Monday, December 14, 2015
SOVIET NOSTALGIA, STEM CELLS, GROWING UP WITH MARXISM AND CATHOLICISM, EFFECTS OF REMOVING BULLY ALPHA MALES
Soviet sculpture studio, 1953
I know I’ll never meet anyone
who’s had my childhood,
surrounded by portraits of Lenin
and Karl Marx, with Engels tossed in
for the sake of the Trinity.
We all knew who God the Father was,
who the Son with slant Siberian eyes,
Engels the long-suffering Ghost.
I’ll never meet anyone
who’s heard about the Tzar’s
Winter Palace, the first salvo fired
from the battleship Aurora,
the Finland Station, Smolny Institute.
Those were family names;
it didn’t matter that they stood
for shattered dreams.
You love what you grew up with:
not the moronic regime
but the springtime of blossoming emblems,
the lilacs of ideals, the enormous width
of The International. When you sang it,
you sang with a million mouths.
Aren’t all poems about forbidden love?
The swooning lilacs instead of suicide?
Marx’s beard like a wild shrub
grew on every wall. In summer we ate
cucumber sandwiches, in winter
cucumber soup — it was the humble
potato soup with finely chopped pickle.
What can you expect from reality,
that fat woman who opens a can
of Campbell’s chicken noodle.
~ Oriana © 2015
RUSSIAN NOSTALGIA FOR THE SOVIET ERA
I'm fascinated by the amount of Soviet-era nostalgia that the Russians are experiencing. There is a bad side to this — nationalism, the yearning to regain lost power. Russia adores Putin, the latest incarnation of a Tzar-like autocrat. But then there is a purely emotional and universal aspect of this nostalgia: you love what you grew up with. You love the familiar. You see certain faces around you, and they become your family. Marx: a great-grandfather. Lenin: the smart, successful uncle. Engels: the eccentric “old bachelor” uncle, somewhat pitied.
The loss of the familiar is traumatic. It’s at the core of what I call the “immigrant trauma.” It doesn’t matter that by objective standards the new country has a higher standard of living. The new country is all wrong simply because it is different.
I never wrestled with Marxism as a set of doctrines. My struggle was with religion. I just replied to someone who used the worn-out “gaps in knowledge” argument a scientific worldview:
“The god of the gaps” is a last-ditch defense that's crumbling almost every year — every decade for sure. We'll never run out of mystery, but already the 19th century was ripe for tossing the archaic myths — fascinating as myths, but hardly as a way to describe reality. Still, I can see that some people have an emotional need for a parent in the sky, and that prevails. To them I say, “I can to some extent empathize with your need, and you are welcome to say, ‘I don't care about the truth. We can’t know the truth in any absolute sense anyway, so I'll just stay with what is emotionally fulfilling to me.’ I respect that emotional need. We agree on other things, so let’s build on that, and keep silent about that ancient 24/7 surveillance system, the old Eye-in-the-sky (a fiction that caused me so much suffering, it still hurts to remember).”
And I can see that one can grow attached to the holy icons and have favorite saints (I speak of Catholicism). Unlike the god of punishment, the saints were kind. Mary was kind, grace streaming from her porcelain palms. In a small town with little going on, the church and its festivals can be the center of a life, an enriching element of experience, imaginary or not, that goes beyond the pedestrian chores. And the church is likely to be the most beautiful building in town, and being part of the choir the only opportunity to make music.
In a city, one can go to the opera and experience something akin to the ecstatic worship of ancient Greeks. In a small town before TV and Twitter and video games, there was soccer and church.
Again, my struggle was never with Marxism; my great personal battle was with Catholicism. Both the school and the church stuffed my young head with nonsense. But my indoctrination into the Soviet doctrine (I think it’s incorrect to call it “Marxism” or even “Marxism-Leninism”) was not a fraction as intense as my Catholic indoctrination — and there were our parents, too, who vigilantly counteracted propaganda that might be brought home from school (history lessons were an outstanding example). Still, it is my Catholic indoctrination that makes me understand why some people fell apart emotionally or even committed suicide when they could not make any sense of life once the Soviet Union was dissolved, its founding principles revealed as mistaken, and nothing convincing offered in their place.
