Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Human Embryos in Fifth Grade?

I have always had a fascination with human anatomy, biology and human development. So when I was at the Boston Museum of Science over the summer I was excited to see the Beyond the Xray Exhibit and then across the hall, How Your Life Began exhibit. The girls and I spent a lot of time in the Beyond the Xray, but when I ventured to the other exhibit, I wasn't quite sure if they were ready to see what was on display.

There were actual zygotes, embryos and fetuses in various stages of development encased in the black glass display cases. The lighting in the room was dark and subdued, the voices quiet whispers in strong contrast to the loud raucous room we just left. Kylie - my 6 year old ran around from display to display, not having any idea what she was looking at and I didn't pull her over and explain it to her.

But Melanie I guided through the displays. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: See how the cells divide and by the end of the first month the baby starts to take shape?

Melanie: Is that a real baby?

Me: Yes. These are all unborn babies that didn't survive and the parents decided it would be ok to have other people learn from them. And look by the end of the second month it. . .

Melanie: Can we go now?

Ok, so maybe she wasn't ready for this. Too young. We went through the rest of the display, quickly. . .me intrigued and wanting to read everything, but I didn't for the sake of the girls. I left and we went on with our day.

Two months later, the next time we were at the same museum as soon as we walked through the front doors Melanie said, "Don't make me go into that room with the dead babies." But we did spend an hour watching chicks hatch from an egg. . .couldn't pull her away from that display. THAT was where she was developmentally.

Now we learn that a fifth grade teacher at my daughter's school has brought a guest speaker in to talk about cell development and along with various slides of organ tissue to look at under the microscope, had some jars of human embryos with her as well. The age of these embryos is unclear. But the statement from the superintendent states that they were several different ages so organ development could be assessed. Sounds bigger than a few cells to me. Sounds like they could easily be identified as human babies.

The science lesson is a good one.. .for young adults. Little kids are going to focus on the fact that they are holding a jar with a dead baby inside and not on the lesson at hand. 10 year olds don't have the maturity to see past the floating baby. (I would have a hard time with that. . .encased in a glass case behind a wall is one thing. . . holding it in my hands in a jar of formaldehyde is another).

And seeing it in the museum with your mom or even on a parent approved field trip is acceptable. Glass jar, classroom, kids with varying levels of maturity another. When did it become ok to treat human life so casually?

Seventh grade was a big year for us. That's when we got to start dissecting things as a part of life science. I can't remember how many things we dissected. Frogs, sharks, I think even cats. I learned so much about the body and organs from the hands on approach.

High school advanced biology SENIOR year- we took a field trip to the University of Kansas cadaver lab (of course with parent approval). We saw an embryo on that trip and the professor showed it to us with reverence. We had been given instructions prior to the field trip to have respect for the human bodies and the dissections that we would encounter. But at 17 years old did we heed those orders? We goofed off, we took photos and posed next to the bodies for our yearbook layout, we cracked jokes about what we were seeing and we were mostly the top 10% of our senior class. But the experience did help to shape what I would study in college.

Again I found myself in cadaver lab as an undergrad for my anatomy class and AGAIN in OT school a year later. This time I was the one doing the dissecting and I think we were finally at a maturity level to handle the importance of what we were doing. Someone gave their body to us to learn from. Someone who had a life and lost it from either illness, injury or old age. We learned to respect our work and treat the bodies with kindness, respect and solemnity (most of us anyway).

Fifth grade is too young for human babies in a glass jar. There are so many things wrong with the scenario. Parents should have been notified of the project and given the choice of keeping their kids out. Most would probably have said it was ok. . .and discussed it with them at home. But they should have been given the choice.

Fifth grade is appropriate for a pig, shark, frog. . . any of which could have been learned from. Maybe they were studying human cells, but even a word or two from the teacher or presenter that we learn from animals first and then as we get more into the sciences we begin to learn from actual human samples. . .

