What Does It Take to Save a Life?

This week buried beneath the din of politics and conflict was a brief article in the New York Times featuring an 81-year-old Australian man who was donating blood for the last time in his life.

He started giving blood as a young man – a way of paying back those who had donated the blood he needed to survive surgery as a 14-year-old boy.

He would go on to give blood every few weeks for over 60 years. The total number of times he has donated blood?  1,173.

While remarkable, this is only the beginning of the story.

At one point, it was discovered that his blood contained a rare anti-body that was essential for a life-saving drug called Anti-D given to expectant mothers to keep their babies healthy.

The Australian Red Cross estimates that the blood of this man, James Harrison, now retired, has saved more than 2.4 million babies from a potentially fatal disease.

If not amazed yet, among that number are included two of his own grandchildren. You see, his daughter received the drug with his anti-bodies as well.

Now rewind back to the beginning of this story. This remarkable journey began with nameless strangers who first donated blood to save James’s life. He then decided to give back –values instilled in him through his upbringing. 

Researchers then discovered something in his blood that was precious. Companies then made the drugs available to doctors who with nurses administered them to mothers.  All made affordable through a single payer health care system.

James’s actions are heroic. His dedication to giving back is awe-inspiring. At the same time, hidden in this amazing tale are the contributions of nameless others.
 

Like these nameless others, it is doubtful any of us will ever know how many lives we will save or impact at all. But this story is a reminder that it starts with a blind gift. The beauty of not knowing, but hoping that this gift will connect with others.

It is a sentiment, embodied in the words of Robert F. Kennedy who  said that those who act to improve the life of another or stand up for an ideal, “sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current …”

Here’s to all the tiny ripple’s among us and the currents they will create.

It’s In Your Blood

The phrase goes back to the 1600’s, predating the field of genetics by almost 300 years.

The idea that how we act is literally running through our veins is often seen in expressions of negative emotions like animosity (bad blood), anger (my blood is boiling.), fear (blood run cold), cruel (cold blooded) and vengeful (out for blood).

Beyond colorful idioms, there is more truth to the idea than we may realize.

Consider this study on violence summarized in Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave.  Undergraduate male subjects had a blood sample taken, filled out a brief questionnaire and then walked down a narrow hallway to drop them off – where a second sample was taken. For half of the subjects, a burly man walking in the opposite direction would bump into them and call the subject an a—hole. The other half had an unimpeded walk. The differences were extraordinary. 

Subjects from the south who were insulted had massive increases in the stress hormone cortisol and testosterone levels (more than 300% vs. control.) while those from the North remained largely the same. The hypothesis was that those from the South have a long tradition of a more pastoral culture dating back to herders who emigrated from Scotland, where honor codes were sacred. 

Insults like those in the study are an affront to their honor and the visceral and physical response is a result of “who they are” culturally. 

This also may explain why the majority of southern homicides are argument-related murders with people they know vs. felony related murders that are the norm in Northern states.

We like to think that who we are and how we act are always of our own volition. The reality is, of course, much more complicated – giving new meaning to the term “blood-type.”  

Do Children Cry Happy Tears?

This weekend my youngest daughter and I went to see the new movie Coco. The movie is a multi-layered parable about how family connections transcend time.

The penultimate scene shows a boy singing a lullaby to his great-grandmother who suffers from dementia.  The song, Remember Me, was written by her father and they would sing it together each time he said goodbye to her when she was a little girl.
 
I won’t spoil the significance of this song but as a father of three little girls, what happened next brought a few tears of joy trickling down my cheek.
 
After the movie, my daughter asked me, “They were happy tears, right daddy.”   After confirming, she said as a matter of fact, “Kids don’t cry happy tears.”
 
Which got me wondering.  Do they?  And what exactly are happy tears?
 
To begin, crying itself is part of an emotional regulatory process with a very real health benefit. 