Here is the Nobel Prize-winning Svetlana Alexievich writing about about a doctoral student who committed suicide — the memories of a friend of his:
“From the account of his friend, Vladimir Staniukevich, graduate student in the Philosophy Department:
I think that he was a sincere Marxist and saw Marxism as a humanitarian idea, where “we” means much more than “I.” Like some kind of unified planetary civilization in the future . . .
All the pages [of his dissertation on Marxism and religion ] were crossed out. Diagonally, in red pencil, he’d written furiously: “Nonsense!! Gibberish!! Lies!!” It was his handwriting… I recognized it…
His dissertation didn’t pan out. Well, to hell with it! You have to admit you’re a prisoner of utopia… Why jump from the twelfth floor on account of that? These days how many people are rewriting their master’s essay, their doctoral dissertation, and how many are afraid to admit what the title was? It’s embarrassing, uncomfortable…
He and I once talked about socialism not resolving the problem of death, or at least of old age. It just skirts it…
I saw him make the acquaintance of a crazy guy in a used bookstore. This guy, too, was rummaging around in old books on Marxism, like we were. Then he told me:
“You know what he said? ‘I’m the one who’s normal—but you’re suffering.’ And you know, he was right.”
“The phenomenon of Hitler will trouble many minds for a long time to come. Excite them. How, after all, is the mechanism of mass psychosis launched? Mothers held their children up crying: ‘Here, Führer, take them!’
“We are consumers of Marxism. Who can say he knows Marxism? Knows Lenin, knows Marx? There’s early Marx… And Marx at the end of his life… The halftones, shades, the whole blossoming complexity of it all, is unknowable to us. No one can increase our knowledge. We are all interpreters…
“At the moment we’re stuck in the past like we used to be stuck in the future. I also thought I hated this my whole life, but it turns out that I loved it. Loved?… How can anyone possibly love this pool of blood? This cemetery? What filth, what nightmares…what blood is mixed into it all… But I do love it!
“I proposed a new dissertation topic to our professor: ‘Socialism as an Intellectual Mistake.’ His response was: ‘Nonsense.’ As if I could decipher the Bible or the Apocalypse with equal success. Well, nonsense is a form of creativity, too… The old man was bewildered. You know him yourself—he’s not one of those old farts, but everything that happened was a personal tragedy for him. I have to rewrite my dissertation, but how can he rewrite his life? Right now each of us has to rehabilitate himself. There’s a mental illness—multiple, or dissociated, personality disorder. People who have it forget their names, social positions, their friends and even their children, their lives. It’s a dissolution of personality… when a person can’t combine the official take or government belief, his own point of view, and his doubts… how true is what he thinks, and how true is what he says. The personality splits into two or three parts…
There are plenty of history teachers and professors in psychiatric hospitals… The better they were at instilling something, the more they were corrupted… At the very least three generations…and a few others are infected… How mysteriously everything eludes definition… The temptation of utopia…”
Marx as Prometheus, engraving, 1843
This is of course a truly tragic story, but it reminds me of a conversation I had at Yaddo Artist Colony in the early nineties, when the fall of the Berlin Wall was a relatively fresh event. I casually remarked (I forget the context) that “anything is possible. Look, who ever thought that Communism would fall?” A young woman looked up at me with tremendous resentment in her face, and exclaimed, “Yes, and now there are thousands of New York intellectuals with nothing to believe in!”
~ “My heart bleeds for them,” I replied. But my sarcasm wasn’t completely sincere. I did feel some empathy for those New York intellectuals. I knew the experience of shattered dreams, of idealism crudely destroyed.
Asked why she returned to China, a woman who once had a successful career in finance in New York and London replied, “I missed the idealism.”
But that idealism is all lies, I can imagine someone reply. That would not be incorrect either. The theory is mostly erroneous and it doesn’t work in practice; there is a lot of corruption. This woman was smart enough to know that. Yet she still missed the idealism, or at least the aura of it. Of having a “we” that’s greater than the “I.” Of hearing about how “we” are building a more just society, even if it’s not true.
Idealism. Ah, those humans, those prisoners of utopia . . .
We love what we grow up with. As the graduate student said, “I also thought I hated this my whole life, but it turns out that I loved it. Loved?… How can anyone possibly love this pool of blood? This cemetery? What filth, what nightmares…what blood is mixed into it all… But I do love it!”