And in the words of my husband, previous middle school science teacher, "They are in 5th grade.....maybe high school might be ok or even 7th grade when they are studying life science. Even then there are several ways to teach cell development besides having them look at HUMAN embryos in 5th grade - especially without notifying the parents first IMHO. Remember I am a former middle school science teacher. I'm all for ... more hands on especially at that age but geez....Also they are using latex gloves to handle jars of formaldehyde - A - the school is suppose to be latex free B - You are having 5th graders handle breakable glass jars containing hazards waste - a known hazardous chemical in a classroom without proper ventilation."

One news source said it must be a slow news day if Fox News is covering a story about a teacher just doing her job.

So, hazardous wastes, latex gloves, toxic chemicals in glass jars in the hands of 10 year olds, human embryos. . . sounds like MORE people should be standing up and paying attention.

I usually refrain from putting my opinion out there, but actually can't help but saying, Come on, seriously? Who can think this is ok?

No one should think it's ok to treat human life so casually at the age of 10.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What I've learned about H1n1

Melanie is still coughing a bit from her bout with H1n1. Her appetite is slowly improving, but she still is needing more sleep than usual. She is on antibiotics for the secondary sinus infection that she developed, but she is fine.

As are all her friends who have had it.

And so is her sister who only developed a cough, no fever, but according the pediatrician it doesn't matter. She had it too.

We've had worse. . .much worse.

I understand where the worry comes from. It's an unpredictable illness. Some get it so mildly that the parents never even consider H1n1 to be a possibility. . .sending them to school everyday, spreading the germs throughout. Some had it already awhile ago and are only now realizing that was what it probably was. Others get a severe reaction, resulting in pneumonia, dehydration and hospitalization. The fear and worry is the uncertainty where your child will fall when or if he/she does get it.

And then there is the median group. Those who have a sore throat, cough and fever that can reach 103 and 104 lasting 3, 4 or 5 days, but are able to fight it on their own. Some of them will develop the sinus infection or pneumonia after, but not all.

Melanie had a slight cough for 2 days, then a slight headache and sore throat for 2 days, then muscle aches and a low grade fever for another day before the full onset of high fever and symptoms. Her fever hit 104 and only came down 2 degrees with Motrin, then hit the 104 mark again within a few hours. Cold, wet washcloths and Tylenol did the trick to keep in manageable until Motrin could be given again. The high fever lasted 2 days, then a low grade fever for another day, then she seemed better except still so tired. But after a day of no fever, it spiked again, the coughing, running nose (yes you can get a runny nose with H1n1!!) and fatigue became worse and off to the doctor we went.

"Yes, it was H1n1. And now it's developed into a sinus infection. But thankfully no pneumonia yet."

"No, we're not going to swab. . .swabbing is painful and invasive and her symptoms are an exact match to everyone else we've swabbed. They have all come back positive for H1n1 and there is no other flu out there right now."

"Yes, your other daughter most likely had it as well. Hopefully she'll continue to fight off the worsening symptoms. Just keep an eye on her."

So for those of you whose kids have similar symptoms but think it's just a cold or something else, think again. They've got it, it's not that bad and be thankful that it isn't developing into something worse.

And we will keep plugging along, hoping the antibiotics wipe it out and we have seen the last of it in our house.

Friday, November 6, 2009


The word "Life" was scratched into the wooden bench in front of me at the courthouse. I sat there studying the graffiti as I waited for the instructions to the jurors to begin. I wondered the meaning of that word to the person who etched it in. Was it another potential juror such as myself, contemplating the meaning of our purpose here? Was it scratched by a witness to the crime, waiting to take the stand to testify, hoping that the accused would be convicted and sentenced to life in prison? Or was it scratched by a believer that all life is sacred and should be preserved, wanting to pass the message onto the hundreds of other people who would be sitting in these very seats.

