Emotional Well-Being is the Missing Key to Better Health

This guest blog post is by Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General and TEDMED 2015 speaker. You can watch his TEDMED talk here.

Imagine if there was a force in your life that could reduce your risk of having a heart attack or stroke, that could help you live longer, that could make your children less likely to use drugs and engage in crime, and that could even help you lose weight.

It turns out, it is not a new prescription medication or medical procedure. The force I’m talking about is emotional well-being.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy speaking at TEDMED 2015.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy speaking at TEDMED 2015.

Emotional well-being is the often overlooked counterpart to physical well-being. Emotional well-being is about much more than the absence of mental illness in the same way that physical well-being is about more than the absence of injury or disease. Commonly thought of as happiness, emotional well-being is a powerful resource within each of us that can reduce our risk of illness, improve our performance, and enable us to be resilient in the face of adversity. Emotional well-being is what can make the difference between surviving and thriving.

It might be tempting to assume that emotional well-being is solely a consequence of our circumstances. We may tell ourselves that we’ll be happy if we get the promotion we want, make more money, or lose some weight. This is not to say that circumstances don’t matter. They do. In particular, external factors such as poverty, violence, and poor access to health care have a real impact on health and well-being – and we must do everything we can to address them. But science tells us that there are also internal factors that influence emotional well-being and that we can in fact proactively cultivate emotional well-being using tools that are surprisingly simple and relatively inexpensive.

We can cultivate emotional well-being with physical exercise, which research shows can improve mood and outlook as well as reduce depression. Contemplative practices like gratitude exercises and meditation have also been shown to improve emotional well-being, as has getting an adequate amount of sleep.

Perhaps one of the most powerful tools for improving emotional well-being is social connection – the presence of genuine, strong, relationships where one feels known and supported. Despite the ubiquity of social media, we are facing an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation. Helping people find and build meaningful relationships is one way to improve emotional well-being. The good news is there are a growing number of communities that have begun to invest in improving emotional well-being and are seeing remarkable results.

sg-visitacion-valley-msOne example is Visitacion Valley Middle School in California.  The school is located in a community where violence is prevalent.  The majority of the students come from economically-challenged families. Many have one or both parents in prison.  Several years ago, suspension rates were high, academic performance was low and anxiety and trauma were commonplace.  Desperate to do something, the school teamed up with the Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education to develop a voluntary “Quiet Time” program for students – that included the option to practice 15 minutes of meditation, twice a day. In the first year alone, there was a 45% reduction in suspensions, teacher absenteeism dropped by 30%, grades and test scores went up, and the students reported less anxiety and fewer sleep disturbances. The program has since been expanded to more schools, with promising results.

Emotional well-being is a relatively untapped resource that has the potential to transform our health. It can help us build resilience, enhance productivity, and shift our mindsets away from fear and pessimism toward peace and possibility – a shift that is increasingly necessary and urgent in today’s world.

Imagine if we prioritized emotional well-being as much as test scores in schools. Imagine if cultivating emotional well-being was seen as a priority in our workplaces. Imagine if emotional well-being was understood by all our policymakers to be the fuel that enables us to be healthy, productive, and strong.

The question is: can we make the cultivation of emotional well-being a priority that is reflected in our culture, our policies, and each of our lives? For the sake of our health and the health of future generations, we must ensure the answer is “yes.”

Advancing Synthetic Biology: Q&A with Floyd Romesberg

Floyd Romesberg, synthetic biology expert
Floyd Romesberg

In his TEDMED 2015 talk, Scripps Chemistry Professor Floyd Romesberg shares his enthusiasm for developing artificial DNA and its implications for novel protein therapeutics. We caught up with Floyd to learn more about the exciting work of his lab.

TEDMED: What has your lab been up to since you spoke at TEDMED?