This was only slightly true for me. But whatever you grow up with has a power. Some might say that it’s perverse that I grew to hate the Catholic church as a much worse totalitarian regime, while preserving a sentimental nostalgia for the International, the images of Marx, Lenin, and Engels on the walls of public buildings, carried in May First parades.
But for the pre-revolutionary generation, the nostalgia was for their own childhood and youth — for the Tzarist splendor, the ladies in magnificent furs descending from sleighs to attend a ball at the Winter Palace . . .
The gate of the winter palace. The gilded emblems of Tzarist Russia, removed in 1917, are now fully restored
And there is something else I can’t quite label, but it came to my mind because of certain dreams I had after my recent stem-cell treatment. Stem cells carry the promise of promise of regeneration. I woke up in the wee hours feeling radiantly happy, vaguely recalling dreams in which I was overflowing with a sense of youthful health and energy. It was a triumphant feeling.
I lay in the dark, smiling, so energetically happy that I had trouble falling back asleep. My first thought was: those dreams were like the Soviet propaganda, especially the glossy magazines like The Soviet Life, which always showed the young who radiated health and good cheer. Their red Pioneers neck scarves, their shiny eyes and perfect teeth!
I don’t remember any other time when I thought that my dreams resembled the Soviet propaganda. The image of youth is of course powerful in itself, carrying the connotations of health and optimism, of being yet untouched by death. Everything is possible.
(I realize I must be the only writer in the world to have said, “I woke up feeling like the Soviet propaganda.” Why not the American propaganda? To me, American propaganda is consumerist. It’s about finding the right toothpaste. It doesn’t have the well-scrubbed Mormon missionary look with victory in one’s eyes.)
Youth is an image of victory, of having a future. Those tend to be the most difficult years of one’s life, marked by a lot of struggle and heartbreak. Many young people are not at all happy — this is a prime time for suicide — but the attractive image prevails over the complicated reality.
(PS. True, there is an element of the heroic in the American Western, but those movies were not a significant part of my growing up. Nor was Superman — I never even heard of that figure before I came to the US. But speaking of the “Wild West” — both Lenin and Stalin were very impressed by the US as a pioneer country and saw it as a model for developing the great expanse of Asia under their control, the Soviet Union also being a pioneer country.)
I hasten to say that I did not feel sad when the Berlin Wall fell down. On the contrary, I felt happy. The system was rotten and deserved to collapse. Only much earlier than that, and only for brief periods of time, I felt some sadness when I thought that the dream of a just society not based on greed simply could not work.
But I had such thoughts rarely at best. First of all, what mattered most to me was not political theory but beauty. I drew my sustenance from the beauty of nature and whatever beauty I could find in culture: music, the visual arts, literature. Then there was the world of ideas in its infinite variety, not merely the ideas of economic order. And, secondly, I have gradually acquired a measure of realism: the knowledge that nothing is perfect, that social progress is slow and full of setbacks. My creative work has taught me patience.
At the same time, my sentimental affection for the portraits of Marx, Lenin, and Engels is not something I’d deny. But that’s like the remnant affection for the images of Madonna and Child. It’s about familiarity. It’s not about belief. (Familiarity CAN be a large component of belief, but it doesn't have to be.)
MARXISM GOES BACK TO THE ERA OF A LARGE WORKING CLASS
Marx correctly pointed out that capitalism created with the urban working class — which was supposed to destroy capitalism. He never imagined that capitalism would eventually destroy — or almost destroy — the working class. As it became obvious that capitalism was winning, Marxism became largely archaic, irrelevant. Only the young Marx is still appreciated, especially his observations on alienated labor versus the right to meaningful work.
Karl Marx in his youth
Marxism is easy to parody. Its similarity to religion has been noted endless times. Here is Zbigniew Herbert’s witty vision of that similarity:
REPORT FROM PARADISE
In paradise the work week is thirty hours
salaries are higher prices always dropping
physical labor is not tiring (because of lower gravity)
chopping wood is like typing
the social system is stable the government moderate
it's certainly better in paradise than in any country
At first it was supposed to be different
luminous circles choirs and rungs of abstraction
but one couldn’t separate body from soul
precisely enough and the soul would arrive
with a drop of blubber a thread of muscle
one had to compromise
mix the grain of the absolute with the grain of clay
still another falling away from the doctrine the ultimate one
only John foresaw it: the resurrection of the body
God is seen by few
exists only for those made of pure pneuma
the rest listen to communiqués about floods and miracles
in time all will see God
when this is to take place nobody knows
In the meantime Saturday at noon
the sirens roar sweetly
and heavenly proletarians come out of the factories
carrying their wings awkwardly like violins
~ Zbigniew Herbert, tr. Oriana Ivy © 2015
“Saturday at noon”? Herbert wrote this when work on Saturday, at least for half a day, was standard, as was the six-day school week. Even though he postulates the thirty-hour work week, he can’t quite make the leap beyond what was his reality at the time this poem was written (in the nineteen sixties, I think).