Our emotional tears contain stress hormones and the act of crying produces endorphins (a natural pain killing chemical).  So for many reasons, crying makes us feel better.
 
Why we cry happy tears is more of a mystery.  Some hypothesize that in instances where we have “come a long way” to achieve a goal – whether graduating college or winning a championship, our pained tears have been bottled up or suppressed and we are now overwhelmed to the point of expressing them at a time of joy.
 
Another theory is that when we are overwhelmed by a positive emotion, say the birth of a child or our wedding day, we cry to help us recover and get back to a state of emotional equilibrium.  In other words we cue a negative response (crying) to help us cope with being overwhelmed by a positive one (joy).
 
Which brings us back to the question posed by my daughter. Do children cry happy tears?
 
In one scenario, it would mean that our children have experienced significant early life struggles to trigger happy tears when they achieve their goals.
 
In the other, it suggests that they connect deeply to their emotions and have figured out a healthy way to respond to them. 
 
In either case, happy tears are heavy ones.  We want our children to feel deeply but not too deeply and not too early.
 
The fact that my six year old doesn’t think kids cry happy tears is probably a good thing and so I hope is the fact that her father cries them all the time.

What Does “The Environment” Mean To You?

Several years ago, linguist George Lakoff was asked to do a study of language used to communicate about environmental issues, including what was then called global warming.

In his analysis, he discovered that there was a part of speech that was largely absent…. pronouns.

We say the environment not my environment, the water supply instead of ourwater supply, earth instead of our planet.

The implications were huge. Pronouns play a critical role in language by connecting the content to what it means to us personally. The environment sounds like a far away place in the Galapagos. My environment refers to air I breath and water I drink.

Years of bad language have contributed to our disconnectedness to our environment and the peril it faces.  

On a related note, there probably could not have been a worse name for a global climate agreement than The Paris Accord.  On a previous research project, we found that people’s ability to believe a proven fact about our country’s ranking in the world on certain health measures was largely dependent on which country we said we were behind. The country that most greatly affected believability was France. Why? Because many Americans don’t want to believe we’re behind France in anything.

You may think this is all linguistic wordplay non-sense.  But it has incredibly serious consequences.

What and how you name something greatly impacts someone’s ability to connect to what you’re saying.

Perhaps, the truest thing the conservative pollster Frank Luntz every said was the subtitle of his book, “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.”

So if recent events are causing you even greater concern about the state of our planet and you’re looking to find a way to make a difference, start by watching your language.

Maybe You Could Be President Someday…

This phrase has probably been uttered to hundreds of millions of American children over our country’s 240 year history.

Yet during that time only 44 people have actually held that job.

It is no wonder that when we tell the stories of our Presidents we marvel at the individual efforts and the hard work that must have been required to ascend to our highest office. Yet consider how many other factors, like these, had to fall in place when you hear their extraordinary individual tales:

Money helps. Every President but one (Truman) since 1929 has been a millionaire at the time of achieving office.

Education is critical.  Over 40% went to Ivy League schools and since 1893 all but one graduated college.

Health matters. Most enjoyed healthy lives – especially for their times. Even those who had to overcome well-known health issues, such as John F. Kennedy and both Roosevelts, had the benefit of being able to afford literally the best care in the world for their conditions. 

Connections count.  40 out of 45 came from politics – many hand picked by party bosses to be their nominee. Ten were directly related to another President (2 sets of father/sons, 2 sets of cousins and one grandfather/grandson).  In fact, genealogists have determined that FDR was related to 11 different Presidents himself (5 by blood and 6 by marriage). 

A little luck goes a long way.  20% didn’t even get elected to the office – rising only after the previous occupant died or resigned.  Of course, there are also five who did not win the popular vote but won via the electoral college. 

Lifted by many helping hands. Behind every President is a whole host of advisors, friends, relatives, aides and funders who supported them along the way.  However, 18 Presidents actually owned slaves, in many cases hundreds, which presumably allowed them to amass their fortunes that made running for public office possible

These are just a handful of the factors that help explain how these 44 people rose above the hundreds of millions of children who were told that “maybe one day they could become President too.”

