Personal Discovery

Jan 01, 2001

My parents recently showed me an old news photo of my brother being moved from one hospital to another, in his iron lung. The year was 1950. Just seven years old, visibly smiling as usual in his overhead mirror, Gary lay prone as a small crowd of medics guided the huge wheeled cylinder toward a waiting ambulance. Polio had widely destroyed the motor neurons in his brain and spinal cord, and his muscles had atrophied from lying still. The iron lung pushed and pulled his chest through the breathing cycle. Gary lived only a few months after the photo's dateline.

A few weeks ago, I sat and discussed a similar tableau with Christopher Reeve. He had agreed to serve as advisor and interview subject for our special report on neurology next month. Paralyzed from the neck down by a 1995 spinal-cord injury, Reeve spoke eloquently for two hours with his heart, mind, and humor fully engaged. A nearly silent and hidden respirator allowed him to breathe while we talked. He reinforced his message-that recent breakthroughs in spinal-cord research offer hope for a much larger range of disorders-with practical information and a special sense of urgency. He and millions of other neurological patients hope they outlive the wait for therapies born of the latest research. And they are working hard to hurry those developments along.

Were those two events merely personal experiences? No, I believe they were something more-much more. They shared a connectivity, a causality, and a concern of universal dimensions. They represented the extreme edge of medicine, where people suffer largely without guidance, and so their individual struggles reveal the ultimate successes and failings of the entire healthcare continuum. The two vignettes also show how, in 50 years of medical progress, so much has changed yet so much remains the same. As our care systems become more sophisticated, and expensive, true cures for many disorders still seem elusive.

Perhaps that explains why the healthcare establishment tends to react so slowly to real breakthroughs when they finally occur. In neurology, big companies and research organizations still harbor old attitudes about the impossibility of nerve repair. But a series of discoveries in just the past 18 months should overturn that long-held pessimism. Inducing stem cells to differentiate into nerve cells and retrace broken neural pathways now lies within reach-but how long it takes to get there depends as much on finance as on science.

We can never truly separate the personal from the universal. Personal discoveries drive the search for universal answers. What individuals experience can and should inform decisions in science and business. Yet, for that message to hit home, someone has to be listening. Those who make the big decisions must allow themselves to heed the plea, and share the urgency, of every person on whom the decisions bear. From such personal viewpoints, all valuable discoveries flow.

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