And the roar of sirens signified the beginning and end of the work day. When I lived in Łódź, a city with large textile industry, that was my reality for three years, as much as the church bells. It was all fused: the bells of St. Andrew’s and the sirens of the Textile Works of the October Revolution.
Herbert was no indifferent to this fusion, so characteristic of the life in Poland before the fall of communism. But he’s more interested in metaphysics. In this poem he solves the central problem of heaven: the eternal boredom of not having work to do. “Luminous circles choirs and rungs of abstraction” would hardly satisfy. Not even the most refined intellectuals and estheticians could endure an abstract, do-nothing heaven. Maybe singers would be fulfilled for a century or two — but even they might start wanting new songs.
Herbert’s solution: factory work, the kind extolled by the Soviet propaganda. Factory work is so orderly, so concrete. You actually produce something considered useful — cars, for example. (Cars in heaven? Well, why not — the kind that work best in low gravity.)
Just as few people are capable of becoming violin virtuosos, so few can be either pure altruistic Marxists or otherworldly Christians. Herbert is concerned with the happiness — or at least reasonable contentment — of the many. After all, it’s the “masses” or the “sheep” whose needs are supposed to be fulfilled by ideologies or religions. What are people to do with their time? A non-tiring factory job is a practical solution. Hence the fusion of the heavenly paradise and the workers’ paradise.
Pointing out the similarities between Marxism and religion has become a cliché — the prophets, the sacred books, salvation (though here the proletariat is to be the Messiah), the need for a dictatorship, whether earthly or celestial. But to my knowledge no one has gone as far as Herbert in presenting the fusion of the two — in the afterlife at that. Human nature wins over idealism! ~ though perhaps we need both Don Quixote and Sancho Pansa to be complete human beings.
This poem has charm whether or not the reader has the historical and ideological background. Ultimately, it works by being charming.
mural by Diego Rivera
MEMORIES, MEMORIES . . .
FACTORIES IN ŁÓDŹ
Sirens roared a hoarse hunger.
The walls thudded a thick pulse,
brick crusted with centuries of soot,
the looms’ horizontal
music of massive shafts:
axis and thrust,
the surge and ebb of shuttles.
Behind the wire-paneled glass,
the trembling strings of cotton dust,
women in gray scarves like nuns
lifted and lowered their arms
under rows of spidery lamps.
The old owners’ names
over the wing-like gates
were supplanted with red-lettered signs:
“Lenin Thread Manufacture,”
of the October Revolution.”
But for me the factories
had no names as I passed
through the black-walled streets,
narcotic with ugliness and rhythm,
the knocking of returning shuttles:
More! More! Again! Again!
Multiple metal hearts
hammered my lullaby at night.
They repeated like an iron god:
I am that I am that I am.
~ Oriana © 2015
Ah, the October Revolution that actually took place in November . . . One of the good reforms was that of the calendar: Russia finally caught up with the rest of Europe by adopting the Gregorian Calendar, which goes back to 1582. Spelling was also simplified, though the Cyrillic alphabet was retained (unfortunately, in my opinion).
The last line surprised me as it welled up. I was merely describing the factories, I thought, trying to render the experience of a child caught up in their huge rhythm. I wasn’t trying for any statement linking the industrial (or Russian) revolution with religion. But poems come from the unconscious, which makes these hidden connections. One “supreme dictator” (here presumably the industrial looms) reminded me of the alleged supreme dictator of the universe.
Pope Innocent X by Diego Velasquez, 1650. How come I'm vaguely reminded of Lenin?
“If your god is real, then my non-belief is part of its divine plan.”
Nevertheless, I love papal haute couture. Pope Francis has been trying to cut back on the splendor, I know. I think it’s a mistake, like making churches more like the Protestant ones, severe and ugly. The only excuse for Catholicism is the esthetics of excess.
