Today, this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine was announced and went to three men who devoted themselves to cancer research and understanding immunity. Sadly, Ralph Steinman, who holds half the prize, died three days ago from pancreatic cancer, before hearing the good news. Today, we celebrate the accomplishments of Steinman, Bruce Buetler, and Jules Hoffman with a guest post related to the body’s immune system.
We’d seen Sandra Beasley’s name in the program at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, and Anna had read one of her poetry collections and friended Sandra Beasley on Facebook. We’re especially interested in her new book, a memoir about growing up with allergies and about the immune system, a complicated topic that’s interested us for years but that we haven’t covered here at Lofty Ambitions. Last month, Leslie Pietrzyk launched an online literary journal called Redux, and Sandra and Anna are on the journal’s editorial board. We’ve discovered that Sandra is smart, positive, and energetic. When we contacted her about a doing a guest post about allergies and the immune system, she agreed and also revealed that her grandfather worked for NASA during Project Mercury. She’s woven that all together here.
Sandra Beasley is the author of Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life (Crown, 2011), as well as two poetry collections: I Was the Jukebox (W. W. Norton, 2010), winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Theories of Falling (New Issues, 2008), winner of the New Issues Poetry Prize. She lives in Washington, DC. You can find more info at www.SandraBeasley.com and follow her on Twitter at @SandraBeasley.
THE SCIENCE INSIDE US
In the first chapter of my memoir, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, I describe an early influence in understanding my body—and by association the multiple and deadly food allergies that have shaped my life. That influence? Reader’s Digest, specifically the long-running series “I am Joe’s…”/“I am Jane’s…” a column written in the first-person perspective of organs as they suffer critical illness or injury. Here’s an excerpt from my book about reading Reader’s Digest:
I adored these columns partially because they satisfied my flair for the dramatic. Who didn’t want Jane’s thyroid, or Joe’s lungs? Their viscera were so much more interesting than mine. Between the ages of eight and twelve I was sure I had experienced bouts with kidney stones, obsessive-compulsive disorder, mammary cysts (which turned out to be…breasts), a heart arrhythmia, lockjaw, retinitis pigmentosa, and (though I was fuzzy on the details) prostate cancer.
There must have been days when my family regretted ever introducing me to Joe and Jane. Perhaps they realized that in long run, after my initial hypochondria passed, these articles would teach me the elements of diagnosis: developing internal measures of what was “normal” and what was aberrant, understanding how individual symptoms related to a whole, and knowing when to ask for help. In other words, these articles taught me how to manage allergic reactions.
I would find Reader’s Digest at the home of my grandfather, a doctor. Not just any doctor: as a captain in the U.S. Navy, Carl E. Pruett served on loan to NASA as a Director of Space Medicine for the astronaut program. During Project Mercury, he had monitored the vital signs of men such as Colonel John H. Glenn, Jr. There is a stretch of wall in his house devoted to NASA memorabilia. As a child I would sit on the bottom stair and gaze at those newspaper clippings, signed photographs, and a scale model of the launch pad at Cape Canaveral.
My grandfather died of Legionnaires’ disease in 1991. There has been any number of moments since when I have missed him: learning to drive, or college graduation, or upon getting my first apartment in the city. But working on Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl has given me a stronger pang than any other. I wish he were here.
In part, I wish he’d been here to help. In examining the science of allergy, this book required a different skill set from my poetry. I had to research a technical topic, translate into layman’s terms, then read with a journalist’s eye to ensure I’d stayed truthful. All writers need safe audiences—people they can ask, “Is this clear? Is this accurate?” As I wrangled with explaining a MAST cell response and quoting doctors from the AAAAI Conference, I missed his calm expertise. He had anchored our family, particularly in the years when my father was away with the Army and my mother was handling my allergies and asthma on her own.
This book might have opened a dialogue I’d have never had with him otherwise. As children of the military know, getting our parents and grandparents to talk about their accomplishments can be like picking a lock with a wet noodle. But now I’d have had the vocabulary to start a conversation. I know what it’s like to comb through The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, reading between lines of data to see what the doctors really think. I look at the auto-injectors of Demerol the astronauts were given, and I recognize the technology behind the EpiPen I carry in my purse.
My grandfather and his colleagues were charged with patients who, by definition, were adventurers of the greatest extreme. As doctors, they tracked the pulses. They counted the heartbeats. They took the temperatures. They had to constantly push the astronauts toward self-inspection. How do you feel? Can you continue? It’s a poor approximation, but in my life I so often have to weigh the value of individual experiences against the physical risk of my allergies. How dangerous did it get? How did doctors balance the burden of protecting their patients and furthering their journey?
I wish I could ask him these questions. I wish he’d had longer to share his knowledge in life. Instead, all I can do is direct his lessons outward: I try to channel his compassion, his precision, his curiosity. I might not reach the moon in this body. But I can aim for the stars in my writing.