None of this is to diminish any of their hard work or the amount of individual effort required to rise to the oval office.  But hard work and help aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact to become President of anything they are mutually dependent.

Consider this:  Even Abraham Lincoln perhaps our most “self-made” President, would never have risen to that office were it not for the simple fate of his birth.  Leave 99.9% of his genes exactly the same, but assume he were born either a woman or a black man. Could he have become our 16th President in 1860?

So on President’s Day, let’s honor those who have held this office by honoring the totality of what made their journey possible. 

Can You Afford This?

Recently I was in a pinch and had to quickly buy some pasta sauce to make dinner for my family. I could have gone to the local grocery store where I normally shop but it was just a little out of my way. Instead I stopped by the gourmet store in town and picked up sauce that cost a ridiculous $10. For the convenience of saving 5 minutes I paid double of what I would normally.

Later that same weekend, my mother happened to be in the same local grocery store above and saw a “great deal” on family packs of pork chops. She decided she would stop there on the way home to Pennsylvania, purchase three packs of 6 chops, put them on ice for a 5 hour car ride and freeze them for the winter.

In my situation, I could afford to pay a premium for my time. In my mother’s, she saw a deal she literally couldn’t afford to pass up.

And there is the relativity of what is affordable in a nutshell.

Check out this new online platform that will show you what purchasing something would feel like to you if you were near the poverty line. 

For example, if you made $75,000 a year, you might not blink at spending $9 on a bottle of cough syrup but for mother at the poverty line, that same bottle will feel like $24.

If you made $100,000 and you wanted to live in a place with great school districts, like a suburb of New York, your average rent would be a $3,440. Pretty stiff. But if you were a low income family who also wanted to live in those areas with the same great schools, the cost of rent would feel like almost $12,000 a month.  

The simple fact is that when we use the term affordable, we typically think of it relative to what we can afford and not what others can’t.

What does this mean when it comes to helping more Americans move up?
Consider this:

A Gallup poll shows that 1/3 Americans put off health care treatment because they can’t afford the copay or deductible.
Half of all high school students who take college prep classes don’t go on to attend college. The number one reason – they can’t afford to.

As a country, WE can’t afford to have significant portions of our citizens not living up to their god-given potential because of they can’t afford basic things like staying healthy or becoming more educated.

It is too easy for us to judge others for the choices they make with limited financial resources without truly appreciating how difficult those choice really are.

(In fact as Sendhil Mullanthain points out in his important book, Scarcity, in general people with fewer resources are often more resourceful.)

So the next time you judge someone who doesn’t seem to “value” education like you do, consider that to them the simple act of buying college text books for four years ($2200 to you) could feel like $24,000 to them.

Would You Prefer to Be Healthy or Smart?

What would you say is more important for your success? Your health or your education? We asked Americans which five-year-old is more likely to be successful — one with access to a good education but no health care, or one who has access to a great doctor but poor schools?

People overwhelmingly chose education by a margin of four to one. But consider this:

  • If a child is sick with untreated asthma, he or she will miss school and opportunities to learn.
  • If a child knows someone who was shot, he or she will have more difficulty focusing in school.
  • If a child’s early diet includes more salty and fatty foods, he or she is likely to not only gain weight as a child, but also continue unhealthy weight gain as an adult.
  • If a baby isn’t breastfed for the first six months of life, it could mean an IQ that is 10 points less than a child who is.

There shouldn’t have to be a choice between health and education. But in fact, it’s a choice made by parents, communities and legislators every day.

Think about a time when your health may have gotten in the way of your success. It could be something as simple as not getting enough sleep before a big meeting or missing important work while sick.

Now imagine if that were a regular occurrence. Where would that leave you?

Read more about how central our HEALTH is to our success.