Caught: "The Teenage Brain is Like a Sports Car"

We'll give a sneak peek at what's next for Only Human, and then share an episode of one of WNYC's latest podcasts, Caught. Mary Harris reports on Stephen Hall, one of thousands of so-called "juvenile lifers" who have an unexpected shot at freedom today. Up until 2005, most juveniles could be sentenced just as harshly as adults: that meant life without parole, even the death penalty. Then a landmark Supreme Court decision made executing juvenile offenders illegal, and sentencing guidelines began to change. The court was swayed after hearing about teenage brain development.

The Birth of Climate Change Denial

In this special episode of Only Human, we partnered with the folks at WNYC's podcast The United States of Anxiety, hosted by Kai Wright. Starting with the 1925 Scopes Trial — also known as the "trial of the century" — we look at one of the most controversial topics in our time: the debate over evolution versus a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. It started with a substitute teacher in Tennessee who taught evolution in the classroom. What followed was a fiery debate that rocketed around the world. The Scopes Trial reminds us that science has often upset the establishment. Attorney William Jennings Bryan sits behind the microphone, in white shirt with rolled-up sleeves, during a radio broadcast of the landmark "Monkey Trial" of John Thomas Scopes in Dayton, Tenn., July 15, 1925. The controversial trial between religion and state determined how evolution would be taught in schools. Scopes, a high school biology teacher, was found guilty of teaching evolution and fined. (Associated Press) Then we turn to another controversy: doubt around the whole idea of climate change. And we go to that day in 1988 when NASA scientist James Hansen warned a congressional committee that climate change was real. Back then, Republican President George H.W. Bush touted himself as being pro-environment. "I'm an environmentalist... And I always will be," he said. "And that is not inconsistent with being a businessman. Nor is it with being a conservative." Today, President Donald Trump considers climate change a "hoax" and is considering withdrawing from the Paris climate accord. It's a radical change in 25 years. We'll tell you how we got there. Episode Contributors: Kai Wright Amanda Aronczyk Elaine Chen Karen Frillmann Jillian Weinberger Subscribe to the United States of Anxiety podcast on iTunes.

The Handshake Experiment

Neil deGrasse Tyson and microbiome science help answer this question: when we touch greatness, how much of it stays with us?

"I Got Indian in My Family": An Another Round Takeover

Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, Tracy Clayton always heard that her ancestors were, in her mother's words, "black, white and American Indian." Like many black Americans, her immediate family didn't have exact information on their roots — that heritage is difficult to trace through ancestors forced into the American slave trade. What little information Tracy's family might have had was lost in a courthouse fire. Tracy says she didn't think about her ancestry very often until she moved to New York City, where she's the co-host, with Heben Nigatu, of the BuzzFeed podcast Another Round. New Yorkers, Tracy noticed, take pride in their ethnic identity. A number of her friends hang flags in their window, or march in pride parades based on their country of origin. "Which parade do I go to? What flag do I put in my window?" she wondered. She enlisted Only Human to help her figure it out. With the help of DNA ancestry tests and experts on DNA and race, Tracy explores her own ethnic background. She accidentally upends her family lore — it turns out her she has very little Native American ancestry — and she also discovers why the mix of "black, white and American Indian" is such a common heritage myth among black Americans. In the end, Tracy finds her flag, and discovers that her ethnic identity is more complex than she originally thought. The data revealed by DNA ancestry tests complicates the way she thinks about herself and her family's history, but she also realizes that these tests don't hold all the secrets to understanding ourselves and our heritage. The stories passed down over generations can be just as integral to the way we think about ourselves in the modern world.

