Cancer Lottery

A single lymphocyte, with its natural killer (NK) cells, T cells and B cells.
Photo courtesy: National Cancer Institute

I’ve been saved.

I’ve been saved from a genetic DNA mismatch, the tumor suppressor MSH2 malfunction that wreaks havoc on health, on life, on longevity. It’s not just one cancer to deal with; it’s dozens. Most know it as the dreaded Lynch Syndrome.

In the months since learning my genetic-testing fate in my family’s 50-50 cancer lottery, I rage at the injustice of my sister’s positive result and her latest unwanted journey with another rarest-of-rare cancer. Growing up just one year apart (“Irish twins,” they called us), I cannot bear to see the injustice my sister bears, yet bears so wisely, so compassionately, so graciously. She, with her husband, sons, job, friends, home, and faith – she has so much to live for, to lean into hope, even as her hair falls out again, her legs fill with blood clots again, her skin prickly and tingly and numb, fighting infection after infection from her chemo-weakened immune system once again, and a body so scarred from surgeries that will never, ever fade away. She lives for her family, and most of all for her sons and their futures…

Cancer cells, so wickedly pretty Photo courtesy: National Cancer Institute

Cancer cells, so wickedly pretty
Photo courtesy: National Cancer Institute

Because I have been spared all this – this genetic DNA mismatch – life is no longer the same. It cannot be the same. Workplace maneuverings are meaningless; daily disappointments cannot bind me, nor the past and all its mistakes chain me in. I have yet to see what I should see, what I think I should see – so blinded by this light of hope, falling to my knees intertwined in gratefulness and sadness.

And so I wait, we wait. I live, we live. Love and lean into the peace that this simply is: our imperfect bodies, our imperfect DNA, our imperfect lives, our unknown blessed futures, unfolding now…


Seattle: #1 Most Giving City

Yes, we are known for the “Seattle Freeze,” that Wikipedia entry of how cold we can be toward one another – especially newcomers – in our Emerald City.

I think it’s really because we’re so tired working. We do work hard in Seattle.

Yet, today the news came that Seattle is #1 in online charitable giving. Of course it’s online; it’s the only way we function in this town! For me, it’s a reminder that I live it in a city of goodness and grace, despite its rain and traffic.

We are kind, and we look up and outward beyond ourselves. My charitable giving is in education and global health, the areas that have most affected my life and changed my life.

This is why I live in Seattle. Signature

Dr. King Holmes: A World of Good

Graduation congratulations! Red-letter day for MPH graduate Ibrahim Ali, with UW Global Health chair Dr. King Holmes. (Photo: Bliss Ali)

Graduation congratulations! Red-letter day for MPH graduate Ibrahim Ali, with UW Global Health chair Dr. King Holmes. (Photo: Bliss Ali)

Approachable. Kind. And dedicated as they come.

University of Washington’s Global Health Department founder and chair, Dr. King Holmes, is stepping down. Even at age 75, it’s a shock to lose our world-renown leader in HIV/AIDS and STDs research, a doctor who’s trained generations of global health students, scientists, and researchers not just in diseases but in their effects socially and behaviorally. He’s made the UW global health program a global powerhouse.

Dr. Holmes often lectured in my global health classes, most often on the global burden of disease in sexually communicable diseases. We also shared a mutual passion for the SCOPE project in Ethiopia, which brings together academic, medical, and faith-based organizations to lessen the prevalence of HIV/AIDs in that country. They do this by working with ‘soul fathers‘ (Ethiopian Orthodox priests), encouraging believers not only to drink so-calledcurative holy waters’ but to take their anti-retroviral drugs as well. It’s making a difference.

Dr. Holmes will keep working and researching on his own projects and volunteer work after he’s left the UW. It’s hard to imagine otherwise.

Thank you, Dr. Holmes, for your gift of global health to Seattle, the University of Washington, and the world.


Thanks-thanks-thanks, global health

Helen Holter (October 2011) CU

Helen Holter: a global health thank you

WRITER ANN LAMOTTE boils down much in life to ‘help-help-help’ and ‘thanks-thanks-thanks.’ I say ‘thanks-thanks-thanks’ to so many–Seattleites especially–who’ve taught me their own global health lessons.

