Wednesday, March 24, 2010

She May Be The Reason You Are Alive Today

Ada Lovelace Day, March 24, is an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science.

Do it right and do it now-Virginia Apgar


If you have had a child in the past half century, you have probably heard of the APGAR test and, if you are anything like me, you probably still know your child's scores as it is offers us overachievers the first of many opportunities to feel inadequate or superior with regards to our parenting skills (and it doesn't matter that at the time the test is administered, one has had virtually no opportunity to actually be a parent because the child was inside of you all this time so clearly the APGAR score can be seen as a womb rating, right?).

If you haven't had a child or if you who can't remember anything that was said to you in the delivery room because you had other things on your mind like the fact that a baby just came out of your body, fear not, I shall explain. The APGAR test is given to newborn babies at one minute and five minutes after birth. There are five signs scored, each one is given 0-2 points. The signs are Appearance (skin color), Pulse, Grimace (reflex irritability), Activity, and Respiration. You, like me, may look at the list and think that whoever came up with this test seemed to choose some odd words for the anagram. Why not just say color? Was CAPRRI too difficult to remember? Was the McDonald's Corporation in any way involved as part of their ongoing campaign to capture the hearts and minds of our children?

The truth is that when A Proposal for a New Method of Evaluation of the Newborn Infant was published in 1953, there was no anagram. The anagram came ten years later as a teaching tool and a means of honoring the woman who invented it, Dr. Virginia Apgar.

There are many articles about Virginia Apgar which discuss her life and career. All of them speak of her brilliance and her determination, how she made her own instruments and carried a scalpel in her purse in case her services were required at a moments notice. She was fourth in her class when she graduated, but became an anesthesiologist at the encouragement of her superiors who believed that a female surgeon would not be viewed as credible and anesthesiology had a need for competent physicians (at the time, anesthesiology was administered by nurses and there was the concern that surgery could not progress if the field of anesthesiology did not improve). She moved into the field of obstetric anesthesiology in 1949 when she did not become head of her department at Columbia. Obstetric anesthesiology was a neglected field at the time and as the first woman to become a full professor at Columbia she developed a training program. Aiding in the delivery of babies became the work she loved the most. It was in the delivery rooms where she saw the poor care that many newborns received. After a remark a medical student made regarding the inability to evaluate a newborn, she scrawled five signs to look for on a piece of paper and rushed to a delivery room to test out her idea. And the APGAR test was born.

What strikes me about the life of Virginia Apgar is how her story is one we encounter often in history. She was a brilliant woman who was told she could not do the work she wanted to because of her gender, so she does the work she can do and she revolutionizes the field. While I am tempted to ask what strides may have been made in surgery had she been allowed to practice, I must admit that it is unlikely she could have made a greater contribution than the one she did. Previous to the APGAR test, babies who were sickly and unresponsive at birth were left to die and their mothers were told they were stillborn. The APGAR test gave doctors a means of measuring newborns and, when it was learned that medical intervention could improve a score (hence the measurements at one and five minutes) it gave doctors a goal (while I may joke the score is a womb rating, doctors see it as a rating of their abilities and they all want their patients to be perfect 10s). The truth is that Dr. Apgar saved more lives as an anesthesiologist, a field which at the time had been written off as "women's work", than she ever could have as a surgeon. Babies who would have been left for dead were given the medical attention they needed because of her test, a test that just required paying attention and then taking action. And she continues to save lives today, nearly twenty-six years since her death. (And while the APGAR test is perhaps her most famous contribution to the field of obstetrics and neonatal care, it was not the only lifesaving measure she discovered in her career).
I am not sure there is anything more to say that tops that. But her grand-nephew gave a speech at the ceremony inducting Dr. Virginia Apgar into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1995 and he said no tribute to her would be complete without repeating one of her favorite jokes. He obviously knows more about the topic than I do and it happens to be a really good joke:

How do you tell the sex of a chromosome? You pull down it's genes!

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Thank You Vijay Shah!