FLOYD: Since I spoke at TEDMED, my lab has continued to nurture and optimize our semi-synthetic organism. The nascent organism I described in my talk was the first to replicate DNA containing a third base pair, but only a single pair, and the poorly growing organism rapidly lost the unnatural base pair under all but the most controlled conditions. It was an incredible proof of principle, but lacked the fortitude of real life. The newly improved organism still relies on the same protein to take up the unnatural nucleotide precursors of our unnatural base pair, but we have engineered the protein to be less toxic and are now utilizing a newer, chemically optimized unnatural base pair. In addition, we have optimized the host cell. The result is a semi-synthetic bacterial organism that can be grown like any other laboratory strain and that retains multiple unnatural base pairs in virtually any sequence context – the first semi-synthetic form of life that stores genetic information using a six-letter, three base pair alphabet.

TEDMED: What’s next for you?

FLOYD: We’re continuing to push forward with the semi-synthetic organism. Since we reached the milestone of unrestricted storage of increased genetic information, the next step has been to focus on information retrieval in the form of messenger and transfer RNA transcribed from the six-letter DNA. The unnatural base pair will be one third of a new amino acid codon, and we’re also working on engineering the components to decode the new codon into a novel amino acid during protein synthesis. There are a lot of moving parts to coordinate, and we have to get each part to work but we also have to make sure the parts all work together. It might sound like an insurmountable problem, but that’s what people thought about our efforts to expand the genetic alphabet. It may take some time, but getting bacteria to produce unnatural proteins should be possible. When we accomplish this, we will have created the first form of synthetic life that stores and retrieves increased information and which can access forms and functions not otherwise possible in the fully natural world.

TEDMED: What does the future of medicine look like with protein therapeutics?

FLOYD: Protein therapeutics have revolutionized medicine, but their potential activities and uses are limited by their being composed of only the natural twenty amino acids and in the challenges of their specific modification. The future of protein therapeutics lies in methodologies to include any chemical functionality into their composition, thereby imparting novel or optimized activities and properties. With development of our semi-synthetic organism, we will be able to produce the unnatural proteins directly during their synthesis within the cell. In this manner we should be able to extend the potential application of protein therapeutics to diseases that have been difficult to target, such as infectious diseases and cancer. The possibilities are essentially endless.

TEDMED: What kind of impact do you want your research to have?

FLOYD: I would like our research to impact our conceptual understanding of life– what it can be and how it might have evolved– and also influence our practical uses of it, by producing modified proteins to treat disease.

Dispatches of solace and hope: Q&A with Sarah Gray

On Hope and Solace: Sarah Gray
Sarah Gray

In her TEDMED talk, Sarah Gray, director of communications for the American Association of Tissue Banks (AATB), shared her journey to find meaning in her most tragic loss by learning how to donate the organs of her newborn son to advance scientific research. We asked Sarah to tell us more about her outreach work.

TEDMED: Could you share any exciting stories you’ve encountered in your work?

SARAH: On the research front, I’m pleased to share that Eversight, one of the largest consortiums of eye banks in the USA, recently launched a new program called Hope and Healing that is designed to help eye donor families meet the researchers who received their loved one’s tissue.

In a story similar to my own, an especially touching family tale is about Amalya, a baby who died of anencephaly who donated to a variety of studies around the USA. His parents were able to meet some of the researchers who received his donations and learn about the impact of his donation.

TEDMED: In your TEDMED talk, you encouraged the audience to contact you with any stories of their own about tissue donation. With over a million views of your talk, have you connected with any viewers with powerful stories of tissue, organ or marrow donation?

SARAH: Absolutely! I have received emails from amazing people from all over the world, from New Zealand and South Africa to Scotland, Spain and France. Some just wanted to say that they liked the talk, some shared stories of loss, some told me that I helped them see a new perspective, and some asked for practical advice about donation and obtaining research samples. One researcher contacted me to find out where he might be able to access different types of tissue for a study on the genetic causes of certain diseases and I am glad I was able to help him.

I was really touched by every person who reached out, and a few of the emails in particular. Two different people from two different countries told me they had terminal cancer and wanted to know where they might be able to donate their tissue when they pass away so that the study of their tissue might help others. Reading these emails was so moving and I am honored I was able to help them.

Learn more about Sarah’s journey in her powerful memoir, A Life Everlasting: The Extraordinary Story of One Boy’s Gift to Medical Science. 

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

This guest blog post was written by TEDMED 2015 speaker, critically acclaimed author, and sexuality investigator, Daniel Bergner.