Trans Kids Update: Dating, PMS, And, Yeah, Bathrooms

Last year, North Carolina passed HB2, the so-called "bathroom bill," banning anyone from using a public restroom that didn't match up with his or her biological sex. After the law passed, we went to North Carolina to visit one of the few gender clinics for kids in the South, at Duke University's Children's Hospital. We spent a day-in-the-life there, learning how patients and doctors juggle big physical changes and political changes too. Since our story last August, things have not calmed down. President Trump has canceled some key protections for trans students. This year, sixteen more states including Texas have introduced their own bathroom bills. And in a controversial decision last week, North Carolina lawmakers revoked HB2 — though trans activists called their replacement bill a bad deal. So with all this happening, we decided to catch up with the three kids we met last summer — Drew, Martin, and Jaye — and see how their lives and their bodies have changed. We start by going back to our first episode, when each of them was just beginning hormone therapy prescribed by Dr. Deanna Adkins, the pediatric endocrinologist who started Duke's transgender clinic two years ago. Then, we reconnect with Drew, Jaye, and Martin one more time. We talk about the joys (and pitfalls) of dating online, how their bodies are changing, and how they're doing under President Trump. Jaye (at left) and some Instagram posts from Drew Adams, pictured with his partner, CJ. (Courtesy of Jaye and Drew Adams)


Last fall, a bunch of us got sick at the same time, and it seemed likely that the virus spread at the workplace. The question came up: who came to work sick? Or to put it another way: who was to blame for this office outbreak? To find out, we partnered with NYU Tandon School of Engineering Assistant Professor, Rumi Chunara, who runs the goVIRAL research project, and Jeffrey Shaman, an expert in flu forecasting at Columbia University. His group is currently working on an extensive respiratory virus sampling project in New York entitled "The Virome of Manhattan" with the American Museum of Natural History. They helped us design a project looking at how respiratory illnesses spread in our workplace community. Once a week for ten weeks we swabbed our noses and sent the samples to a lab at Columbia where they could determine (if we were sick) what kind of respiratory infection we had caught. We also filled in bi-weekly symptom reports. Some of the questions were benign: do you have a fever? Others were more accusatory: who do you think got you sick? The entire experiment was a whodunnit. Or, perhaps more accurately, it was a flu-dunnit. But sometimes messing with what usually lies below the surface can have unexpected side effects. Flu-dunnit changed our office dynamic. Accusations started to fly, as our scientist sleuths discovered who were the victims — and who was the perpetrator.

Just Put Some Vicks On It

When scientist Rachel Herz decided to study the connection between smell and memory, she chose five products emblematic of childhood: Coppertone suntan lotion, Crayola crayons, Play-Doh, Johnson & Johnson baby powder and Vicks Vaporub. She studies the science of what's called the Proustian phenomenon. The French novelist Marcel Proust writes about dipping a madeleine cookie into a cup of linden tea and the aroma immediately bringing him back to a long-lost memory. Producer Julia Longoria has always had that relationship with Vicks Vaporub — the scent transports her right back to childhood, to days in bed with the flu at her grandmother's house in South Florida. Julia and her cousins all knew not to tell grandma when they were sick, or they'd risk being slathered with "Vickicito". Julia never had a reason to wonder why grandma loved Vicks so much, but this week's episode reveals grandma's love for the product is deeper than Julia imagined. And while investigating grandma's (and the world's) Vicks obsession, Julia is pulled into her family's past, back to Cuba, before the Revolution.

A Three Year-Old Girl, a Colony of Dogs, and One Very Rare Side Effect

When Mathilda Crisp was about three years-old, she stopped sleeping through the night. But during the day, she would fall asleep without warning — during a swim lesson, in the middle of her cereal bowl at breakfast. Then other, stranger symptoms started materializing: when she got happy or emotional, she would suddenly collapse. (Her brother and sister started carrying her around the house on a chair so she could keep playing in their games.) She would thrust her tongue around her mouth. She couldn't seem to walk in a straight line. At first her doctors were sure she had a brain tumor. But her scans were negative. They tested her for leukemia, Lyme disease. Nothing. But when one doctor finally did diagnose Mathilda, it turned out to be just the beginning of an even bigger mystery: of why this little girl — and a handful of other kids in Northern Europe — had suddenly been struck ill. Trying to solve it has become one doctor's life's work. Also check out: Mathilda's mom has written a book about her experience. You can read an exclusive excerpt from it, or check it out on Kindle. Dr. Emmanuel Mignot is a key player in this story. He first got media attention for his colony of narcoleptic dogs. Check them out. While researching this story, Mary learned a lot about the flu vaccine. Here are her top five takeaways.

