Thursday, February 27, 2014

Almost, but not quite

In sprucing up my online blogs, I wandered over here and stumbled across a post from last summer regarding my medical situation.  I later took it down, out of a concern of too much information.  Today I decided to restore it, to document how modern medicine can still be so very wrong (and also so very amazing).

Last August, I was scheduled for surgery to have a dermoid ovarian cyst removed.  My new husband and I headed out to California to visit with my family that couldn't come for the wedding, in a second reception.  To say the trip was difficult was an understatement.  It's quite amazing what willpower and antibiotics can get you through.

The details are a bit hazy now, and I'm sure I could find the gory details on my facebook wall, but basically a last minute CT scan with contrast "just to make sure" revealed that in fact, I did not have a dermoid ovarian cyst, but rather a large abscess which was subsequently determined to be a fistula between my small intestine and my bladder.  In hindsight, it had been the source of my troubles since June 2012, and periodic courses of antibiotics likely saved my life along the way.

My health had been deteriorating constantly, and my restricted diet caused a large amount of weight loss.  Initially I was pleased, as a typical woman subjected to modern marketing, but my sallow appearance made it clear things were less than stellar.  My gallbladder had been troubling me too, and despite a round of acupuncture before I left Montana, my extreme low-fat diet (3-5 g of fat per serving) started making my hair fall out.  Bouts of vomiting and extreme pain made the first half of 2013 extremely difficult, more-so because I was planning a wedding and still working full time telecommuting.

Quick action on the part of my doctors got me in to a top notch surgeon and scheduled for the *correct* surgery at the end of September.  By this time, my job had reached the end of its term and I was looking for a new job- and I still am.  The silver lining was that it is much easier to send in job applications than working full time, and I was able to focus on my recovery.  It was a bumpy fall season, certainly, but I'm happy to say I've made it through to the other side and moving forward.

As part of that, I've decided to apply to be a contributor on Healthline.  At the very least, it will help me start to build a non-research writing portfolio, and maybe even help out someone else with Crohn's and the roller coaster mess of secondary effects it causes.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

What tomorrow brought

The mystery has been solved!  I hope.

*disclaimer: this post has medical stuff that might be TMI for some folks*

So, starting over a year ago, I started having crippling pain.  With my Crohn's, pain is not in itself unusual, and my gallbladder was acting up as well.  However, this was an odd pain, and although I self diagnosed (never a good idea) with some random inflammatory thing that nothing could be done about, I went to a series of clinics, ERs, and doctors to try to figure it out.  The ultrasound I had in the fall indicated a benign condition that I decided might possibly account for my pain.  After our wedding (oh yeah, I got married this spring and landed myself a family in the Poconos!) I went through a decline that was impossible to ignore.

After I got myself a new, top rated doctor only an hour and a half away for my Crohn's, I set about healthgrades looking for a (hopefully closer) doctor to help me with my mystery pain.  Now, I don't know how rare this is, but I found a D.O. that specializes in both Urology and Gynocology.  Since I wasn't myself sure what the heck was going on, I thought he would be perfect to solve the mystery.  Didn't take much.  One exam and one set of ultrasounds later, "Congratulations, you're growing a little monster!"  Okay, he didn't say that, but he should have.  It's a dermoid ovarian cyst, apparently the little bugger finally got large enough to be seen properly on my ultrasound.  Who knows, maybe it was on my CT scan they charged me hundreds for last summer in the ER, but the bastards never delivered the results to the doctors I was seeing in Arizona last fall.  Unless I will bleed out by driving an extra 20 miles to the next closest ER, I am never setting foot in that crappy place again.

Anyways.  Dermoid ovarian cyst.  Accounts for my symptoms, and even some I had attributed to my Crohn's.  Really threw me for a loop, having considered myself relatively in tune with what could go wrong and has gone wrong with my body.  I even know someone who had a massive one of these suckers removed in high school, and I never considered it.  Now, I don't know if you've seen the movie Critters, it's this horrible 1980s comedy horror movie, but basically they are like tribbles with teeth.  That's the firm mental image I've got for this nasty thing growing inside me, pushing on everything it can.  So, unlike the usual relief that comes with finally getting a diagnosis, I'm counting down the days to surgery (which I would normally be terrified of) and my imagination is running away with thoughts of  this thing gnawing at my insides with its hair and teeth.  Sorry, hope you weren't eating breakfast.

Guess I should go back to writing papers and applying for jobs.  My brain clearly needs something better to occupy itself with.  Now I just need to stay off of the medical journals...