The 2008 Republican National Convention was held in St. Paul, Minnesota. My father-in-law (Hi Bob!) mentioned walking around outside the XCel Energy Center, checking out the protesters. Knowing my father-in-law's feelings regarding his Constitutional rights, particularly his Second Amendment rights, he may have had a concealed weapon on his person at the time. My reaction to hearing he walked around the protests was something like: "Careful, they may think you are a terrorist." And, of course, his response to this was to chuckle. After all, who would ever imagine that a 74 year old, American male of Norwegian and Swedish (and, he claims, Prussian) descent could possibly be a terrorist?

I love my father-in-law, but I am sometimes baffled by the confidence he has and the freedom he enjoys. I wish that all Americans, myself included, could feel such confidence and enjoy such freedom.

I went to college with Vijay Shah. He was one of those people I considered a friend, though we didn't have much in common. Vijay was a really nice person, not snarky or cynical, and I didn't value kindness so much back then. I mean, Vijay was born and raised in Ohio, he was such the earnest midwesterner and I was trying so hard to be cool, what could we possibly have to talk about beyond the thesis advisor we shared (Doug Fix) and us both being of Indian descent?

Luckily, we have been able to keep in touch via Facebook.

Back in 2004, Vijay was arrested while protesting at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. He was one of three men of Indian descent to be detained during the Democratic National Convention. It is hard not to conclude that he was the victim of racial profiling and his constitutional rights were repeatedly violated. Vijay filed a lawsuit against the law enforcement officers who detained him and it went to trial last week. The jury ruled on Saturday.

The Secret Service Agent was found liable for violating Vijay's constitutional rights.

Please take the time to listen to Vijay describe his arrest and trial here (it is the 3/13 Sounds of Dissent Show, 11 a.m, beginning around the 39 minute mark). It is shocking.

If we hadn't gone to school with one another, I never would know about this. The other men who were arrested chose not to file a lawsuit. There aren't a whole lot of articles about Vijay's arrest or lawsuit archived on the internet. Which makes me wonder how often this sort of thing is happening and we never know about it, either because the victims don't speak up or there just isn't a lot of attention paid to these cases by the mainstream media.

As a person of Indian descent, I feel like what happened to Vijay could have happened to me. Well, alright, I don't really think it could happen to me. I suspect that my gender, my light skin, and the fact that Julian is with me wherever I go renders me less suspicious. But what if it doesn't? I mean, up until the moment the unidentified agents were pushing Vijay down the alleyway and slapping handcuffs on him, he believed that as a law abiding citizen, he was not a person of interest. Without a doubt it could happen to my brother.

As an American, I feel an enormous amount of gratitude towards Vijay for standing up for the Constitutional Rights that are guaranteed to every single one of us.

Justice prevails!

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Monday, March 08, 2010

Spice Tour of Zanzibar

The morning after our arrival in Zanzibar we went on the Spice Tour of the island. There were 15 of us, all tourists, taking the tour that day and we were soon bustled into cars and driven to various locations. We would stop, tumble out, and our guide would then point out a plant, pass around a leaf or piece of fruit, encourage us to smell it or taste it, while talking about its various uses, which were usually culinary, sometimes medicinal, and occasionally recreational. Our guide was a natural entertainer and constantly threw in information which made a spice memorable. For example, when he showed us nutmeg, he cut open the fruit, explained the spice was obtained by scraping the hard threads which encased the pit, and then told us that, contrary to what many men believed, nutmeg would not act as an aphrodisiac and, if taken in large doses, would cause impotence. He then turned around and pointed to the breadfruit tree and said the monkeys liked to get drunk on the fermented fruit. In addition to telling us about the fruits and spices, he told us stories about the island and its buildings, so by the end, we all imagined we were experts on the plants and history of Zanzibar island. Right before we returned to the city, we were served a meal on the hoods of the cars. The dishes-fresh lemongrass tea, fish curry, and bananas in coconut milk with cinnamon-were all made from the various spices with which we had just become familiar. The meal was perfect with the tanginess of the tea complimenting the curry and the coconut giving the bananas an almost buttery flavor and we all sat in the middle of a tropical paradise, licking the plates.

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