I’VE TALKED WITH YOU. Or listened to you speak. Read your insightful articles or books. Viewed your web sites. Or visited the place(s) you’re working in global health. So thanks.  I’ve tried to sprinkle your names throughout this web site as a way of honoring and recognizing you, especially the global health educators. Your influence is all over me in what I choose to write, and how I write it.

BEYOND THAT,thanks-thanks-thanks’ to those who woke me up to global health and to the power of humans to change the world’s health, for better or worse. They are the Soviet and Ukrainian government officials who tore through red tape to get me to Chernobyl in 1990 when I worked as a Soviet TV news correspondent through the Netherlands’ Alerdinck Foundation. There I saw first-hand what few at that time had seen: the effect of radiation, secrecy, and human-caused disaster seeping into the lives and health of so many… many now dead.

If ever there was a wake-up call to global health, Chernobyl was my alarm. To all, I am grateful.


The burdens of disease, and death

Smallpox poster (Credit: Centers for Disease Control)

Smallpox poster (Photo Courtesy: Centers for Disease Control)

In my lifetime a handful of diseases have been eradicated – like smallpox – or tamed a bit – like HIV/AIDS. I grew up wanting to believe that hope was part of the methodology in scientific research, hope part of the solution.

∫∫ Crunching Global Health Numbers ∫∫

In Seattle, our global health experts just published research findings on the latest global causes of death and disability – the DALYs – in developed (rich) and in developing (poor) countries. There’s hope, perhaps – but a bit of kick-in-the-pants reality, too. It’s called metrics – visualized metrics (view here). It grabs you: global-health eye candy screaming “Pay attention to this!”

These findings and visualized metrics are from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics & Evaluation (IHME), with funding from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. IHME’s “Global Health Burden of Disease Study” is a five-year study in 50 countries by 500 researchers. Predictably, HIV/AIDS, infant illnesses, and infectious diseases loom largest in developing countries, while richer countries like the U.S. are faced with growing threats of noncommunicable diseases such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and drug/drink disorders.

∫∫ Remembering Alzheimer’s ∫∫

Five million and rising: Americans with Alzheimer's disease. (Photo: On Being/Creative Commons)

Five million and rising: Americans with Alzheimer’s disease. (Photo courtesy: On Being/Creative Commons)

The Alzheimer’s news is most troubling to me – not because it’s rampant among my relatives, but because I’ve often witnessed the living-dead destruction it wreaks on patients as well as their families, including a former KIRO-TV colleague.

One of my first jobs was as a nurse’s aide at age 18 in a county-run rundown hospital – the highest-paying work for a girl I could find in my town. (That’s how much I wanted to go to college.) One of my duties was watching people die and then cleaning their bodies for the morgue. As depressing as that sounds, what disturbed me more was strapping aging patients into adult high chairs, where they sat all day long drooling, their minds dying a slow death with Alzheimer’s plaques and fibers twisting their brains: no therapy, no assistance, simply left to babble until their last breath.

A decade later when I worked in TV news covering medical/health stories, I found a young 32-year-old mother and wife trying to juggle the needs of her family and newborn baby with the needs of her wheelchair-bound, nearly catatonic father, dying at age 54 of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. She cradled her infant’s head in hope, her father’s in despair… He died not long after after our interview.

∫∫ Making Change ∫∫

I still hold hope that, although we in the U.S. are dying more from noncommunicable diseases such as Alzheimer’s, there is so much we can easily change in our lifestyles to help ward off preventable risks for diabetes, heart disease, lung cancer, strokes, and even that dreaded Alzheimer’s disease. If simple lifestyle warnings to take action don’t do the trick–exercise, healthy weight, clean eating, and no smoking–then perhaps those entertaining yet sobering IHME visualized metrics will shock us into action, these global health sentinels warning us of the burdens of disease, and death.



Recommended: “Jan’s Story: Love Lost to the Long Goodbye of Alzheimer’s” by Barry Peterson. (Jan was my KIRO-TV colleague who recently died; Barry was her husband and a CBS Network correspondent.)

White-trash garlic bread

Helen Holter - birthday 1970s

Always looking beyond, I was never quite satisfied with what was in front of me, especially food. (1970s)

 I CAN’T GET no satisfaction.

