Healing ourselves, and healing our world

Many of us have heard the adage, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” At TEDMED, we embrace this philosophy; every year, we convene extraordinary people and ideas from across different disciplines who are all united in shaping a healthier future for our planet and its 7 billion people. And, at TEDMED 2016, we are honored to feature such committed, passionate citizens in our program.

One such actor is TEDMED Hive Innovator and EpiBiome CEO, Nick Conley. According to Nick, he founded EpiBiome in response to multi-drug-resistant “superbugs” that threaten to reverse the last one-hundred years of surgical advances if new antibiotics are not discovered, due to the risk of post-operative infection that is too high to justify all but the most necessary surgical procedures. In search for a substitute for antibiotic treatment, EpiBiome has taken to the sewer to explore bacteriophages – viruses that infect and destroy specific bacteria ­– as a natural and effective alternative. According to Nick, phages outnumber bacteria 10:1 and kill half the bacteria on the planet every two days. Importantly, some phages have already received “Generally Recognized as Safe” status from the FDA for use on food intended for human consumption.

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Image provided by Kinnos.

Meanwhile, TEDMED Hive Innovator Kevin Tyan, along with his co-founders at Kinnos, has taken a different approach to fighting infection. Recognizing the urgent need to improve decontamination in response to the Ebola epidemic, Kevin and his co-founders realized that regular bleach disinfectant wasn’t enough to protect health workers. Although bleach has been recommended by the World Health Organization as the best and most cost efficient disinfectant for surfaces contaminated by infectious disease, its effectiveness is limited by its transparency and the fact that it’s easy to miss spots and leave gaps in coverage. It also bounces off waterproof surfaces, much like rain bounces off an umbrella.

For Kevin, this was a challenge begging to be tackled head on. He and his co-founders created Highlight ­– a patent-pending powdered additive that colorizes disinfectants. This makes it easier to visualize, ensure full coverage, and adhere to surfaces. The color is only temporary, however, and fades once decontamination is complete.

Another TEDMED speaker who is not only deeply committed to protecting our health, but also that of our planet, is Gunhild Stordalen, Founder and President of the EAT Foundation. Gunhild believes that many of our major global health and environmental challenges are inextricably linked to food: what we eat, how our food is produced, and all that is wasted. With the knowledge that there is no single solution to this problem, the EAT Foundation works toward stimulating interdisciplinary research and catalyzing action across sectors to enable us to feed a growing global population with healthy food, from a healthy planet.

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Image provided by Caitlin Doughty.

Mortician and TEDMED speaker Caitlin Doughty is also deeply concerned about the health of our planet – particularly, the environmental risks of current burial practices. According to the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Southern California, traditional burials – where an embalmed body in a wooden coffin is sometimes placed in a concrete or metal vault ­– require more than 30 million board feet of hardwood, 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete and over 800,000 gallons of carcinogenic formaldehyde embalming fluid every year. Caitlin’s proposed solution? Eco-friendly death and burial practices, such as water cremation and natural composting. To that end, in 2012, Caitlin founded Undertaking LA, a progressive funeral home that provides alternative, green burial options.

Though they are taking wildly different approaches, these speakers and innovators are committed to a common goal – healing our world. We are inspired by their work, and are excited to see them speak at TEDMED 2016. We hope you’ll join us there.

The revealing power of creative disguise

This guest blog post is by TEDMED 2015 speaker Melissa Walker, a Creative Arts Therapist at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence.

This past month, I returned from a work excursion to Washington State and Alaska full of excitement and hope. My personal travels have never taken me to the Pacific Northwest or the Last Frontier, so the incredibly beautiful backdrop of cities such as Seattle and Tacoma, WA, and Anchorage and Seward, AK, was the cherry on top of our goal to spread the treatment we are most passionate about across the nation.

Melissa Walker, photographed at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence with masks that are part of her art therapy program with the military. melissa.s.walker12.civ@mail.mil PR Contact: Mary El Pearce Public Affairs Liaison, National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE) Associate, Booz Allen Hamilton NICoE Public Affairs Line: 301-319-3619 Booz Allen Office: 202-354-9412 Mobile: 404-285-5005 pearce_maryel@bah.com

Melissa Walker, photographed at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence with masks that are part of her art therapy program with the military. Photo credit: Rebecca Hale, National Geographic

Our team, composed of Department of Defense (DoD) and National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) staff, visited military traumatic brain injury (TBI) outpatient clinics to discuss the integration of the creative arts therapies into their treatment models. We also met with state and local arts agencies, community arts organizations, and local artists to encourage arts involvement of active duty military service members and veterans outside of, and alongside, the clinical setting.

Prior to these visits, the team also traveled to TBI clinics on military bases in North Carolina and California with the mission to expand, replicate, and support access to creative arts therapies treatment within the DoD. All were met with enthusiasm and a desire to offer treatments such as art therapy, music therapy, dance therapy, and drama therapy to our recovering military service members.