The subjects I’ve chosen as a nonfiction writer may seem pretty scattered. My first nonfiction book, God of the Rodeo, was about a group of convicts in Louisiana’s Angola Prison, where almost all the inmates are serving life without the slightest chance of parole. My fourth book, What Do Women Want?, was the topic of this TEDMED talk – female desire. But things aren’t as scattered as they seem. In fact, I’m fairly obsessive. Over and over, throughout my writings, I’ve dealt with two subjects, race and eros. And as I’ve focused on these subjects, the common thread is how we perceive and understand ourselves.

Daniel Bergner's new book, Sing for your Life.
Daniel Bergner’s new book, Sing For Your Life.

That’s what my TEDMED talk is about—the stories we, as a culture, tell ourselves about female sexuality and the way these stories permeate our expectations about men and women. Shortly after I gave my TEDMED talk, I overheard someone remark that she couldn’t stand it when men speak about female sexuality. While I didn’t discuss it with her, I do think that her preconceptions might have prevented her from really hearing my talk, which was based largely on the work of female scientists, like Meredith Chivers. The goal of my talk was, at the very least, to call into question some of our conventional ways of seeing the world we live in, and the assumptions that tend to serve men awfully well.

This is again a theme in my new book, Sing For Your Life. It’s about the personal and artistic journey of an extremely unlikely opera singer, Ryan Speedo Green, a young African-American man who grew up in rural Virginia in a bullet-riddled shack across the street from a drug dealer’s den, who was locked up as a kid in Virginia’s juvenile facility of last resort, and who is starring at the Metropolitan Opera this fall in La Boheme. It’s a story about all that we, too often, fail to see in each other, and all that we can easily fail to see in ourselves.

Sing For Your Life is about blindness, and about seeing, as I think all my books are. Which is maybe true about all the books on our shelves, the ones we care about. They’re about the unexpected, the unlikely, the things that go unnoticed, coming into view.

Critically acclaimed author and sexuality investigator Daniel Bergner shakes the foundations of society’s core beliefs about female desire and the science of promiscuity.

How to Solve the World’s Sanitation Problem: Let the Problem Get Bigger

This guest blog post is by TEDMED 2015 speaker Peter Janicki, a founding member of Janicki Industries.

I have been working on large mechanical engineering projects since I got out of college 25 years ago, but the last 3-4 years have been by far the most exciting and rewarding. When you travel through the streets of India or Africa you see some of the most industrious, talented and hardworking people ever, but many of them are just struggling to survive and the sanitation conditions are awful. Making money using fecal sludge, garbage and other waste as the feed stock to radically transform these conditions is my dream.

OP S100 (4) Dakar
Peter Janicki’s Omni Processor in Dakar, Senegal.

With this dream, I designed a machined we call the Omni Processor, which evaporates the water out of sewage, uses the dried solids as fuel to power a boiler, makes high pressure steam, and drives a steam engine to produce electricity. The great news is that my first such machine has been operating in Dakar, Senegal for over a year now, and has passed many milestones. Last month, the water we are making from raw sewage was tested and passed every possible test with flying colors. The steam engine in our Dakar unit is now powering the Omni Processor itself, the control offices and air conditioners, as well as large customer electrical loads.

Making affordable electric power and clean drinking water from sewage is a tremendous achievement, and we recognize that. When you walk through our engineering offices, you can feel the excitement and optimism for the future. Nothing is perfect and we are continuing to improve the power output and overall mechanical system, but we will get there. It is inevitable that, with continued focus and perseverance, the equipment will work as dreamed.

When I reflect upon the journey so far, it is clear that I woefully underestimated the engineering effort to design, build and deploy this machine. But, in some ways, this is my life story. I am overly optimistic and this is part of the magic to being successful. I look at what appears to be an impossible problem and say, “Ok, we can do this, let’s go for it.” And, in the end, this optimism, coupled with tremendous perseverance, wins. While there will always be opportunity to improve the technology, the next real challenge is successfully integrating this machine into the social and political landscape of these cultures. I recognize that this is, by and large, not an engineering problem; rather, it is a matter of understanding human nature and culture outside of my area of experience. We can and will learn from others as we install equipment in these communities.