BUT DOESN’T IT ALWAYS COME DOWN TO A MALE-DOMINATED SYSTEM RUN BY BULLIES?
From Robert Sapolsky’s lecture on hierarchy as a destructive force:
The central discovery made by Sapolsky when he worked as a primatologist concerned the social and biological effects of removing aggressive males. As is often the case with important discoveries, a lucky accident played a part. Sapolsky studied a troop of baboons where the alpha males fed at the garbage dump of a nearby hotel. When the aggressive male baboons died after eating TB-infected meat, the culture of the surviving baboons changed dramatically. All the alpha males were gone; the the troop now had twice as many females, and the surviving males were less aggressive and more “socially affiliative.”
The levels of stress hormones decreased and individual health improved. Males started carrying baby baboons, which was never observed before. Troop members sat closer to each other without fear. No male aggression was directed at females. More time was spent grooming. Males began to groom other males, which is “as unheard of as a flying baboon.” And a newly introduced adolescent male would gradually acquire the new culture, so the transformation of culture that happened in one generation proved lasting. And the troop not only survived; it thrived.
And that reminds me of other studies where bullies were removed from animal or human groups, and the improvement in health and sociability that followed. Fear is not good for us; love is. As Sapolsky says: “Affiliation has enormous power.” Connection. Cooperation.
It’s a truism that some women begin to thrive only after a divorce or the death of a domineering spouse. The explanation is simple: stress levels go down. The woman is now free to lead her own life without constant criticism or another form of harassment. Of course sometimes it’s the woman who is the dominator, and then the man begins to blossom as soon as he separates. The positive changes in health and behavior may begin as soon as the decision to separate is taken.
A stray thought: the culture can go the other way just as quickly. An American woman doctor who worked for a while in Saudi Arabia noted that her Western male colleagues quickly became comfortable with the denigration of women, and behaviors such as opening a door for a woman disappeared.
obert Sapolsky and one of his research subjects
GOD AS THE DOMINANT APE
“Our primate ancestors passed onto us certain social protocols, and we have passed them onto God. In primate cliques subordinates will often shrink down before the dominant male, thus accentuating his largeness and superiority. The god of the Abrahamic religions, in company with gods of other traditions, is often portrayed as a large male who requires that subordinates lower themselves before Him.
Larger size often equates to dominance in many other species, and plays an important role in the rank structures of men. As cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker has pointed out, the “Big-men” who ruled over hunter-gatherer societies were often literally big men.
Lip smacking — the nonhuman primate equivalent of kissing — is a common appeasement display in monkeys and apes, and may be intended to emulate infant suckling noises. It is understandable how sounds associated with nurturing might appease aggression. Like other infantile behaviors, this gesture may also communicate, “Like an infant, I pose no threat.”
Hand kissing is a customary way of showing submission to a king, typically while bowing one’s head or kneeling down. Often the custom was — and is, in the remaining monarchies of the world — to kiss the king’s signet ring. This custom remains strong in the Catholic Church, a monarchic hierarchy in which the pious kneel before the pope and kiss his ring. Other Church customs would suggest that this gesture is rooted in ancient primate displays intended to connote infanthood — for instance, the pope is referred to as father, and his flock are considered his children.
Foot kissing, a behavior observed widely in primatology, is another way submissive monkeys and apes demonstrate acquiescence to dominant members of their societies. This behavior carries forward to human societies that are highly rank structured, such as monarchies. For instance, kissing the king’s foot has always been synonymous with supplicant behavior — e.g., showing him extreme deference, begging for his mercy, or even recognizing that he represents God.
Christ — who is sometimes referred to as Christ the King — is also greeted with foot-kissing, as are his proxies. At the Basilica in Rome stands a large bronze statue of St. Paul, built in the fifth century. Though the statue has stood stalwart now for fifteen centuries its feet have been worn thin by the lips of pilgrims. There was even a custom in the Catholic Church of kissing the feet of the pope.
It is worth reiterating that such displays are fundamentally submissive in nature, intended to secure the favor of a more powerful being.