The courtroom was elaborate and stately. History surrounded us in the paintings on the walls and in the sculptures of judges who resided on the bench as many as 150 years ago. A stone cod fish hung from the ornately painted ceiling, his nose pointed toward the judges bench. I took my time examining the room, it's chandeliers and the sounds of echoing footsteps through the hallways.

Jury duty progressed from the waiting, into instruction, then to moving to smaller rooms to wait some more. I got many chapters of my book, Olive Kitteredge read and observed what others around me were reading. A woman slightly older than myself was reading "The Glass Castle" - the book written by Jeannette Walls whom I had met in person the week before. I thought about approaching her to strike up a conversation about it, but didn't that day. . .what I didn't realize was there would be plenty of time for that later. Another man was reading "Catch me if you can." There were romance novels, adventure novels, mysteries, spy novels, Wall Street Journals, Time Magazines, Blackberries, iPhones. . .everyone was reading something. In a room of 65 jurors there was complete silence as if we were all taking board exams. Once in awhile someone would speak up and say, "I'm finished with this magazine if anyone wants it." Then there would be shuffling, responses and then quiet would settle over us again.

Finally after 2 hours of waiting, the court officer came to us, thanked us for our patience and said, "If your jury number is between 1 and 49 follow me." Groans and sighs went through the room as people realized they fell in that number. Did that mean that we would be here even longer? My number was 22 - safely in the middle. I rose and followed the crowd to the hallway, past the large superior courtroom, into a smaller room labeled "Superior Courtroom number 2." This room was a disappointment. After being in the main, hallowed halls of the other courtroom, sitting in the small confines of a room barely bigger than my family room with 49 jurors, lawyers, a judge, court officer, court clerk, stenographer and the plaintiff and defendant in the case, I felt slightly claustrophobic.

The judge gave us a brief overview of the case being tried. It was a civil suit of a landscaper who had a fairly large, successful business who decided to buy another smaller landscape business from a man who was getting close to retirement. They drafted a purchase and sale agreement and the older man came to work for the younger. The problem occurred when the older man was unhappy with the way the larger business was ran and found many of his long-time customers were also unhappy. The younger man was unwilling to change his business practices (they had been successful for him after all) and words were exchanged. The older man quit the job and a few weeks later was found working on the properties he had "sold" to the other business despite having signed a "non-compete" agreement for these.

The impanelment of the jury began and I was deeply entranced by the process. They ask you several questions, "Do you know either of the parties? Do you know the lawyers? Do you know any of these witnesses from the list? Do you have any reason to suspect you might be biased?" If your answer was yes to any of the questions, you were to raise your jury card and the court officer went around the room shouting out the numbers while the court clerk kept track of them. At the end of the questioning they went through the numbers starting with number 1. "Juror number 1 please approach the bench." This meant that the number 1 juror had answered yes to one of the questions. She stepped up to speak with the judge and the two attorneys and then the judge gestured toward the doorway and the court officer escorted her from the courtroom. Then the court clerk again spoke, "Juror number 2 please take jury seat number 1."

The first juror was seated and so on through the numbers they went. It was like waiting for the big climax of the movie or waiting for the doctor to give you that dreaded diagnosis. Would they get to number 22 before they filled the 12 seats? I was nervous with anticipation. The man next to me was staring intently at his card that had a big "20" printed on it. Well, at least I know he'd go before me. He sighed heavily every time someone was excused from the room and another number closer to his was seated in the jury box.

Finally the 12th seat was the only one empty and I began planning the rest of my day. Lunch at Panera sounded good. Then maybe a trip to Kmart for some supplies, maybe stop by the mall to pick up a gift for my friend's birthday. "Juror number 20 please take seat 12." A large groan and sigh came from beside me as he gathered his things and trudged to the last seat. I relaxed down into my chair, but was still watching the proceedings. They weren't excusing us yet. The lawyers and the judge were looking over our questionnaires that we had filled out. Then they started calling up some of the 12 jurors to ask them questions about what they had written down. Each one that they called up returned to their same seats, so I still wasn't worried.