Like so many other problems I have faced, I am probably underestimating how hard it is going to be to get this perfect, but I will remain optimistic. In the end, with perseverance, focus and hard work, I am confident we will win on this front, as well. We will figure this out. We will not stop until we do. My team and I work 24/7, day after day, year after year, and never give up. I talk to my team on Saturday night, or late in the evenings, or at 5 o’clock in the morning—whenever inspiration arrives. We win, because we focus on winning. Ideas come to you when you are dreaming, going for a walk, taking a shower–not just from 8-5 in an office. Seize the moment when it comes. Do not let the opportunity of inspiration pass.

Janicki_crop_portraitEngineer Peter Janicki describes his unique methods for setting industry standards across sectors, from airplanes and boats to his current fascination–basic sanitation in low-income countries.

The hidden ingenuity of nurses: Q&A with Anna Young

In her TEDMED 2015 talk, MakerHealth CEO and Co-Founder Anna Young describes how she is bringing rapid prototyping tools into hospital to enhance the natural, do-it-yourself problem solving abilities of MakerNurses, frontline clinicians, and patients who innovate to improve health care. Using a maker mindset of hands-on problem solving and experimentation, nurses, respiratory therapists, medical residents and patients in the MakerHealth network are reinventing medical technology. We caught up with Anna to learn more about her work, and what’s on the horizon for MakerNurse and MakerHealth. 

Q: Are there any recent MakerNurse innovations that you are especially excited about?

A: The most impressive projects we hear are the ones that launch from idea to prototype in less than a week! When we launched MakerNurse, nurses reached out sharing their ideas. Now, nurses are calling us to share their prototypes! Some of the recent nurse-made projects we’ve guided include: home care devices for improved patient hygiene, a custom patient support pillow, and a toy bear modified to support a PICU patient’s ventilator tubing.

Driscoll Children’s Hospital, Corpus Christi, TX

Earlier this summer, Driscoll Children’s Hospital in Corpus Christi, TX, one of the MakerNurse Expedition Sites, performed an incredible operation to separate two conjoined twins. From surgical planning to the patients’ rehabilitation, the process was full of health making that made us so proud to be working with Driscoll. The surgeons modified two toy dolls to match the anatomy of the twins and 3D printed a model of their organs from a DICOM file to help with surgical preparation. The nurses created custom, color-coded surgical caps to identify the clinicians for each of the twins: one team wearing purple and the other team yellow. During the rehabilitation, the Occupational Therapists and Child Life Specialists built an interactive mobile from PVC tubing, custom dimensioned around the bandage constraints of the twins.

For this care team, a maker mindset and access to prototyping tools helped them care for delicate, high-risk, N=1 patients. The innovations at Driscoll – the surgical models, custom caps and PVC rehab mobiles will never be commercialized because the market is too small. If you think about it though, the patient doesn’t care. So with a MakerHealth toolset and mindset, this team in Corpus Christi is reinventing care.

Q: You started your journey with nurses. How did MakerNurse grow to reach other health care professions and patients through MakerHealth?

A: Our academic roots at the Little Devices Lab at MIT had been looking at the science of medical making for a long time in hospitals in Nicaragua, Nigeria and Ethiopia. We got a huge shot in the arm when the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supported the translation of our research framework for international health making into a framework for finding frontline MakerNurses across the American health care system. In the US, nurses are natural hands-on problem solvers and leaders in making, but they don’t operate alone in their tinkering. As we roll out the MakerHealth Program in hospitals, we are working with doctors making surgical tools, OTs and PTs creating adaptive devices and even police teams joining the community by 3D printing lock jigs. We’ve created on-ramps and just-in-time learning blocks to help all staff inside of the hospital learn the skills needed to prototype.

This same model of medical prototyping and sharing grew beyond the hospital walls. We saw with a parent in Ohio, who refused to wait for Medicaid to kick in to reimburse a walker for his daughter who has an endocrine disorder. Instead, he rolled up his sleeves, went into his garage and transformed his grandmother’s adult walker into a child-size one for his daughter. Bonus, he spray painted it purple. Her favorite color. This is the heart of health making, people who are driven to create solutions for the patients closest to them.