MY STEM CELL ADVENTURES, PART I
I was facing the nightmare of total knee replacement surgery. I already had one knee surgery, in medicine’s Dark Ages. My lateral meniscus was removed due to a tear. The surgery, including the recovery, was indeed a nightmare of pain and disability. But the worst was ahead: within several years it became known that removing the meniscus leads to severe arthritis in 100% of the cases. Far from being pretty useless, as assumed by the surgeons, and easily replaced by scar tissue, the meniscus turned out to be critical for shock absorption.
100% severe arthritis. I wasn’t going to be a miraculous exception. Soon enough that became quite obvious. I could still walk — but every year more slowly and for shorter distances.
The more I read about the total knee replacement, the more videos I watched, and the more I talked with former patients, the more disastrous it appeared, horrifically stressful on the body — and yet it seemed the only solution. Then through a series of happy coincidence I found a place that did stem cell therapy for joint injuries. And — another happy coincidence —- it turned out that the surgeon I consulted, the third one this year, regarded as one of the two top joint specialists in San Diego, actually performed the stem-cell procedure.
A big breakthrough that allowed the treatment to become more widespread and affordable was the discovery that the human body fat is a rich source of stem cells. There is roughly one adipose stem cell per 100 fat cells. (By comparison, bone marrow contains one per 250,000 to 400,000 cells. Nevertheless, some centers still rely on the more established procedure using bone-marrow stem cells, which requires more difficult harvesting from the hip or femur).
(Blood is another good source of stem cells. Since blood can be frozen for future use, more potential opens up.)
From the Stemgenex website: https://stemgenex.com
“Adipose (fat) tissue contains a concentrated amount of cells known as mesenchymal stem cells which are capable of replication or becoming different types of cells throughout the body such as neurons, bone, cartilage, muscle, tendon, etc
The advantage of using mesenchymal stem cells from your adipose fat is that they are one of the richest sources of stem cells in the body (2500 times more stem cells reside in fat vs. bone marrow) and they are very easy to harvest via a mini-liposuction procedure.
Adipose derived stem cells also have a much higher immunomodulatory capacity than those of bone marrow derived stem cells which can greatly benefit patients with auto-immune conditions.”
The results of stem cell therapy depend largely on the quantity of stem cells injected. The age of the patient is also a factor: younger patients have more effective stem cells — no surprise.
Here are two stories I heard at my stem-cell clinic in Sorrento Valley near San Diego (Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles is another stem-cell pioneer in Southern California. At this point there are stem-stem clinics everywhere in the US, especially in and around large cities — and yet the public remains largely unaware of this alternative).
1. An NFL quarterback came for his treatment (sports injuries provide a “rich target environment” for stem cell repair in lieu of surgery). The plastic surgeon who does the liposuction (so “mini” that only a local anesthetic is used) was in despair: there was no visible fat on this patient. He appeared to be all muscle. Yet eventually the surgeon managed to get enough fat from the buttocks, and the treatment was performed.
2. A 92-year-old woman came asking for stem-cell treatment for her arthritis. The staff first refused, saying that her stem cells would not be effective. But the feisty old woman refused to be discouraged. “What else am I supposed to do with my money?” she asked — and got the treatment.
(Alas, I blew my opportunity to ask about her results. In any case, that question can be easily deflected with “It’s still too early to know.” It takes about five months for the evidence of cartilage regeneration to show up on X-rays, though functional improvement can become evident within weeks.)
There is a difference in the way you are treated — even in the way you are touched — when you pay out of pocket. It’s not so much the $20 coupon for Starbucks — what hospital would ever think of it? — it’s simply how you are spoken to: the tone of voice, the politeness. A stem-cell clinic is no Walmart medicine. To establish a good reputation, they need to cater to the patient.
The patients were almost all older men. “They look like rich CEO’s,” my friend observed. “The kind not afraid to take a risk.” One could read that in their self-confident bearing. Just the way they sat in the waiting room was subtly different. Suddenly I was in the company of such men, for the first time in my life.
Speaking to me in the soothing way one speaks to child or a pet, the plastic surgeon described each step of the mini-liposuction: “And now you will feel a tiny sting, but it won’t last long.” The discomfort was less by far than during a typical dental visit.
“You’ve got great-looking fat,” I was told. “Want to see it?” There it was in a large syringe, pinkish, with small fluffy yellow cloudlets. “So pink?” I exclaimed, amazed.” “A bit of blood gets in,” the surgeon explained. “The yellow is the fat. We do it slowly and gently, because the idea is to keep the fat alive, not like during ordinary liposuction, where you’re going to throw the fat away.”
