again, on my favorite corner of the couch, laptop propped on my lap. It’s storming outside, and my power just flickered. I’m listening to the rain, and watching the lightning brighten the sky. And I’m hoping, sincerely and desperately, that part of what I do will somehow make life better for someone.

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