Q: What are today’s grand visionary plans of MakerHealth?

A: Health making is revolutionizing the way care is delivered in hospitals, clinics, and home care divisions across the globe. Patient-made machines are changing the provider-patient dynamic. The solutions by frontline staff are making care better and more affordable. Everyone is working to get rid of the black box of medicine: hidden engineering, hostage data and runaway prices. When the status-quo medical device becomes too cost-prohibitive, we see emergency response teams in Seattle respond by rolling out their own DIY kits. We are driven to show health systems how to move these health prototypes into clinical care. Right now, medicine is a temple of evidence raised practice. We’re bringing back an experimental mindset where everyone gets to ask the questions-and everyone gets to build the answers. You need tools: so we are going to continue to grow our hospital makerspaces, we’re writing new types of medical and nursing school curriculum, and folks can now order prototyping kits shipped to their home. We are reinventing health care one maker at a time.

annayoung_blogcaption MakerNurse co-founder Anna Young describes how she is bringing rapid prototyping tools into hospital units to enhance the natural, do-it-yourself problem solving abilities of nurses who innovate to improve patient care on a daily basis.

Balancing Medical & Musical Worlds: Q&A with Suzie Brown

In her TEDMED 2015 performance, cardiologist and singer-songwriter Suzie Brown and her husband, Scot Sax, give a vulnerable, evocative performance that tugs at our heartstrings. We caught up with Suzie to learn more about the delicate balance between pursuing her musical passions and practicing cardiology.

Credit: Zoey Sless Kitain
Credit: Zoey Sless Kitain

TEDMED: Can you tell us more about the fine line between exposing your outside life to your patients, being vulnerable with them, and maintaining the level of expertise, stoicism, competence, and objectivity that is expected when playing the role of a doctor?

SUZIE: It IS a fine line. When I am at the hospital, I am 100% dedicated to my patients and I would never want there to be any question about that. For that reason, I generally do not volunteer that I’m a musician, or even that I work part time. Once I have established a more long term relationship, and my commitment to them and competence as their physician has come across, I find it easier to talk about (but I still don’t bring it up). I hope that they feel it on some level though, in that I am more vulnerable and empathetic than I would be otherwise.

TEDMED: How do you balance the medical professional side and musical sides of your life?

SUZIE: It’s not easy. And it’s become even more complicated now that I have kids. My schedule currently alternates between 2 weeks working as a doctor and two weeks “off” from medicine, which is my time for music. After my two doctor weeks, I’m usually exhausted, and I’m always missing my family like crazy. I need to physically and mentally recharge before I’m able to be creative, which takes time. I can’t wait to spend time with my husband and daughters after being away so much at work. In between family and recharging time, I squeeze in my creative time. These days that mostly consists of songwriting with other artists in Nashville, though I still play shows and make albums. Inevitably, the two weeks “off” goes by in a flash. I often wish I had more music time, though I’m SO grateful for the time that I do have.

TEDMED: Do you think the fact that you’re a musician makes you a better doctor?

SUZIE: Definitely. Having time for music allows me to recharge, to replete my emotional reserve, so I have more to give to my patients. It also allows me to access my feelings and maintain a healthy amount of vulnerability – without time away, it’s easy to shut down emotionally, just to get by.

Download the song from Suzie’s TEDMED 2015 performance, “Sometimes Your Dreams Find You,” for free here!

How Should We Train Medical Students for a Digital Future?

By guest contributor and TEDMED 2015 speaker Robert M. Wachter, MD

When I was a medical student about 30 years ago, I knew what a computer was, but the machines didn’t have any relevance to my professional life. When I started on the wards, all of my clinical notes were handwritten on pieces of paper stored in three-ring binders. We read paper journals, photocopied and handed out articles to our colleagues, and clipped out summaries of “keepers,” filing them in little recipe boxes for later review. To look at our x-rays, we trekked to the radiology department, since that was where the only copy of the film was stored. All of our laboratory results came back on flimsy carbon copy sheets of paper that were filed, in rough alphabetical order, on a rickety poker table outside the clinical laboratory.