Then it happened. The clerk turned toward the courtroom and stated, "Jurors in seats 4, 6 and 8 you are excused."

Now it was my turn to groan. "Juror number 22 please take seat 4."

There I was. Impaneled on a jury for my first time ever. And the judge said the trial was going to last at least all week, maybe into next.

The week only ended up lasting until Thursday. Hours and hours of testimony from witnesses, pages and pages of notes taken by each of us jurors, thousands of copies of evidence made for everyone. . . all to be a waste as the parties decided to settle out of court. I'm glad they decided to settle. . .I was struggling with how I felt about the case. On one hand the younger business owner had a right to be mad for the older man to work for customers he had spent A LOT of money on in their transaction. But he still owed him money for the business and it didn't seem right that the older man wasn't going to be compensated for his business he had spent 40 years building from nothing after immigrating here from The Azores. After all, the older man said when he took the witness stand, "I was only doing (the younger man) a favor by working on those properties. Because if they had called a different landscaper to do those small jobs, they might have taken all their business to them and he would have lost that contract entirely. After all (the younger man) still owed me for the business and it was set up on a percentage of sales. I didn't want the sales to go down because then the payments to me would go down as well."

Ahh, that makes sense. . .and maybe the younger man finally - after 3 years of fighting about this - heard him. That night he offered the older man the adjusted amount owed and all was well.

Along the way I met some interesting people. It always intrigues me how a group of complete strangers can so quickly get to know and like each other. The first day, I had lunch with a woman named Marie who worked in a research laboratory at Woods Hole with the underwater submersibles (Alvin). Wow, cool.

Then I became friendly with the juror in seat 5. She had a daughter who was in the process of buying a house in LA and was frequently getting text messages with updates about the offers/counteroffers, etc. The woman in seat 6 (the reader of The Glass Castle) was a biologist from the National Seashore and had a lot to say about unrestrained dogs on the beaches that disturbed the endangered Piping Plover population.

Then there was the Harvard graduate with a PhD in some kind of science who did beekeeping as a hobby. This sparked much interest from the rest of the jury and there was a lot of "bee" conversations during our down time. Who knew I'd learn the difference between the passive Italian bees and their aggressive counterparts the African? Also did you know that bees don't hibernate in the winter like most insects? They are still active in the hive, but stay put unless the weather is 45 or above. This man's hives produce 75 pounds of honey a year of which he is only able to sell about 40 pounds of. . .and he doesn't even like honey. It gives him an upset stomach.

Then there was the journalist who was late one day because he almost burned his house down with an errant tea pot. . .a man who was an insurance salesman whose wife baked us wonderful homemade chocolate chip cookies. . .a woman who worked in a law office who had approached the bench with a request to be excused because she had already served on 3 juries (obviously didn't work). . .the man who had been number 20 who didn't interact with any of us, but spent the whole time on his cell phone with his office whenever we had a break. . .an older woman who walked with a cane and didn't share much about her life, but made sure to ask about how my kids were feeling every day (Melanie home sick with H1N1 - another story for another day). . . and a very nice older, retired man from Portugal who had a granddaughter also home sick with a fever.

The judge in the case was wonderful. I thought he was probably the opposite of what you would expect a judge to be. He was considerate - always concerned with our comfort and the need to stretch or take a break. He made sure that everyone talked slowly and loudly so the stenographer could keep up. He made the attorneys approach the bench frequently to scold them about asking the same questions over and over and wasting all our time. And he didn't hesitate to explain things thoroughly to us, understanding that many of us had never even been inside a courtroom before.

In all it was a positive experience (one thankfully I won't have to repeat for at least 3 years since serving makes me exempt for that length of time). I learned a lot about our American civil court system and met some people I never would have crossed paths with on any other occasion. I also learned how much effort, time and money is put into creating a lawsuit against someone and vow that I will hopefully never find myself in that situation. If we could all work out our differences in a different manner without the lawyers and the courtrooms, what a difference LIFE would be.