Friday, June 28, 2013

The bucket list

There's an odd feeling when you cross an item off your bucket list, and last year was a big one.  As part of my cross-country adventures, I finished my goal of visiting all 50 states in the U.S. (and Puerto Rico too).  Ending with Florida.  As I stepped out onto the beach, facing the Gulf of Mexico, I pondered not only the strangely warm water, but that this was the farthest south in the country I'd been, and it was my last state.

A year ago, my carefully planned route was listed here.  The "Southern Segment" from Pennsylvania to Arizona was carried out pretty much to plan, with the addition of a detour up to Hot Springs, at the welcome insistence of my Aunt.  But the "Western Segment" never quite came.  You see, last year not only had adventure and the challenges of facing hours of being alone with only a very well behaved Australian Shepherd and some audio books in between the highs of social interaction with dear friends and family, but it also had physical challenges.

An improperly diagnosed infection threatened to sideline me, but I still launched into the Southern Segment, willing myself to improve and not be shut down by the side effects of various medications.

It was worth it to go white water rafting with my cousin in Charlotte, to spend a day wilting in Savannah with my dog, to go on banana yellow speed boat adventures to isolated beaches with old friends and their children in Naples.  To visit other friends in New Orleans and Baton Rouge and have the most perfect pot of tea with a much needed productive day in my friend's lab on campus.  To struggle with getting my hydrophobic dog back into a pontoon boat in Arkansas, to meet new friends at delicious barbeque found at a gas station in Austin.  To catch up with an old friend in the little town of Fredericksburg, reminding me that there are happy little corners where you least expect to find them.  To power through the long drive to a decadent hotel room in Las Cruces before the last stretch to the oasis of my mother's home in verdant Green Valley.

But that took the last of what I had.  It was time to rest, heal, and work.  And figure out where to set down roots.  The 50 states were done, even if the last segment of the epic road trip didn't lead me full circle.  You never can tell where life will take you, and that's my reason for embracing a bucket list with the best of intent of experiencing opportunities as they present themselves.  For you can never tell what tomorrow will bring. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Equally awesome in its own little way

I have become a modern day nomad.  A science nomad, as a friend of mine has pointed out.  A friend with a patch that reads, "Not all who wander are lost".

Courtesey of wiktionary:


Wikipedia has an article on:
nomad (plural nomads)
  1. a member of a group of people who, having no fixed home, move around seasonally in search of foodwater and grazing etc.
  2. wanderer

I'm not alone in embracing a nomadic existence this year.  I can think of two friends who are similarly taking advantage of flexible work situations (telecommuting or contracting) to have some adventures.  One has taken the plunge and purchased a very fine looking RV for her humble abode, while the other has taken a more international focus to her wanderings.  I've admired the fearlessness both of these women have shown over the years I've known them, and it makes me happy to include myself in a list of similar adventures with them.  Of course, I've taken the comparatively tame approach of loading the back of my truck with supplies for 3 seasons across the country, but it certainly wasn't an easy decision.  

To see how I arrived at this particular hare-brained scheme, it's worth a look at the past 12 months.  (Skip ahead to the next paragraph if you aren't interested in the details.)  In my last post here, I had no idea what my job prospects would be after my position ended in December.  Sadly, the grant to stay longer didn't come through (always take the word of higher ups in any administration with a grain of salt), but I did have options.  One was a temporary position, in which I would share my area of expertise with a large scale govt/ private sector project, letting me keep one foot towards academia while getting a taste of how I might like an alternative position.  The other was a short-term position in Alaska, doing the very things I love and have done for the past 10 years.  Both incredible opportunities, I made plans to do first one and then the other.  Things were looking good.  However, due to both personal and professional reasons, I eventually decided that moving to Alaska was not in the cards. 

It's tempting to think of the adventures I'd be having if I chose to move to the far north for a year. There's something incredibly terrifying about not doing "the next step".  But then you realize that the things that "they" think you should do are really just coming from inside your own head, and sometimes you need to re-calibrate to find your own voice.  And catch up on writing some papers.  So, I put most of my stuff in storage, and hit the road with my dog and a very full truck.  The Tacoma only gets about half the mileage my Civic did, but since it doesn't get the challenge of Alaska I had planned for it, it's earning its keep hauling clothes and books and various important items like Clue.

Looking at a map of family and friends, I realized that I could make a loop around the country.  Working 40+ hours/ week in between drives and visits, it's a slow trip in the best way possible.  I get to visit some of my favorite people, hang out in my favorite cities, and see those last 7 states (now 4) on my bucket list.  Here's a purely logistical look at my route and what I have planned.  Pictures and stories to come.