In retrospect, it’s amazing that we didn’t kill more of our patients.

In the past five years, fueled by about $30 billion in federal incentive payments, medicine has finally become a digital industry. More than 90% of American hospitals now have electronic health records, as do the vast majority of physician offices. Decades after most other information-intensive industries switched from paper to silicon, in medicine, the x-rays, the three-ring binders, and the card tables have finally left the building.

Clearly, the world of today’s physicians will be vastly different from the world I entered in the early 1980s. Just as clearly, the training of future physicians must evolve for their work in a digital healthcare system. But how should it change?

Digital MedicineIn order to understand this, it’s important to make clear how digitization changes the nature of medical practice. The first issue is how one accesses medical knowledge. Online resources are now a click away, and more sophisticated electronic health records build in decision-support, which can do everything from reminding you that a patient is allergic to a certain antibiotic to guiding you to a well-vetted, evidence-based protocol for the management of a patient with a stroke.

On top of that, there’s the exploding field of analytics. The same technology that allows Amazon and Netflix to say, “Customers like you also liked…” will soon be applied to medical knowledge. Although your average physician won’t be performing big data analytics in the course of her workday, she will need to understand the results of such analytics, and be skilled at asking the big data experts (or the computers themselves, as the tools become more user-friendly) questions that can be answered effectively by existing data.

The role of patients will be transformed. As we’ve seen in other industries, computerization is The Great Democratizer. Patients will be far better informed through online resources, and will no longer be entirely dependent on the physician for expert knowledge. In certain cases, patients will also have access to apps and other tools that allow them to self-manage problems that used to require a physician visit. When they do need to see the doctor, many, perhaps most, of their visits will occur through telemedicine.

What does this mean for the training of future doctors? First, not all physicians will need to be experts in HTML. Clearly, some clinicians will want careers that blend informatics and medicine, and they should be encouraged to pursue this important work. And all students will need to understand the basics of how computers work in a medical context, but that is not the core issue.

Rather, the key change is that students will need to be trained to be leaders in improving systems of care, in working effectively in teams, in partnering with patients in new ways, and in using digital capabilities to enhance all of this work. While they will have less need than in the past to memorize everything in the textbook, it will be a mistake to say that they don’t really need to know very much since all the answers are a web search away. In many cases, it is the deep foundational knowledge that allows you to know when you need to learn more, or when the computer is giving you an answer that is inappropriate for a given patient’s situation. The physician of the future will still need to know quite a lot.

Probably the most important challenge will be one that gets even harder as the information technology gets better: balancing the technology with the humanity of medicine. We must train our future doctors – who will not know anything other than a digital environment – to concentrate on the real patient, not the digital incarnation of the patient, which Abraham Verghese calls the “iPatient”. With all of the data in the computer, this is easy to forget. But, as I wrote in The Digital Doctor, even when that wonderful day arrives when we have finally coaxed the machines into doing all the things we want them to do and none of the things we don’t, we will still be left with one human being seeking help at a time of great need and overwhelming anxiety. The relationship between a doctor and a patient does not feel transactional now, and I don’t think it will then. Rather, it will remain vital, scary, ethically charged, and deeply human.

It will take great discipline and all the professionalism we can muster to remember, in a healthcare world now bathed in digital data, that we are taking care of human beings. The iPatient can be useful as a way of representing a set of facts and problems, and big data can help us analyze them and better appreciate our choices. But ultimately, only the real patient counts, and only the real patient is worthy of our full attention.


Bob Wachter, digital medicine expertIn his TEDMED 2015 talk, renowned UCSF internist, author and patient advocate Robert M. Wachter shares his struggle to balance patient empowerment with patient safety in our digital age.

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.”

How To Live Free By Breaking Through Perfectionism

By guest contributor and TEDMED 2015 Speaker Seun Adebiyi

I’m training to represent Nigeria – whose tropical climate has never seen a flake of snow – as its first ever Winter Olympic athlete.