Now that I knew the fat was a source of stem cells, throwing out fat seemed almost a sacrilege.
The fat was then transferred to a device that looked like a modest little box, but apparently centrifuged and processed the stem cells. It was a holy of holies approached only by the staff with little masks on their faces.
An hour later I was back from Starbucks, and the stem cells were ready for “deployment” — a term that entered the language during the first Gulf War. Stem cells are “deployed” via an ultrasound-guided injection.
“Your stem cells look really good,” a technician remarked. I can’t deny the warm feeling that suffused me, though not much later I reflected that she probably says it to every patient. But then, who knows, perhaps one can tell by the color or density of the special solution (which also contains amniotic-fluid growth factors).
(I don’t remember seeing a microscope anywhere, but then I didn’t look for it. Perhaps they do check the cells, but then perhaps they don’t. Can one even check the vitality of stem cells as one can easily check the quality of sperm?)
Then I proceeded to the “deployment” room. First I got an IV infusion of the left-over stem cells: “We just let them into the general circulation. It might do some good,” the technician said. Finding the right vein took longer than the infusion itself. Then the technician disappeared and the high priests entered the room — the surgeon and his specially trained assistant, Patrick, the one who had previously told me, “Ten years from now, there won’t be knee replacement surgery. Stem cells will be the standard treatment for arthritis. This is the future.”
This is the future. It took about two minutes. “That’s it,” Dr. Hanson said, applying a small gauze pad to the injection site.
But there was a bit more. 90% of the stem cells were given to the knee, and then I was asked if there is another joint I might want to heal. I said my left shoulder often aches after typing.
“Let’s take a look,” Dr. Hanson said, and put the ultrasound gizmo to my left shoulder. “There is bursitis and a small tear,” Patrick announced, looking at the screen. So that shoulder got injected too. About an hour later, on the way back, I became aware that the soreness was gone. It’s as if I took naproxen (Aleve) and it took effect — with naproxen there is there is almost a distinct moment when the pain lifts off and is no more, like a quantum leap. That’s the anti-inflammatory effect, but I wonder if the neural pain pathways also get switched off. That’s very distinct with two gel acetaminophen caps too — the pain is suddenly gone, like flipping off a light switch.
The following day I did some typing, and the shoulder did not hurt. The right shoulder didn’t feel so good in the evening, though it’s a mild ache. But I bet that shoulder has some damage too. I’d love to check out my hips too, and maybe ankles. But first let’s see the results.
Sunday morning the knee caught up to feeling better, though it’s supposed to take a month before I really can tell the difference (or longer, depending on age and amount of damage). Later I could feel some referred pain below and above the knee —- a brief, transient ache. But nothing I’d call real pain (and I’ve had a lot of experience with “real pain”). This is great news because one is not allowed non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (ibuprofen, naproxen) for a week before and two weeks after the procedure. By blocking certain enzymes, they interfere with tissue repair.
X rays in May will tell us how much cartilage will have grown back from the pretty-much bone-on-bone condition.
The Los Angeles area has much more choice when it comes to stem cells clinics — Beverly Hills has a center, West LA — there’s online information. For the knee, there should be amniotic-fluid growth factors, not enriched platelets.
Perhaps the greatest promise of stem cells is in the area of heart disease, the #1 killer. In fact all kinds of horrific surgeries could be avoided if stem cells, the body’s own regenerative mechanism, were to be given the research priority that’s long overdue.
At the same time, we need to admit that conservative physicians regard stem cells as the unproven Wild West of medicine. At this point it is a leap of faith, with results based both on animal studies and what is classified as “anecdotal” human evidence (e.g. X-rays showing a regrowth of cartilage). Many will say that we need another 5-10 years before we can say anything definite about the effectiveness of these treatments (which are actually widely available right now).
If only we could have the equivalent of the Race to the Moon in this area, and in regenerative medicine in general! Dream on . . .
Do I recommend stem cells in lieu of knee replacement, or any other joint surgery? It’s too early for me to say anything about the effectiveness of the treatment: I had it only last week (December 11, 2015). Watch this blog for a later report.
ending on beauty
John Guzlowski quoted me on his page. He selected this:
Life should be a joy: not a ledger of sins and failures to live up to impossible standards, but an iridescent beauty like a dragonfly. ~ Oriana