I grew up wanting more, and why not? It was my culture, the late ’60s and 1970s. Even the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger wailed dissatisfaction over a girl dissatisfied with him. Mick ‘can’t get no satisfaction’ with TV ads telling him to be dissatisfied with less-than-white shirts, to be dissatisfied with his cigarettes — there are better smokes out there. In fact, everything else is better out there. So be cool: be dissatisfied.

So I was. Dissatisfaction seeped into my soul, but most of all into my stomach. I couldn’t get no satisfaction from — food.

A day's haul of my dad's backyard tomatoes

My dad with a day’s haul of his backyard tomatoes.

 GROWING UP IN MONTANA, our backyard burst with home-grown strawberries, organic beans corn, carrots, cucumbers, and my dad’s consuming passion: his dozen varieties of tomatoes, from heirloom to hybrid.

Each autumn Dad hunted and shot a deer–beheaded and bloodied in the basement — fresh meat for his family. My mom’s cooking won nine top ribbons at the Montana State Fair: breads, pies, cakes and candies. (The town newspaper even featured my mom and her first-prize-winning cinnamon rolls.)

Harvesttime: my mom's canned cherries, jams, pies

Harvest time: my mom’s canned cherries, jams, and prize-winning pies. Yet I preferred Hostess Cherry Pies.

 WE CANNED TOMATOES, beans,  horseradish, cherries, and pears. Picked free chokecherries along country roads for jams and jellies. Made pizza from scratch on Saturday nights, watching “Gunsmoke.” Pigged out on Mom’s homemade garlic bread dripping with melted butter, pungent garlic cloves, and freshly grated cheese.

On our relatives’ Montana homesteads, I plucked feathers from beheaded chickens in the kitchen sink, drank milk from cows whose udders I’d pumped earlier that morning.

My cousins feed slop to grateful hogs. (Hinsdale, Montana)

My cousins feed slop to grateful hogs. (Hinsdale, Montana)

Played in the pigpen, knowing some hog might be that night’s main meal.  (‘Bringin’ home the bacon’ really meant something to me.)  It was all from scratch: from bread, butter, and bacon to pickles, preserves, and pies.

OUR LIVES were from scratch, scratching out livings as best my parents could try. And they tried, and they tried, and they tried.

And yet, in my now-envied childhood world of whole foods and good health, in that age of jagged dissatisfaction my small soul longed for more, so much more…


Twinkies, 30+ ingredients for this cream-filled cake

Twinkies, 30+ ingredients for this cream-filled cake

 I LONGED for Twinkies.

Ho-Hos. Hostess Cherry Pies and Ding-Dongs.

Cheez-Whiz. Hamburger Helper, Spam, Dream Whip, and Jello. What could trump a Manwich with Pringles and Velveeta cheese? Fine dining was Swanson frozen fried chicken TV dinners along with what’s now ironically known as  ‘white-trash garlic bread’ – made with Imperial Margarine/(fake) butter, Wonder (chemical) Bread, McCormick’s garlic powder, and Kraft preservative-filled powdered Parmesan cheese from a shiny green can–oh, and pass me the MSG, please. I craved them all, beyond the hunger pangs in my stomach.


Hamburger Helper, instant cake mix, Spam: 79 ingredients

Hamburger Helper, instant cake mix, Spam: 79 ingredients and counting.

 I HUNGERED for store-bought, processed, chemically-laden products: status symbols of wealth. They cost money, and you had to have money to buy them. So, in my young mind if you could buy that stuff, you were rich.

In contrast, cheap natural foods made from scratch or grown in backyard gardens were obvious signs of financial struggle–my family’s struggles. White-trash hicks. White-trash kid.

Worse, in school lunchrooms kids with lunch pails and homemade fare were branded, self-segregated to cafeteria corners while kids who paid for hot meals–pizza, tater tots, corn dogs–sat at the coolest, most prominent tables. I was no Rosa Parks of lunch-pail integration back then, but still longed–like a child’s nose pressed against candy-store glass–I longed for those 10- and 25-cent meals that would land me in the upper class of my class.


From scratch, my food for the satisfied soul. (Seattle, 2003)

From scratch, my food for the satisfied soul. (Seattle, 2003)

 DECADES LATER, I cook everything from scratch. Decades later, I still struggle with class, social standing judged on the stock I come from, where I was born and now live, what I eat. It’s a sense of place DNAed into me, longing and yet knowing that no matter what I do or achieve I will never really ‘fit in’ to that higher social class–acceptance–I craved as a child, with store-bought processed food my gateway.

