Monday, April 25, 2016

HUBweek 2015 Day 1: De-Stress Boston

Now that plans are underway for HUBweek 2016 (slated to run from Sep. 25 – Oct. 1, 2016), it’s about time I wrote up my posts on HUBweek 2015. I will update this preface each time I add a post. I had been planning to attend HUBweek since it was first announced by its sponsoring partners (Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT, Harvard, and The Boston Globe) back in December 2014.
As HUBweek approached and the agenda crystallized, I started mapping out the events and locations, just as I would for a conference, weighing both how interesting the topics sounded and the logistics of getting around to the various locations scattered across Boston and Cambridge. Here was my planned itinerary:

Sun.     Oct. 4: De-Stress Boston (MGH) and Fenway Forum
Mon.    Oct. 5: STEM Speed Networking (MGH)
Tues.   Oct. 6: Paul Revere Meets 3-D Printing and Driving Ourselves Happy (MGH)
Wed.    Oct. 7: Coping with Climate Change (Harvard) and Your Brain on Art (Harvard)
Thurs.  Oct. 8: Mindfulness (MIT) and Healing Arts of Music and Medicine (MGH)
Sat.      Oct. 10: Luminous art & music festival at Fenway
Some of the events were taped and are still available for viewing online:

De-Stress Boston

Our attendance at De-Stress Boston began with a little driving/parking stress, as we left the house just slightly later than planned, and then hit traffic on Storrow, so if we didn’t park at the hospital, we’d miss the talk entirely, and so I sort of had to lie to the security guy at the entrance to the hospital parking garage, saying that we were indeed a patient and/or visitor. In our defense, Susan’s foot was still in a walking boot, and we really had a legitimate medical need to park nearby, but lying is stressful, as many studies have shown. It’s how lie detectors work, picking up the tiny physiological changes our bodies make when suppressing the truth. Lucky for me, they don’t have those rigged up at the entrance to parking garages. Recent studies also show that stress can increase the likelihood of cheating/lying (Weintraub, 2015).

This brings up the entire debate about how much of our behavior is a reflection of one’s individual personality/character, and how much is merely situational, a function of one’s current life circumstances. We hadn’t even arrived at our first HUBweek event, and look at how much debate and introspection it had already generated for us! Yes, yes, of course, I am fully aware of the horrible irony that we were getting stressed out on our way to a talk about stress reduction. 

After an introduction by John Henry, Dr. Herbert Benson spoke of how the relaxation response had moved from a hippy alternative concept in the 70’s to being accepted by mainstream science and medicine as a real, practical, and effective way to improve health by decreasing stress, resulting in tangible physiological changes and effects at the cellular level. By invoking the relaxation response, we can attain a quieter mind and improved perspective. What may have seemed like the worst thing imaginable now seems manageable. This reminded me of a bit of advice that Colin Powell shared during his talk at last year’s Sage Summit. When first presented with bad news, he would say to himself: “It’s not as bad as you think,” fully acknowledging that this was “not a plan, but a hope,” but one that allowed him to maintain some calm during crises.  

It’s noteworthy that meditation is now being proposed as an effective tool in managing things like Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS). Back in the day, meditation was something that only hippies did. When an old friend of mine was at Basic Training in the Army, back in the late 1980’s, the instructor was quizzing the class on various acronyms, and he asked my friend, “What does TM stand for?” She was pretty earthy-crunchy, and so the only thing she could think of was “Transcendental Meditation,” which just made him get agitated. “Tran-sen-what?!” Of course, the correct answer is Technical Manual.

Dr. Benson led us through a little practice meditation, and the next speaker had us do some chair yoga. There’s an awful lot of work that goes into doing and thinking nothing, quieting and stilling the mind. The speaker suggested using a word or phrase, as “words do focus us.” The problem with words is that there are simply so many to choose from. I had trouble deciding on a good word or a fitting phrase, and so that was a little stressful. I put it on my list of things to do, to come up with a good word or phrase.

The next speaker, Zach Valenti, showed off his Project Uplift that “game-ifies stress reduction.” Using a headset and a giant globe, the deeper you relax, the higher you lift the globe, providing immediate gratification and visible, tangible evidence of your relaxation progress. Part of me wanted to try it during the break, but a long line had formed very quickly, and lines stress me out. Plus, I tend to be just a little bit competitive, so I would have wanted to lift the globe higher than everyone else, and I would have been bummed out if I couldn’t even get it off the pad.

We moved from our back row seat in the balcony, to a table on the veranda with a better view overlooking the stage. As the next series of speakers were getting ready to talk, we found ourselves getting drawn in by the smell of soup from a nearby table. Was that clam chowder? Or, would that be calm chowder? Ha ha. We soon found ourselves making our way downstairs to the Eat Street CafĂ©, getting a nice cup of hot chicken noodle soup, which I highly recommend: savory, hearty, comforting. 