Northern Segment (Montana to Pennsylvania):  completed

Bozeman, MT
Rapid City, SD
Des Moines, IA
Ann Arbor, MI
Milford, PA (extended base for side trips)
  • New York City, NY
  • Philadelphia, PA
  • various locations in NJ
Cambridge, MA
  • Burlington, VT
  • Lincoln, NH
  • Portland, ME
  • Salem, MA
Southern Segment (Pennsylvania to Arizona):  up next

Takoma Park, MD
Charlotte, NC
(Savannah, GA)
Naples, FL
Baton Rouge, LA
Austin, TX
(Las Cruces, NM)
Tucson, AZ

Western Segment (Arizona to Montana):  tbd

Pasadena, CA
Santa Cruz, CA
Portland, OR
Seattle, WA
Bozeman, MT

To tide you over for the more entertaining posts, here's a picture from the farthest north-east corner of my trip:
Portland Head Lighthouse, Maine

Thursday, July 28, 2011

What would you do?

This past Friday, I was fortunate to meet two incredible people who were staying with some friends in town.  Adam and Christy Coppola are spending a calendar year traveling across all 50 states via bicycle.  Having embarked in January, Montana was their 41st state.  They entered Wyoming today, their 43rd state, after Idaho.  Obviously familiar with the idea of adventure to have cooked up such a scheme, they are also doing it for charity, inspired by their brothers- the Peace Corps volunteer inspired connection to World Bicycle Relief and the other inspired a connection to Achilles International's Freedom Team for Wounded Vets.  Christy writes the blog, while Adam takes stunning photographs- I'm really hoping they turn this into a book, they've gotten an incredibly close experience with people from all walks of life and the photos to match.

After watching Harry Potter 7.2, a gaggle of us headed to a local pub where I finally tried their famous Moscow Mule (potentially very dangerous).  I can't remember if it was there or waiting for the movie at the theater when, in the course of the conversation, I told Adam about last fall when I went from ~71 deg N to ~77 deg S in the course of five days or so.  His response was a smiling and incredulous, "Who does that?".  Coming from a guy more than halfway through a bike tour of all 50 states, I'll take it as a complement!  But it definitely reminded me of why I do what I do.  

Meeting them in someways feels like a bit of fate poking me in the rear.  With my current job ending in December (unless that fellowship comes through, fingers crossed!) I've been facing the possibility of being unemployed in January.  While I've been quite excited about a few job openings and applying for every job that I'm remotely qualified for, anyone who's looking right now can tell you that prospects are thin.  Terrifying in some ways, exciting in others.  Moving back home is certainly not an option, so I've been thinking of what other folks have done.  Like the friend who quit his job, traveled the world, and then lived out of a van when he went back to grad school to pay off his credit cards.  So, I started to thinking about what I would do if I couldn't do what I do now.  Of course, the fantasy of doing what you love doesn't always meet the reality of the grocery bill, but I'm a little less scared of that unknown now than I was just a little while ago.  Not that I'll hop on a bike and tour the 50 states, but maybe something equally awesome in its own little way.  I still have 7 states and 1 continent on the list.  And a dog who has decided she really, really, likes day long hikes.  Heck, I turned working for a rental car company after undergrad into a month long backpacking trip in Europe.

Cologne (I think), Germany, 2001

If you had the opportunity to take a year out of your life or to start over, what would you do?

Friday, April 01, 2011

Alternative means of science outreach

The recent cobra "escape" at the Bronx Zoo has gotten lots of media attention lately.  However, the best thing to come out of this little escapade can be found on Twitter.  Yes, I finally broke down and ventured into the world of Twitter during the recent disasters in Japan to get up to date information.  Basically, a few humorous individuals have latched on to several characters, including the cobra, the zoo keeper, and a honey badger.  Check out this post which outlines the excitement.  It gets better.  The cobra has apparently hijacked for April Fool's Day and turned it into the snake version of the Huffington Post, complete with information on 5 do's and don'ts for dating a cobra.  In addition, the honey badger is directly influenced by a video on youtube which is a humorous re-narration of a wildlife video (warning, foul language).  This spontaneous interconnection of different media has gotten so much attention because it's fun, and a nice change of pace from the bad news that surrounds us lately.  It's escapism.  But the coolest part is, it's escapism about biology.