The Woman Behind a Secret Grey's Anatomy Experiment

About nine years ago, 17.5 million people tuned into an episode of Grey's Anatomy that, on the surface, appeared like any other — high-stakes surgery, high-drama love triangles. What those millions of Grey's viewers didn't know was that they were guinea pigs for a massive, secret experiment. That experiment was arguably a referendum about a single woman: Jennifer Jako, and her decision to become a mother. In 1991, at the age of 18, Jako had a one night stand with a high-school friend. It was the only time she'd ever had sex without a condom. She contracted HIV and spent years trying to debunk misconceptions: producing a documentary that aired on MTV, speaking at college campuses and on talk shows. Over time, the country's view of HIV evolved. As people started living longer, stigma decreased. People generally understood that the infection wasn't a death sentence any longer. But there was one area people couldn't seem to understand: Pregnancy. Studies showed the general public simply didn't know — or didn't believe — that an HIV-positive woman, with the right treatment, had a tremendously low chance of passing the virus onto her baby — less than 2-percent at the time. Jennifer Jako got a cruel lesson in where the public stood when she appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine, six months pregnant. Later, as an experiment, the Kaiser Family Foundation decided to see if they could move the needle by trying something totally different: product placement of medical information in a Grey's Anatomy episode. In this episode of Only Human we tell the epic story of Jennifer Jako and how she managed to sneak into our livings rooms and, possibly, change public opinion forever.

The Crowd Made You Do It

*** Check out the results from our Group Think survey here *** Who knew counting a crowd would be so... political? If the election felt contentious, the inauguration seemed to make the country even more divided, between "us" and "them." After crowds gathered on the Washington Mall for President Trump's inauguration and the Women's March the following day, Only Human looks at what happens to us as individuals when we become part of a crowd. We look at the crowd psychology behind Donald Trump's rallies, the crowd dynamics in anti-Trump protests, and ways to stay safe in a crowd. Here's a video of tips from a crowd management expert we spoke to, Paul Wertheimer. Animation by Nate Milton

Meet Crowd Safety Expert, Paul Wertheimer

To understand crowds, Paul Wertheimer threw himself into the mosh pit — literally.

We're Back!

Only Human is working on an episode about the psychology of crowds. We're looking at what happens to us as individuals when we join a rally, a ceremony or a protest — such as inauguration, or the Women's March on Washington. And we need your help! This survey will help us understand what kind of effect these events might have on us, whether you're attending in person or watching from home. It should just take a couple minutes. Thank you!

