Saturday, March 7, 2009


I live and work in an amazing place, a nexus. Two institutions with which I have been associated in the last nearly seventeen years are chock full of brilliant people doing incredible things. And I've seen it up close. I've taken classes taught by Nobel Laureates. I've worked with people who by rights should be (are you listening, Stockholm?).

And everywhere you turn, there are stories, extraordinary stories. Stories of inspiration and persistence. Stories of tiny molecules responsible for big things. Molecules that interact with other molecules. These interactions are the stuff of life-- how things work or how disease happens,-- a change that causes a change, that causes a change. Some of these stories are old enough to be in textbooks, some so new they are under embargo pending publication, and some incomplete, still in progress. I go to class or to talks to hear the stories, or I stumble upon them as I dig through the literature.

I've admired these stories, for substance, but also for elegance. I've been impressed with the insight needed to ask the question in just that way, or with the enormous progress a person or a group can make in just a few years (ahem... rarely... more often, it's a long and torturous road). But not until last week did I feel personally affected by one of these stories.

As I walked back to my office across the darkened and subdued campus last week, the story I just heard kept reverberating in me. Not intellectually, or, rather, not only intellectually. Don't get me wrong-- the story's nothing to sneeze at, intellectually speaking. It's got balls, for it took giant intellectual balls to ask that particular question. It's got insight, for it took a boatload of that to pick the particular approach that ended up paying out so generously, plus another boatload to choose where to look. It's got elegance, for there was that in reconciling the new, beautiful data with the old, seemingly contradictory, results. And the resulting model,-- dayyyymn, but it's elegant.

But that wasn't what was rocking my boat the other night. I was surprised to find that I was literally buoyed, high as a kite on vapors of a promise. It occurred to me that if this story keeps unfolding as it seems poised to do, by the time it's my daughter's turn to worry about pregnancy and childbirth, one of the big bad things of today will likely become no more than "oh, that? They've got a pill for that now." A promise of less heartache, less hurt, less pain. A promise of a better world. A promise of a monster, a true honest to goodness monster, a killer, tamed. Put out of business. Caged.

I walked along, thinking. Thinking that unlike all these other stories, this one might affect my daughter, likely will. Her or one of her many friends. (Which, because she is Monkey, would also deeply affect her.) I had this feeling that one day it will be relevant. And for the first time in all these years I realized that one day I will be able to tell my children "You know, I heard the guy speak before they worked out the whole thing, but when they already knew X and Y."

And then I imagined how I will tell them about how bad it was, you know, before. Which brought me right the fuck down to earth, in a hurry. Because that before is now. Because the big bad is still out there, hurting or killing women and babies. And it will keep doing that even as all these researchers are working double time to get from X and Y all the way to "we've got a pill for that." More than that, I could suddenly see, feel even, that when the after is here, the women hurt by the big bad in the before will still be hurt. For them, there will not be much comfort in the fortune of others. For them that fortune might even sting, because really, why did it not come in time for them? Why the fuck not?

And I realized that, as in so many things, the after really can't come soon enough.


Mrs. Spit said...


I hold out hope. I tell women. It's coming.

And there will be no greater joy than to say

"It's here. Never again. Never. It's here."

k@lakly said...

So true. I hope whatever it is that you've heard about works liek you hope and that it comes pronto because there are just too many already living with 'before'.

Hope's Mama said...

No it can't. And so very well said, Julia.

Tash said...

I often think this away about numerous medical advances: antibiotics, anesthesia, MRI, and vaccinations. Sometimes, though, it only takes picking up the paper to realize that my very much after -- as in not a worry, scratch that off the list and put it in the trash -- is someone else's very much right now. I hope when it becomes an "after," it really true does everywhere.

Magpie said...

Interesting, and so provocative! What are you talking about???

I look at my daughter and my life sometimes, and I think about what I have and what was around when I was a child, and how things will be different in 20-30-40 years, as she grows older. It's kind of mindblowing.

CLC said...

I have been weirdly thinking lately that if I had lived a 100 years ago, most people I know would have experienced the death of at least one child. And I often wonder how it would make things different for the healing process. Would I feel less lonely? Maybe. Would I be allowed to talk about it? Probably not. I don't know what the point of my comment is. Maybe that I think you are right about the people who have suffered the "before". There will be relief that that thing is no longer the big bad wolf, but there will also be the bitterness that why didn't it come sooner to save my baby.

Amelie said...

So true.
I envy you for the possibility to be there.

christina(apronstrings) said...

i wait. we wait. with hope and faith.

Lori said...

Can't wait to know cool you get a front seat in watching this develop!

Miryam (mama o' the matrices) said...

I wish I could chorus YES! here, but I think I'm just not going to be able to.

Oh, yes, yes, yes for that which can downshift grief into a daily grind, a challenge that we shoulder but at least hey, we get that much.

But pills? cures?

I think that I stand skeptical of cures, unnerved by the urgency and speed of the pharma industry, uncertain and suspicious of the miracle cure that was tested on adult men, say, but not women, and oh, no not children. The alarming lack of information we seem to have when we come up with wonderdrug X, and whoops! Who saw SuperBug coming?

When gene therapy comes into its own, the Eldest will be on the sidelines and watching, even if I have to padlock his feet to the floor.

But oh, yes. For that which does not cure but gives us time and hope. The carefully thought out half-way step, which buys time for whatever may follow.

niobe said...

I feel fairly confident that one day they'll develop a way to prevent or treat preeclampsia. It's such a (relatively) common cause of stillbirth, neonatal death and maternal death that I'm sure that a fair amount of resources are being directed towards finding a solution.

But I'm a lot less sure that there's anything that can be done about the one-offs, the accidents, the Bad Things that seem to just randomly happen. And somehow that seems monstrously unfair.

I wonder too, if, assuming that a cure is found for common causes of baby loss, whether that will just serve to further marginalize those who still experience it.

Not that preventing stillbirth and neonatal death isn't a worthy goal or a good thing -- but I do wonder about the broader effects....

luna said...

wouldn't it be nice?

I thought about this the other day when my family was talking about the cusp of viability. my 38yo cousin was a premie, born at 27 wks. they wrapped him in saran wrap (among many other things). his doc still calls him miracle baby. today that cusp has moved to 24wks (though we know how that often turns out...) just makes you wonder what might be possible some day, you know?

Betty M said...

It certainly can't come soon enough. On Friday I had cause to watch some short films about maternal and neonatal death in Africa. What I saw horrified me. I hope that whatever it is they are coming up with at your place will be available to everywhere.

Anonymous said...

wow, you always write so beautifully and that is definately a double edged sword, but in a good way for the future women in our lives.