Like Twinkies.

I know better, now. I know my place. And yet, my childhood culinary dissatisfaction of our Montana homegrown, white-trash whole foods is now craved by those upper classes willing to spend ‘whole paychecks’ for local, raw, organic fresh fare.

We are all so dissatisfied with what’s on our plates, craving that which eludes us even when the most nourishing sustenance is set before us, inviting us to eat, drink, and be filled.

And perhaps, someday, to be satisfied…



Voices of Global Health: Multifaith work

Aisha Jumaan.

Aisha Jumaan.

Sometimes it seems there’s a global war in global health, with faith-based and secular organizations at each other’s throats: competing interests; differences in approaching medical treatment with-and-without a faith component; funding sources with-and-without religious strings attached.

Bernice Kegel brings Jewish insights as a leader of the "Perspectives" discussion July 13, 2012.

Bernice Kegel.

Three Seattleites–Jewish, Muslim, and Christian–are instrumental in addressing those global health suspicions. Bernice Kegel, Aisha Jumaan, and David Brenner are Jewish, Islamic, and Christian chairs of “Perspectives: How Faith Based and Secular Organizations Partner for Better Global Health”  on July 13, 2012. This discussion–at Seattle Center’s McCaw Hall–will focus on how different faiths can collaborate and work together on global health issues.

David Brenner heads up the Christian component at the July 13, 2012 "Perspectives" gathering.

David Brenner.

In this “Voices of Global Health” WGHA blog post, the three leaders talk extensively about  faith-based concerns in global health, and solutions.

Highlights: Dave Brenner deeply moved by a talk from global health giant Dr. Bill Foege. Aisha Jumaan on a young Ugandan girl’s pain in losing her mother to cervical cancer. Bernice Kegel in the Dominican Republic, post-Haiti earthquake, amid the losses and injuries witnessing a ‘celebration of life.’


Recommended: Washington Global Health Alliance web site.

Voices of Global Health: Dr. Judy Wasserheit

Dr. Judy Wasserheit, UW Global Health  I met Dr. Judy Wasserheit several years ago, when I was trying to figure out how I could integrate my journalism experience and my growing interest in global health without going back to school for a PhD or M.D. She was extremely helpful.

In this “Voices of Global Health” blog post, Dr. Wasserheit remembers her fascination with global health long before it was ever called ‘global health.’ [Now the term is so well used in Seattle that it’s even shortened to “GH.”]

As an M.D., MPH, and professor, today she is vice-chair of the UW’s Global Health department, specializing in sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV research.

Highlights: Desire to ‘make a difference.’  Working with like-minded dedicated people. Her thoughts on Bangladeshi vs. U.S. nose-blowing.


Recommended: University of Washington–Global Health web site.

Faith+Secular=Global Health ‘Perspectives’ (w/video)

Here’s my YouTube video question for Sunday’s (free) groundbreaking gathering on how faith-based and secular organizations can partner for better global health.

Bill Gates Sr. of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and World Vision’s Rich Stearns are just two of the keynote panelists – yes‘Perspectives’ is one of many global health events for Seattle’s July ‘Global Health Month’ through the Washington Global Health Alliance.

You can  RSVP for free tickets at the ‘Perspectives’ ticket page or on Facebook’s ‘Perspectives’ event page. It’s from 1-3 p.m., Sunday, July 15th, 2012, in McCaw Hall at Seattle Center (near the Space Needle.)  Can’t wait!



Voices of Global Health: Bernhard Weigl

Bernhard Weigl of PATH (Photo: WGHA)

Bernhard Weigl of PATH (Photo: WGHA)

For Bernhard Weigl, global health innovations are all about simplicity, low cost, and usability. He’s hooked on devices that are easy to use at home, like treatments for diabetes in developing countries.

In this “Voices of Global Health” WGHA blog post, Bernhard talks about his work as director of the NIH-funded “Center for Point-of-Care Testing” for Global Health, and also a senior technology officer at PATH in Seattle.

Highlights: Passion for chronic diseases, especially diabetes. Moved by a dedicated young diabetes patient in Tanzania.

Recommended: Washington Global Health Alliance web site; PATH web site; “Center for Point-of-Care Testing for Global Health” web site.