Though creative art therapists have been employed by the DoD and the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for many years, it wasn’t until very recently, after two Federal Agencies–the NEA and the DoD–united in what should be considered a role model Partnership, that the creative arts therapies were elevated to a nationally accepted level as a core integrative treatment for military service members diagnosed with the signature, invisible wounds of our most recent wars, TBI and underlying psychological health concerns to include post-traumatic stress (PTS).

This all began in 2011 when the NEA partnered with the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE), Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, MD, to adapt their Operation Homecoming creative writing initiative to the military healthcare setting.   The NEA offered to integrate creative and therapeutic writing into the existing Healing Arts Program, which was then composed solely of art therapy.  The integration of creative and therapeutic writing into the Healing Arts Program at the NICoE was a success.  Patient response to the writing, as well as a two-year survey ranking art therapy in the top five treatments of over forty that the service members found to be beneficial to their recovery, prompted the Partnership to begin exploring ways to expand creative arts therapies offerings.  A music therapy program began at NICoE in 2013 and shortly after, an art therapist was embedded at the NICoE Intrepid Spirit in Ft. Belvoir, Virginia – one of nine planned NICoE satellite centers.

There, positive patient and staff feedback led to the transition of that art therapist from contractor to a permanent DoD civilian and then the position was back-filled with a music therapist. The majority of service members treated at NICoE are stationed in Virginia Beach, so shortly after an art therapist was hired via the Partnership and embedded in the community there. It was crucial that service members responding to art therapy at the NICoE have follow-on care back at their home base. And at NICoE, creative arts therapies offerings continued to expand when the NICoE hired a Wellness Coordinator who is also a dance/movement therapist, and the NEA brought in an additional art therapist so that I could dedicate more of my time to outreach and research efforts.

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A mask created by an active duty member as part of Melissa’s Healing Arts Program.

Fortunately, Capitol Hill has responded very positively to the Partnership’s impact, and this year an increase of 1.9 million dollars in NEA funding was implemented for the replication and expansion of the NEA Military Healing Arts Network within not only key active duty military treatment facilities across the nation such as the ones I mentioned earlier, but also within the VA and community settings. As service members transition from active duty to becoming veterans and members of society, it is important that we ensure access to the arts so that they can serve as a therapeutic outlet across the continuum.  We would also like to bridge the divide between clinical and community arts settings, ensuring warm hand-offs as service members transition from active duty to retirement.

The goal of nine additional, for a total of twelve, clinical settings to the Partnership within the DoD and VA has been set for integration this year alone. Each of these settings will be connected to promising community arts programs. This means access to the arts as a form of healing and resilience for over 10,000 service members and veterans within our healthcare system and community, per year.

I, for one, cannot wait to see the amazing outcomes I have witnessed within the Healing Arts Program at the NICoE spill out and touch every service member and veteran possible over the next five, ten, twenty years… across ALL states. In the words of a former NICoE Director who has chosen to work for the Partnership post-retirement: “The creative arts therapies are no longer a nice to have, they are a NEED to have.” And this expansion is making that possible.


Portrait_MElissaWalkerCreative arts therapist Melissa Walker describes how she creates a haven where military service members recovering from traumatic brain injury and mental illness can safely unmask their invisible wounds.

The art of healing across cultures: Q&A with Laurie Rubin

Laurie Rubin works to promote healing across cultures.

Laurie Rubin

Performance artist and TEDMED 2015 speaker Laurie Rubin and her wife Jenny Taira founded Ohana Arts in 2014, a non-profit whose mission is to promote peace and world friendship through the universal language of the arts. They recently performed at a special ceremony in Hawai’i in memory of the recent 70th anniversary of the tragic Hiroshima nuclear bomb calamity. We caught up with Laurie to learn more about her and Jenny’s work to promote cross-cultural understanding and healing.

TEDMED: How did you first become interested in focusing on cross-cultural healing in your work?

LAURIE: From the time I was seven years old, I was in Hebrew School learning about the Holocaust, and the devastating loss of six million Jewish people that happened less than half a century before I sat in the classroom. The Holocaust made several appearances in my history classes throughout my elementary, middle, and high school education. I learned then what war and hate could do to human beings, and how mutual understanding and the necessity to heal was part of the universal human experience. Therefore when my wife Jenny, who is Japanese American, told me the effect the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum had on her, as well as Sadako Sasaki’s story, I had many mixed emotions. I first thought, “Why have I never heard about Sadako and her international peace movement?” My second thought was about the message that was consistent throughout my Hebrew School education, “Never again!” It was of the utmost importance to hear from Holocaust survivors about the kinds of things human beings are capable of doing to other human beings so that future generations don’t repeat the same behaviors and make the same grave mistakes. Yet, the only unit I remember doing on Hiroshima was in the 8th grade, and it was just luck that I had that particular teacher put John Hersey’s book, “Hiroshima” in his syllabus at our progressive school where teachers had leeway to create their own curricula. I realized that as a Jewish artist, it is my responsibility to keep enforcing the message of “Never again” by telling more stories beyond those of my people. “Peace On Your Wings,” is a musical Jenny and I wrote about Sadako Sasaki, a 12 year old girl who died of Leukemia resulting from radiation caused by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and who became famous for starting an international peace movement through her thousand origami cranes. It is an example of how one’s universal story can help to heal others who suffer from the atrocities caused by war, and an educational step toward preventing history from repeating itself. I realized that if you educate the world about one piece of history, it would simply get placed into a box that people would take less and less seriously over the decades. However, if you make people realize that human cruelty has happened to many people and nations, it drives the point home that it could happen again, and to us. Jenny and I have been trained as classical musicians, and have realized over time that we could use art, music, and theater to make a difference. It is our life’s work and mission to make sure we accomplish this in our unique way by telling as many poignant stories as possible and providing a sounding board for underrepresented voices.