Please Spit in This Tube: An Election Experiment

Every day another article comes out about how voters are stressed by this election. But we wanted to know: what is the election doing to our biology? The American Psychological Association recently found that more than half of all Americans — 52 percent — say this year's presidential election is a "somewhat" or "very significant" source of stress in their lives. The survey was self-reported, meaning respondents answered a few questions online and the APA took their self-assessments at face value. Anecdotally, those assessments probably ring true for many of us, but it turns out there's a way to measure the physiological effects of election stress. Over the last few years, a group of neuroscientists and political scientists have pioneered a new field called biopolitics, the study of biology and political behavior. Professor Kevin Smith is a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a co-author of the book, "Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences." He often collaborates with Dr. Jeffrey French, who runs a lab at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and studies cortisol, a hormone we release when we're stressed. One of Smith and French's recent studies looked at stress and voting. They wanted to know if cortisol levels influence whether people vote. The easiest way to test cortisol is through saliva, so they collected spit samples from a bunch of participants and got their official voting records for the past six elections. The researchers found that people with higher cortisol levels vote less. And that finding correlates with another one of their studies, which found that people who voted absentee experienced less stress than people who went to the polls. So we asked French and Smith to help us design an experiment of sorts. We'd use the presidential debates as a proxy for the election. Our team would go to debate watch parties and collect saliva samples from viewers to measure their cortisol levels. We'd also ask the participants to fill out a survey about themselves: their party affiliation, age and self-reported stress level. And we'd see who had the biggest changes in their cortisol over the course of the debate. During the first two presidential debates, we went to watch parties in Times Square, Midtown Manhattan and Northern New Jersey. Participants spat three times into tiny tubes: before the debate, to get a baseline sample, midway through the debate and after the debate. We over-nighted the samples to Omaha, where Dr. French processed them in his lab. A few weeks later, he had the results. We all agreed that the debate watch parties seemed stressful. At a bar in Times Square, we talked to young Republicans unhappy with their nominee and worried about their party's future. Others were terrified at the prospect of a Clinton presidency. In Midtown, a group of Democrats had gathered to watch at the Roosevelt Institute, a left-leaning think tank. A few of them brought their own alcohol, to temper their anxiety (French and Smith took alcohol and caffeine intake into account in their analysis) and a number of them worried about Trump's popularity. But the results surprised us: cortisol levels stayed close to normal levels throughout the debates. Clinton supporters had a small spike at the midway point, but not by much. Overall, the stress levels for liberals and conservatives didn't really change — with one exception. The researchers looked at cortisol levels based on whether participants had someone close to them who planned to vote for the opposing candidate. And for Trump supporters who had a conflict with a person close to them — a parent, a sibling, a spouse — cortisol levels actually went up after the debate. They probably found the debate more stressful. French and Smith warned us that this wasn't a pristine study. In fact, both professors laughed when we asked if they'd submit our work to a peer-reviewed journal. But they agreed that this finding was statistically significant. And they didn't find it for Clinton supporters, or voters who supported a third party candidate. The other significant finding related to baseline cortisol levels — the participants' stress level before the debate. The researchers found that Trump supporters had much higher baseline levels compared to Clinton voters. Smith, the political scientist, couldn't tell us why Trump voters had two times as much cortisol in their saliva compared to Clinton supporters. But he did say that our experiment served as an interesting pilot study — one that made him think differently about what he hopes to study next: tolerance. Here, Smith made a comparison to same-sex marriage. Opposition to it shifted when researchers found some biological or genetic basis for being gay — when it started to be considered innate. Smith wonders if the same is true for political difference. As he told one of our reporters, "If you're a liberal and I'm a conservative and I believe you're a liberal because you're genetically predisposed to be, then am I more tolerant of you or less tolerant of you?" In other words, if political difference is related to our biology, maybe we'll be more tolerant of each other. And therefore less stressed. And therefore more likely to vote. At least, that's the hope. In the spirit of encouraging less stressful conversations with the other side, here's a video with some tips for talking politics with your loved one — who's wrong about everything. Thanks to the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism students who helped out: Vicki Adame, Priscilla Alabi, Gregory Alcala, Christina Dabney, Jesenia De Moya, Robert Exley, Jeremy Ibarra, Meeran Karim, Alix Langone, Pauliina Siniauer, Anuz Thapa, Maritza Villela and Katherine Warren. And special thanks to the Young Republicans of New York City, The Roosevelt Institute, the Union County Young Republicans and the Montclair Republicans Club for allowing us to attend their debate watch parties! We've been on hiatus, working on some new stories. If you're joining us for the first time, here are some of our favorite past episodes: Keep the Baby, Get the Chemo Your Sanity or Your Kidneys Patients and Doctors Fess Up Who Are You Calling 'Inspiring'? Your Brain on Sound Bacon, Booze and the Search for the Fountain of Youth How to Stop an Outbreak A Doctor's Love Affair with Vicodin The Robot Ate My Pancreas I'd Rather have a Living Son than a Dead Daughter