That's me loading cargo onto an MD-88 (small jet) at Atlanta International Airport. I decided to work for Delta as a seasonal/summer employee so I can get free or reduced flights to skeleton competitions. I don't have any sponsors, so every penny saved on travel is a penny that can go towards my training.
That’s me loading cargo onto an MD-88 (small jet) at Atlanta International Airport. I decided to work for Delta as a seasonal/summer employee so I can get free or reduced flights to skeleton competitions. I don’t have any sponsors, so every penny saved on travel is a penny that can go towards my training.

Without any sponsors, I work as an airline baggage handler to cover my training expenses. The guy with a Yale Law degree on his knees in the belly of a Boeing 737 stacking suitcases? Yeah, that’s me. It might sound crazy, but as a first-generation immigrant who grew up beneath the poverty line with a single black mom in rural Alabama, I’m no stranger to humble work. We were so poor that even the kids from the projects made fun of my clothing and haircuts (courtesy of my mom and a pair of scissors). I eventually learned to compensate for my inferiority complex by winning…at all costs.
By the time I was 14, I was ranked 4th in the United States for my age group in swimming. I had broken the Nigerian record in the 200 meter freestyle and was on track to compete in the 2000 Olympic Games. Three months before the opening ceremonies, I became paralyzed from the waist down in a training accident. Without the validation of athletic success to prop up my self-esteem, I went into a vicious tailspin that took me down a dark alley of drugs, alcohol and attempted suicide. I didn’t snap out of it until my college roommate blew his head off with a shotgun.
Searching for a reason to live, I began training for the 2004 Olympics with the club team at the University of Pittsburgh. I dropped 75 pounds in nine months, only to miss the Olympic “B” qualifying time by one tenth of a second. In my third year at Yale Law School, I decided to give the Olympics another shot, this time in a high-speed, high-risk winter sport called the skeleton: like the luge, but headfirst. Nigeria had never been to the Winter Olympics in any sport, and I’d never tried the skeleton before.
SkeletonSound like long odds? That’s not even the half of it. One week after my 26th birthday – and eight months out from the 2010 Winter Olympics – I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and myeloproliferative disorder. Only a bone marrow transplant could save my life, but as an African-American, my odds of finding a compatible donor were less than 17%. Suddenly the improbable seemed impossible.
With only months to live, I partnered with the world’s largest non-profit bone marrow donor organization, Delete Blood Cancer (DKMS), to recruit over 10,000 new donors and hold the first-ever bone marrow donor drive in Nigeria. I chose Nigeria for two reasons. First, my odds of finding a match were highest in my own ethnic group. Second, blacks are underrepresented in the international donor pool, a key hurdle that keeps thousands of minority patients from finding a genetically compatible donor. Nigeria is the most populous and genetically diverse country in Africa, so their donors could potentially help millions around the world. It made sense for me, and it made sense for others.
However, as luck would have it, on the day of my flight to Lagos, I found a match in the U.S. It was literally the biggest lottery win of my life! But there was a catch: doing the transplant would mean postponing my trip to Nigeria. I had to decide which was more important: saving my own life or holding a drive that would one day save the lives of others?
This was the moment of truth. I knew my decision in that moment would shape my character forever. That was when I finally broke free of the inferiority complex that had shackled me to the mindset of “winning at all costs.” For perhaps the first time in my life, I saw with clarity that success is not measured by wealth, prestige, and accolades, but by one’s impact on the lives of others. Against doctor’s orders, I boarded the plane to Lagos, signing up over 300 donors in a single afternoon. Then I had my transplant and have been cancer free for six years.
Everything changed after that. I left my prestigious job on Wall Street to launch the first Bone Marrow Donors Registry in Nigeria (BMRN) in 2012. Two years later, I partnered with the American Cancer Society to develop the Global Scholars Program, which mentors and financially supports young professionals from developing countries to become effective cancer advocates in their communities.
My next goal is to build a pan-African bone marrow donor registry and cord blood bank, so that patients just like me can have a second chance at life. I also still dream of carrying the Nigerian flag in the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics one day. We all have a choice to pursue our dreams. It’s never too late to start, and it’s always worth it. Break through, and live free!
Seun Adebiyi, on breaking through from perectionismIn his TEDMED talk, cancer survivor and Olympic hopeful Seun Adebiyi astounds us with stories from his quest to conquer the impossible – and what he has learned about himself along the way.