TEDMED: Could you share any experiences you’ve had that have shaped your drive to play an active role in cross-cultural healing?

LAURIE: As a blind student mainstreamed in regular schools, I received a great education, but often felt isolated, and at times bullied. My braille books and adaptive equipment often made me feel like the alien that had unceremoniously waltzed into the lives of sighted children, disrupting their sense of normalcy. It wasn’t until high school when I joined summer programs for advanced musical study that I started making the kinds of friendships I felt deprived of in my school setting. Music was the level playing field for all of us in spite of our differences. Jenny had also gone to similar summer programs. Music brought us closer to youth from other countries, economic, and ethnic backgrounds. When we moved to Hawaii, where Jenny was born and raised, we decided to start Ohana Arts to provide a similar kind of formative experience for the youth here, and the rewards we see are so incredible. We see ourselves through the eyes of the students we work with. We see how the performing arts fosters acceptance, self expression, and a safe haven for those who have felt “different.”

Healing Metaphors – A Q&A with Abraham Verghese

At TEDMED 2014, physician and author Abraham Verghese shared a compelling and original perspective on the impact of language on medicine. In the Q&A below, he reveals more about how embracing our creative selves can help preserve the humanity in healthcare.

Abraham shares why it's important to breathe life back into medical language. [Photo: Kevork Djansezian, for TEDMED]

Abraham shares why it’s important to breathe life back into medical language. [Photo: Kevork Djansezian, for TEDMED] 

Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?

I was struck by the colorful metaphors that peppered medical descriptions in years past – the “strawberry” tongue, the “Mulberry” molar, the “Apple core” lesion of the colon, and so many more. I’ve found it so hard to believe that – with the avalanche of new diseases, new science and new technology – we simply haven’t developed new metaphors quite as colorful as the “saber-shinned tibia” or the “crackpot’s skull” of years past. It’s a peculiar atrophy of the imagination at a time when our scientific imagination knows no bounds. I think our right brains are churning, wanting to label and make colorful and to connect, but the imagined constraints of science and data have introduced a peculiar self-consciousness. I’m hoping that my talk encourages us to create more eponyms, more metaphors, and more colorful ways of capturing this incredible time we live in.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

I’d like to think that, in the era of tremendous advances in science and in medicine, I tried to keep us from losing sight of the patient, that vulnerable human being who gave us the great privilege of being with them at their time of need. What that human being needs in addition to our robotic technology, our beautiful diagnostic tools, is a caring relationship with another human being. I’d like to think that I spoke strongly for that and that I introduced a generation or more of students to the bedside and to that special privilege.

William Osler is quoted as saying that he desired no other epitaph “…than the statement that I taught medical students in the wards, as I regard this as by far the most useful and important work I have been called upon to do.” I don’t know that he actually used that on his tombstone, but I understand the sentiment. Every single student I work with at the bedside (even though the process might seem inefficient to be working with just one or two students) has the potential to go out and, in a lifetime, care for hundreds and thousands of patients. So, if you influence them well, you truly have leveraged something in the best sense of that word. I’d like my legacy to be about that work, both at the physical bedside but also metaphorically, and having brought readers and listeners to that sacred space and having perhaps conveyed in every manner that I could, the romance and passion and privilege of being in medicine. It’s not a business and never will be. Even though it enriches a lot of people, and even though it seems to be very much a business, medicine will always be a calling.

What’s next for you?

I have in mind the shaping of something I am calling “The Center for the Patient and Physician,” which I think of as a place to explore every aspect of the patient-physician relationship. At one level it will be pedagogy, teaching at the bedside and refining methods for teachers. But it will also be bringing in folks from a multitude of disciplines. For example from anthropology and ethnography to look at the patient-physician interaction, or tapping into bioengineering and design schools to look at the spaces where we interact. Perhaps, using population health sciences to look at influences on large populations of certain styles of physician-patient relationship. Or serving as a locale where postdocs and scholars who are interested in any aspect of this, can develop their craft – from studying empathy, compassion and caring to developing the next generation of pocket tools.

Are there any action items that you want your viewers to take?

Invent a metaphor that captures the work you do! If something could be named after you, what would it be? Go ahead, don’t feel shy!