During the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last summer, slightly less charismatic organisms took center stage.  A friend found himself center stage, discussing the plight of the pancake batfish.  Somehow even the strikingly ugly looks of this creature (the fish, not my friend) provoked discussions on blogs around the web, and even among my friends on facebook, scientist and non-scientist alike.  Everyone knew the severity of the situation, but somehow this funny looking fish brought a face to the situation.

Another example of possibly alternative outreach can be found in the xkcd webcomics.  While the audience mostly consists of math and science geeks, it's always fun to see a bit of yourself in a comic (much like phdcomics) and it makes me wonder if things like this bring our science to a larger audience.  At least it connects the biologists and the physicists and the mathematicians.

"It wants to hug you!  So cute!"

At a recent meeting in Puerto Rico (I swear I'll get to updating those travel stories one of these days...) I was fortunate to be able to attend a lunch workshop with Randy Olson.  The topic was, 'Don't be such a scientist'.  As a tenured biology professor turned filmmaker, he definitely had a unique point of view with concrete suggestions on science outreach.  One keep aspect he mentioned was being less cerebral and reaching out more with emotion.  The above examples, along with such things as "Dance your Ph.D." contests and my best friend's talent of writing biology based songs highlight the fun side of science.  We are still people, and if more folks knew the fun and excitement that drives us, maybe we'd make a little bit of progress.  Connect as individuals and maybe pass on some education on the scientific method- shockingly few people understand what a theory actually is, gravity is just a theory, afterall.

Of course, spending all day with 4th graders like we did in an outreach event yesterday definitely helps you re-connect with the fun side of science.  Yeah, I guess that "big red" coat we get to wear in Antarctica is pretty cool, after all.  And I'm not ashamed to admit that I geeked out with my lab mates afterwards over the really cool cyanobacteria and algae they had on the microscope at the next station over.

See?  They can be cute!  Giant microbes rock.
But I think the best current example of alternative science outreach is the popular book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  The author draws you in with the striking story of the unknowing donor of cancer cells that have gone on to figure prominently in cancer and other biomedical research.  I definitely recommend you read it.  

In other news, I've updated past posts with tags, so take a look at the "cloud" on the right side bar to read posts by topic.  Also feel free to contact me if you're interested in turning me into a comic book hero, like those over at Women in Science!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Earthquakes in Christchurch

While I was in Christchurch (a few days after the current timeline in the travel stories), there was one morning where there were about 6 earthquakes from 6 am to noon, varying in magnitude from ~3 to 5.  The first one woke me as I was sleeping on the floor at a friend's house.  Since the internet was still working, I surmised that it couldn't have been that strong and found a website that verified the earthquake and listed the magnitude.  Throughout the morning, every time I would feel a tremor, I would wonder how much longer it would last and if I should run to a doorway.  Having grown up in California, I was taught at an early age to find shelter under a desk or in a doorway, away from windows or things that could fall on top of you.  Unfortunately, my friend's house was of the older variety, and as I watched the cracks in the plaster grow, I began to wonder if maybe I should be running out of the house.  Luckily, that burst of activity subsided and really only provided fodder for the Busker's fair which started the next day.

These earthquakes in the Christchurch area started with the 7.1 quake in early September.  Located on a previously unknown fault line, the effects of the earthquake were obvious when I came through in November on my way south.  The town has a heavy use of brick construction, and most chimneys fell victim, as did several historic buildings.  The Boxing Day aftershock was even more damaging to some buildings due to the shallow depth of the quake (only 5 km below the surface) and the types of waves produced.  It was "only" a 4.9, less in magnitude than some of the ones I felt sitting on my friends couch on January 20th, but seriously added to the damage still lingering from the September quake.

Which brings us to this Tuesday, February 22nd.  If you've been avoiding the news, there was a magnitude 6.3, centered very close to the city center.  People are still trapped in fallen buildings and the death count keeps rising.  A friend from the ice left New Zealand only 24 hours beforehand.  The Windsor B&B just announced they are closing.  And my friend Biz is now homeless.  Not terribly surprising, most of her neighbors mentioned they thought the place would be condemned after the first two big earthquakes this year.  Most people were very lucky, but the town just can't seem to catch a break.  All the more disturbing because Christchurch had such a great atmosphere filled with wonderful people.  Having lived through the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake (6.9, but at the time everyone said 7.0), I'm very familiar with the damage an earthquake can cause.  I'm still ridiculously nervous about driving across the Bay Bridge.  But the big ones in Christchurch just keep coming and the damage doesn't seem to end.

To recap the geology of it all, the first quake came from a unknown, dormant fault.  The damage caused by the quakes varied based on depth and distance of the epicenters.  The aftershocks are still occurring.