Me and My Therapist

We have this idea of what therapy is supposed to look like. There's a couch. An objective therapist sitting across the room scribbling notes. But of course it's not that simple. What happens when your therapist is not really a therapist? Or the therapist is the one in tears? And of course, should you or should you not, try to have sex with your therapist? In this episode, six short stories, many from our listeners, looking at how the role of patient and therapist can get... complicated. Our stories are courtesy of: Shaunacy Ferro is a senior staff writer at Mental Floss. Michael Heintzman is a writer and actor. Jerry The Series is his latest project. Steven Puente first told his story on Story Collider. Michael Stahl is a writer, editor and journalist. His story was first published in Narratively. And listeners like you. Thanks to Dr. Jeffrey Younggren for his thoughts and wisdom on ethics in patient/therapist relationships, and to Gary Schoener for his expertise on Dr. Renatus Hartogs. A therapist's office is usually a private space, a place to share secrets. We don't often get the chance to see inside. So with many New York City therapists taking the month of August off, we invite you inside half a dozen or so therapeutic spaces. Make yourself comfortable, take your time and have a look around. - Amy Pearl, WNYC photographer (Amy Pearl/WNYC) Blair Casdin, psychotherapist, LCSW-R New York, NY Everything in a session has meaning, and the office is no different. The furniture, the lighting, the books, even the flowers. Recently, I purchased a water pitcher. One client joked that the water filter is toxic. Was he suggesting that what I have to offer him is toxic? The next week, however, he allowed himself to take a drink. For another one of my clients, the sight of the pitcher provokes a thirst she cannot quench. She fills her cup throughout the session, and admits that she never feels satiated. Most of all, I think a therapy office should be a place of comfort, opening a space that allows for open and engaged and even new thought, for both of us. Maybe what I am going for is that feeling you have when you get home after a long day and can finally relax and put your feet up. (Amy Pearl/WNYC) Ali Mattu, clinical psychologist, Ph.D. New York, NY I want my patients to find something in my office that they can connect with, something that makes them feel at home. I scatter characters who have faced their fears, grown from their setbacks, and demonstrated resilience in the face of adversity. This stuff doesn't make Cognitive Behavioral Therapy any easier, but it does help the people I work with begin their own hero's journey. (Amy Pearl/WNYC) Stephanie Newman, psychoanalyst, psychotherapist and author, Ph.D. New York, NY I am sure it will not surprise you to learn that reactions to the therapist's space are as diverse and varied as the individuals who offer them. For some, the chair, consulting room, objects I have displayed have become a sort of touchstone. I will elaborate: I recently moved to a new office after working for many years at another location. Once I was situated in the new place, many people shared their reactions. They noticed that things had been moved around to reflect the new office and layout but were generally glad to have their favorites, their touchstones. One common reaction (I paraphrase): 'The space is larger but the chair is the same as always.' Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose! Ultimately it is about the alliance, the relationship, and the bond you and the patient form, that which is shaped by the constant presence and steadfast attention over many hours and minutes and seconds, spent in the room with a caring and attentive therapist and hardworking patient. (Amy Pearl/WNYC) Howard Danelowitz, Imago couples therapist, LCSW New York, NY The office was actually built for my colleague and for me and I wanted to try to have it be as open as possible. It's a little bit unexpected because when you walk into the very small waiting room you might expect something like that but there's actually a lot of light here and I feel a nice breeze. People feel comfortable with symmetry so you can keep on seeing symmetry in the room with two chairs, two doors, two rows of paintings. Every once and a while, someone will come in and say, 'I noticed your name on the paintings [in the waiting room]' and I will just ask them, 'How is that for you to know that those are my paintings?' I want to get a sense of what it means to them and if we have to talk about it further. I have felt lucky to have this as an office because I've seen many offices and a lot of them aren't special the way this is. (Amy Pearl/WNYC) Kate Dvorkin, psychologist, Psy.D. New York, NY When people walk in they are comfortable, that's the main thing. A lot of people find the couch very comfortable, people like at least some of the artwork. They walk in and they feel at ease because there are a lot of things to look at. The art work is varied, but it just has a nice feel; it's eclectic but comfortable — kind of like me! I created a space that I was comfortable in. A lot of people walk in here and say, 'This is a place I can work in and feel relaxed in.' Just being relaxed and comfortable is what I'm aiming for so people can focus on what they need to focus on. The space shouldn't distract you, you should be able to focus on yourself and your work. (Amy Pearl/WNYC) Owen Muir, psychiatrist, MD Brooklyn, NY I practice mentalization-based treatment and Interpersonal Social Rhythms Therapy (for bipolar disorder only). No other modalities by me. Only these two evidence-based treatments. The space is hip, open, has daylight (for IPSRT that is helpful), encourages thinking about music and art (in Williamsburg my patients are artists much of the time) and is a bit more off-kilter and less straight-laced than many other treatment spaces. I also have a prominent whiteboard for learning together. The space was designed with the help of psychologist and interior designer Paula Madrid, who helped with all aspects of the setup: furniture selection, flow of the room. Dr. MacMillan made sure that even the pillows convey the right message. And there are fidget toys for patients with ADHD to fiddle with! The photography is by Angela Cappetta, a New York photographer.

