Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Major League Minds

Last night I attended the Major League Minds event for Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. This year, the focus was on their achievements and goals in neuroscience. The event was held at Fenway Park, and it was attended by about 300 people.

BIDMC is the official hospital of the Red Sox, so they dressed the doctors in jerseys for this occasion. That made them easy to identify, so I took the chance and talked to a few . . .

I was impressed by their breadth of knowledge, and I was pleased by the way everyone answered my questions. The more I learn about the mind, the more fascinated I become. I sure am lucky to be able to take it all in, I thought.


But that’s a subject for another post, or perhaps a whole book. Today, I’d like to share some insight as to why one might choose a hospital like BIDMC for repair or modification, for yourself or someone you know.

I myself was not seeking repair when I went to Beth Israel Deaconess, back in the winter. Actually, I wasn’t seeking anything at all; they came looking for me. And I know that sounds strange to some of you. It brings to mind images of a dentist sitting on his front stoop, smiling a strange smile as he says, “Come here, little boy! I’ll clean your teeth and test my new drill.”

And there’s a little whirrrrrrr noise, as he spins the drill the way a duck hunter blows into a bird calling whistle.

But when these doctors showed up, it was a totally different experience. They’d read my book, and what did they see? A potentially articulate and enthusiastic guinea pig, I guess. It was as if I’d written a book about my dreams of being a Green Beret and the recruiters came a-calling. I was impressed from the start at their intelligence, their expertise, and their obvious desire to help people. How could I not sign on? You can read the whole story of that in my earlier blog posts . . . .

As part of Harvard Medical School, BIDMC is able to attract the best and brightest medical talent from all over. Walking through the halls, I am struck by the diversity in the staff, all of whom seem united by a common desire to be on the cutting edge. I meet people from all over the USA, and from Canada, China, Korea, Europe, India, and everywhere else.

As a child in a college community, I grew up around grad students from all over the world, and I learned to appreciate their different points of view. My own special interest is autism and Asperger’s, and I’ve seen how very differently the world’s cultures see this condition, and indeed many other things.

Just as my autistic mind can see a problem through different eyes, people from different cultures may see answers that we totally miss. In addition to cultural diversity, a place like BIDMC is big enough to have a lot of diversity and breadth in talent. In this photo you can see the chief people in neurology, and as you can see, there are quite a few of them . .

Each doctor has a particular area of expertise. You’ve read about Alvaro and his TMS work. In addition, they have world-class experts in memory, stroke recovery, tumors, cancer, and even such nasty things as gunshot wounds to the head. One of the doctors I talked to is making new discoveries about the body’s nervous system, and another is tackling Parkinson’s disease.

When I first ventured out to BIDMC, people warned me about “those neurologists.” I think lay people have a fear of doctors in general, and brain doctors are among the scariest. However, my experience has not been scary at all. In fact, I’ve found the neurologists to display a remarkable level of empathy.

Some people would just snort at that, and say: What do you know? You’re autistic!

But in fact I do know. I have an excellent sense of how people treat me in conversation, even though I may not show it, and I may not respond as expected. I have actually thought about the treatment I’ve received at the hands of the BIDMC staff, and I am very impressed. I am even more impressed at the quality of the work being done. Some of the achievements are just so big you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. At least, I’m afraid that’s the case, so I’m waiting for the scientific data to back me up. Then I’ll tell you.

How do they do it?

Thousands of people apply to join their team. Harvard Medical School as a whole only accepts 1% of applicants, and when they go looking for doctors the ratio is probably similar. That means they start with (presumably) very high caliber individuals. Of course, these top people cost top money, but luckily their reputation helps address that.

As one of the top medical facilities in the world, BIDMC attracts donors and supporters from all over. Some give money to hunt a cure for a disease that’s touched their own lives, while others just believe in their mission, and some give because they attribute their own success to what they learned as students at BIDMC or Harvard.

Much of BIDMC’s work is funded by research grants, as opposed to selling medical services on a piecework basis like a regular hospital. That removes or at least diminishes the tremendous time pressure that most doctors in other hospitals face. In addition, as researchers, they know the value of curiosity and asking questions. And that pays off as they spend more time talking to patients. That makes for stronger connections and better outcomes.

Finally, compared to most hospitals, their breadth of expertise and their research orientation gives them a bigger bag of tricks. It’s worth remembering that the odds don’t much matter when you deal with your health. You don’t care if one in a hundred people respond to an experimental cure, as long as you’re that one.

So if I needed major repairs, BIDMC is where I would go. When people tell me about looking for medical specialists in the big city, I’ll understand what they’re talking about. I understand the role of these research hospitals, and why it’s so vital to support them and keep medical science moving forward.

I don’t want to sound like a fund raiser, but if you have a spare million bucks, send it to them and say I sent you . . .

The TMS research we are doing is made possible by private donations.

11 comments:

Strange Behaviour said...

Neuroscience... The Last Frontier! I have a deep appreciation for these Doctors.

Polly Kahl said...

Sounds like a stimulating night.

Caution to those in the second photo: That glass ceiling's looking a little low. Wouldn't want to bump your noggins.

kyra said...

i love the brainiacs docs. i do.

and if i had a spare million or two, i'd drop it on the project in the blink of an eye.

Paul Levy said...

Thanks, John. And, by the way, I have linked to your blog on mine.

Paul

John Elder Robison said...

Polly, I think what you see may be a peculiarity of neuroscience and who chose to go into it in the 1970s when the folks in the illustration started their careers.

There are plenty of females in high positions, judging from what I see when I visit BIDMC. There is, for example, substantial female representation on their boards etc and Kris Laping, the vice president who runs development and this event is female.

They were there at the event but they are not neuro docs so they are not in the photo.

Polly Kahl said...

That's great to hear, John. The lack of women popped right out at me when I saw the photo, and there are plenty of brilliant women out there. At any rate the entire thing is incredibly stimulating. Who knew a couple of years ago what you'd be involved with today?

John Elder Robison said...

Polly, if you have a question or comment like that, you should follow Paul Levys' link. He's the President of the hospital and he's got his own blog, which is fairly popular.

Polly Kahl said...

Thanks, John, keep up the great work!

Kim Stagliano said...

I was born at Beth Israel in Boston! "Love that dirty water!"

Cool post, John.

The Muse said...

"The more I learn about the mind, the more fascinated I become."

The science of the mind is TRULY the final frontier. Your natural inquisitiveness and analytic mind will be captivated by this research for years to come. You LOVE to figure out how things work. The brain is an organic machine that has been shaped by evolution. Neuroscience is a natural progression of thought for you because of your understanding of electrical engineering, circuitry, and your love of machines. Although in your study of the mind you will be called on to ponder greater issues than just science. Inner space and outer space are both the realms of God. You will find that there are some mysteries that simply defy scientific explanation and logic. Such as what is the origin of consciousness?

drewdude52592 said...

Wow, doctors in Red Soxs jerseys. Now I've seen it all! But yea, sounded like an awesome night for you. If only doctors like those were as fun as the ones you saw. Very few doctors that we have here in the Pioneer Valley are like that. I just consider myself lucky to have one that is basically a comedian when he ain't giving people shots or jamming popsicle sticks into peoples throats (OK maybe i'm just outdoing it there, but still). Good luck with the future John.

-Andrew