I’d feel bad about our little detour to the MGH cafeteria, but it turned out to be quite handy, when we returned to MGH just a few weeks later, quite unexpectedly, after a friend had a heart attack.

In the process of making our way to the cafeteria, it was hard not to notice the faces of the various caregivers, nurses, doctors, and aids we saw along the way: They all looked so stressed. They probably needed the De-Stress Boston talk every bit as much as we did, and maybe even more. But, if you think about it, maybe it’s understandable. Their jobs deal with life-and-death decisions and consequences. In many lines of work, you can remind everyone to maintain perspective, and that every decision is not a life-and-death matter. Except that at a hospital, it is life-and-death. Or, at least, it might be. It could be. How do you deal with that? There are a number of jobs that carry similar gravity: police, fire, pilots, soldiers, engineers. While some of these fields rely on a certain level of heroism/bravery/honor, how do you make the constant stress of life-and-death decisions manageable? The answer in many cases: policies, protocols, values, and standards. Take it out of the individuals’ hands. Institute checklists. It works for airlines, why not the medical field? Use feedback loops to ensure continued learning. Give people the tools to know they did the best they could under the given circumstances.

There is an old episode of “Scrubs,” where the old curmudgeon doctor and the resident, played by Zach Braff, get into a competition in treating two patients with the exact same symptoms. They both come up with the same diagnosis and treatment plan, but Zach Braff’s patient dies, while the older doctor’s patient lived. The young resident asks why. The older doctor says, “You forgot something…” Before he can finish, the young resident rushes off to do more research, tormenting himself, thinking that if he had only done something different, his patient would have lived. At the end of the show, the older doctor comes to him and finally explains: The resident had done everything right, but he had forgotten one thing: Sometimes people just die, even when we do everything right. It’s not all in our control. 

And, sometimes we patients probably forget that doctors are just human, not superheroes, as much as we and others and maybe even themselves would like to make them out to be otherwise. They’ve not been imbued with special powers; they just know what they know, but they don’t know everything. The inner workings of how the human body sustains life is a universe yet to be fully explored and understood.

Bellies full, and feeling just slightly less stressed, we embarked for home. Irony of ironies, the drive home was equally stressful, though, as I got in the wrong lane at what used to be Leveritt Circle. “Are we going home to Watertown via the Zakim Bridge?” “No, of course not.” No, instead, we took 93 South to the Pike, through the bowels of the new and improved Big Dig depressed Central Artery. Traveling on 93 South, a giant Peter Pan bus the size of a townhouse goes hurtling past in the lane next to me, and then my exit lane splits off into oblivion, re-surfacing into a microscopic merge zone. It all works – on paper – but I can’t help but think: wouldn’t it have been nice if they could have had the benefit of a 3-D model or virtual reality tour prior to construction? Of course, 3-D printing is a topic for another day.

After taking Susan home, my next stop that afternoon would be Fenway Forum, a Master Class with Professor Michael Sandel.

Post Script
I always see getting lost as an opportunity for picking up clues that might come in handy in some way in the future. It’s part of my incorrigible belief that everything happens for a reason, and some studies in the field of psychology show that we might just be wired to think that way. Little did I know, but my visit to MGH turned out to be just the start of my tour of the major hospitals and healthcare systems (and their cafeterias) in the metropolitan Boston area. But, that’s a topic for another blog, another day. 

I was recently going through our book cases at home and found Dr. Benson’s original book, and added it on to my ambitious 2016 reading list:

Art & Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland. This one came as a recommendation via Stu Rook of Lux Lisbon, congrats on the sold-out show at Scala London on 21 April! One of the most interesting concepts I found in this book was the fundamental difference between art and science; the expectation that scientific results be reproducible and objective, while art is expected to be original and offer a unique perspective, and so in this way they are almost diametrically opposed.

Presence, by Amy Cuddy

The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James (father of American Psychology, but just as much a philosopher); thank you to Dr. Nancy Etcoff for the recommendation.

Super Genes, by Deepak Chopra, M.D, and Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D.

Give and Take, by Adam Grant

Originals, by Adam Grant

Coming Next
HUBweek Day 1, Part 2: Fenway Forum: A Master Class with Professor Michael Sandel

Benson, Herbert, M.D., with Miriam Z. Klipper. 1975. The Relaxation Response. New York: Avon Books, a Division of The Hearst Corporation.

Levenson, Michael, 2014. Institutions formally announce HUBweek festival. The Boston Globe. December 12, 2014.

Weintraub, Karen, 2015. Stress may make you more likely to cheat. The Boston Globe. August 15, 2015.

© 2016 Rosemary A. Schmidt
Rose Schmidt is the author of “Go Forward, Support! The Rugby of Life” (Gainline Press 2004). Use of individual quotes with proper citation and attribution, within the limits of fair use, is permitted. If you would like to request permission to use or reprint any of the content on the site, please contact me. Twitter handle: Rosebud@GainlineRS