I'd Rather Have a Living Son Than a Dead Daughter

Earlier this year, North Carolina passed HB2, the so-called "bathroom bill." The law bans anyone from using a public restroom that doesn't match up with his/her biological sex. HB2 put the state in the middle of a national fight about gender. But North Carolina is also home to one of the few gender clinics for kids in the South, at Duke University's Children's Hospital. This week, we spend a day in that gender clinic, the only one in North Carolina. We wanted to know how a clinic like this one operates in this political climate. And we wanted to find out how these patients are coping. Dr. Deanna Adkins, a pediatric endocrinologist, started the clinic a year ago. Over the course of our day, we met three of her very different patients. Drew Adams is a 15-year-old trans man who came with his mom, Erica, all the way from Jacksonville, Florida. On the drive up, Drew wore a T-shirt with "This is What Trans Looks Like" printed on it. He told us he decided to change out of it before he stopped for a bathroom break in North Carolina; he used the men's room. When Dr. Adkins told Drew that not only would he get a prescription for testosterone, but that he could give himself his first shot that very day, Drew stood up and cheered. Dr. Deanna Adkins, the pediatric endocrinologist in charge of the Duke Child and Adolescent Gender Care Clinic (Mary Harris) We also shadowed Dr. Adkins's appointment with Jaye, an 18-year-old African-American trans woman. Jaye's experience has been very different from Drew's; her family has had a harder time accepting her transition. She also worries a lot about her safety, especially in North Carolina, and she can tick off the names of a number of trans women of color who have been killed over the last few years. But, like Drew, Jaye was thrilled when Dr. Adkins handed her a prescription for estrogen. She planned to pick it up that day. At the end of the day, we met Dr. Adkins's last patient, Martin, and his mom, Karen (we decided to use pseudonyms for them both). Martin was born a girl and came out as trans a year and a half ago, after a long struggle with depression and anxiety. At first, his mom worried that this was one more expression of Martin's unhappiness. But Martin's transition has completely changed his outlook. His mom said he used to be withdrawn; when his depression was at its lowest point, he started cutting himself and had to be hospitalized. Now, she says, "It's more like we've become friends again and we've reconnected. I think it's because he realizes that I accept him for who he is and I'm going to support him." This fall, Martin plans to present as a boy when he returns to school in Raleigh. When we asked him which bathroom he'll use, he told us it will depend how brave he's feeling.

Growing Up "Ugly"

When Robert Hoge was born in Brisbane, Australia, in 1973, his mother immediately knew there was something wrong. Instead of asking the doctors, "Is it a boy or a girl?" she asked, "Is my baby okay?" He wasn't. He had a tumor the size of his newborn fist smack in the middle of his face. His legs were very short; his feet were missing toes and twisted out of shape. Robert had surgery to remove the tumor, but it left him with severe deformities. At first, his mother didn't want to take him home from the hospital. She had four older children; she worried about Robert's impact on them. Eventually, she relented. She hoped to give her son a normal life. But Robert's life has been anything but normal. This week, Only Human spends some time with Robert Hoge. By all accounts, he's been wildly successful: he was the first in his family to go to college. He became a journalist, then a spokesperson for an Australian politician. He even carried the Olympic Torch before the Summer Games in Sydney. Hoge, now 44 years-old, had multiple surgeries to change his face, but eventually said enough. (Matt Warrell) But Robert's also had to get used to people calling him "ugly." And he knows better than anyone that there's this lie we all tell ourselves: that it's what on the inside that counts, and looks don't matter. So what do you do when the way you look forces you to confront that, every day? And even if you can get past it — what about the rest of us?

Yes, Simba, Chimps Laugh

You've probably heard that laughter is the best medicine. This week, we set out to see if there's any truth to this idea. First, our host Mary Harris went with Kurt Andersen, the host of Studio 360, to try something called laughter yoga. Its participants claim that laughing heals all kinds of ailments. It may sound far-fetched, but some scientists think laughter might actually have some measurable health benefits. Then reporter Amanda Aronczyk looked whether laughter can be good medicine for our doctors — especially when they're dealing with taboo things like death and sex. To find out, she spoke to a medical ethicist who teaches improv to doctors and nurses. She discovered that what's funny when doctors joke may depend on who is listening. The instructors and attendees of the Fourth International Medical Improv Train-the-Trainer Workshop hosted by The Northwestern Center for Bioethics & Medical Humanities. (Rachel Jensen) You can listen to Studio 360's episode about the science of laughter here.

The Prank Your Body Plays On Life

Our friend Max Ritvo passed away August 23, 2016. We learned so much from our conversations with him, and we hope that this interview gives you a sense of the beauty — and humor — he saw in the world. One of our first guests on the show last fall was the young poet Max Ritvo. Ritvo, 25, has spent years living with Ewing's Sarcoma, an incurable cancer. Meanwhile he's gotten married, taught at Columbia University, and performed in an improv comedy group. His first book of poetry, Four Reincarnations, comes out this fall. One work from that book, "Poem to My Litter," was just published in the New Yorker. But Ritvo is more than his accomplishments. He's someone who reminded us that there are many different ways to look at death, and dying, and some of them make you actually laugh out loud. He came back to visit us a few weeks ago on what he called his "farewell tour." Even in his final days, Max says he keeps his sense of humor alive. "When you laugh at something horrible, you're just illuminating a different side of it that was already there. If you make something sad funny you're much more likely to remember it. It's a mnemonic device that makes our suffering rhyme with joy." We invited an artist, Nate Milton, to animate two of Max's poems: Poem to My Litter Afternoon

Your Brain On Sound (Rebroadcast)

This week we're revisiting an episode from our series on hearing, listening and sound. When Rose* was growing up, she knew something wasn't quite right about how she heard the world. She says it felt like she was isolated by an invisible wall. But when she got typical hearing tests at an audiologist's office? She aced them, every time. Rose's problem was particularly bad in noisy places. "It doesn't take much," she says. "It could be five computers in a room and a bunch of shuffling around — you lose me at that point." It took Rose years, and plenty of doctors' visits, to figure out what was happening. And when she did find out, it was thanks to the persistence of Professor Nina Kraus. Kraus runs an auditory neuroscience laboratory at Northwestern University. For decades, Kraus has been conducting research on Rose and other patients like her to learn just how vital our brains are to understanding sound. And she discovered how hearing difficulties can be a marker for all types of neurological issues — autism, dyslexia, learning delays — that have nothing to do with our ears. *not her real name

I Thought the Truth Would Be Enough

The engineer who uncovered the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan – where the water was toxic enough to give kids brain damage – doesn't even live in Michigan. His name is Marc Edwards, and he teaches engineering at Virginia Tech, more than 500 miles away. Marc started investigating water pollution in Flint last August. But he got his start more than a decade ago, in Washington, DC, when he discovered high levels of lead in that city's water. In DC no one would listen to him. He lost lucrative contracts and spent thousands of dollars – of his own money – sampling the water to prove it was contaminated even when the government insisted it was safe. In the end, he prevailed and the water was cleaned up. But not before thousands of kids were exposed to dangerously high amounts of lead. This week, we talk to Edwards about his crusade to make our water safe. Getting the science right turned out to be just the beginning of a fight. The harder part was figuring out how to convince people he was right.

Vacation Is All I Ever Wanted

For many sick people, getting even a temporary break from pain sounds too good to be true. But this week we hear from three people who did get a reprieve from a chronic disease, sometimes in very unconventional ways. One of our listeners, Allison, struggled with severe, undiagnosed depression in her twenties. She hooked up with a no-good boyfriend who got her into a dangerous habit: heroin. Today, she's 57 and she knows the guy and the drugs were trouble. But she also says heroin had a surprising side effect. Sara Benincasa is a stand-up comedian who grapples with agoraphobia, a fear of crowds and busy places. But during a trip to the Netherlands she encountered a place that changed how she faces this fear, and helped her see what life could look like when she wasn't scared to leave the house. Hanna wrote into us with a really intimate story about life with ulcerative colitis, an incurable disease with some difficult side effects. When traditional treatments failed, she and her mom tried an experiment that changed how Hanna thinks about her body and her daily life.

One Doctor's Mission: Make Abortion Safe in the South (Rebroadcast)

As the Supreme Court nears its decision on a major abortion case this month, we're revisiting an episode from earlier this year: Willie Parker grew up in Alabama without electricity, one of six kids in a single-mother household. He learned to read by the light of a kerosene lamp. He was also raised in a fundamentalist Christian community that believed abortion was wrong. Single, unwed mothers had to publicly apologize in church. Today, however, Parker is a obstetrician gynecologist who specializes in providing safe abortions in the Deep South. He travels between states and clinics amid protests and threats, and treats the same demographic of women who might have gone to his church. Parker credits his change of heart to a sermon he heard by Martin Luther King Jr., where he alludes to the biblical story of the Good Samaritan—a man who acts out of kindness for the greater good. "The Good Samaritan asks what will happen to this person if I don't stop to help them," Parker said. Women in this region of the United States have few options, Parker says, if they aren't ready to be mothers. The last abortion clinic in Mississippi was attacked last year, and the state moved to block doctors from being able to admitting patients to hospitals after they received an abortion. Parker says the trend of unsafe, secretive abortions are too dangerous to deny women access to care. "Being born in the South, and being reared in abject poverty... if I couldn't make those women a priority, who will?" he says. That perspective has fueled his work and helped shape his faith. It's also the reason he doesn't shy away from being recorded on film or speaking in public, despite the pressure he gets from the pro-life movements that thrive in the Bible Belt. And while Parker has lost some friends, and severed relationships, he is at peace with his decision. "I believe my work is honorable. I believe it is always appropriate to help people," he says. "And so I've made the conscious decision to practice my craft with the dignity and honor that I think it is due."

Part 3: A Star With Schizophrenia

This is the third and final part of our series with NPR about mental health and generation gaps. Rachel Star Withers has had hallucinations since she was a kid. She sees store mannequins taking off their hats, or ticking clocks that don't exist. She's schizophrenic. And instead of hiding it, she talks about it all the time, in videos she posts on YouTube. In our tell-all, share-all culture, more and more people like Rachel are speaking openly about their mental health and challenging the stigma that comes with their diagnoses. And while Withers has to block some naysayers and internet bullies, she says the videos help create a more compassionate community. "It really made me feel not so alone."

Part 2: Be the Doctor Your Mom Wanted You to Marry

This is the second part of our series with NPR about mental health and generation gaps. When Giselle applied to medical school she decided to be completely open about her experience with mental health: depression, anxiety and a suicide attempt when she was 16 years old. She's not alone—roughly 300 physicians in America commit suicide every year, and a higher percentage of doctors are depressed than the average person. But the intensity and prestige of the medical field doesn't always lend itself to an open conversation about these issues. Giselle said hiding her mental health issues is not an option. (Amanda Aronczyk) The stakes are high for Giselle. Her mental health makes some people—from her school to future patients—uneasy. And sometimes her anxiety is so bad she can't take her medical school exams. But as you'll find out in the episode, these are not challenges that Giselle is about to shy away from. She says her challenges will make her a better doctor, and hopefully encourage other physicians find the help they need, too.