Monday, December 24, 2012

Hurting Over the Holidays

There have been quite a few articles about mental health lately, and I know the conversation is long overdue. One article that is not related to most of the current discussions, but which I have found particularly helpful, describes the experience of depression around the holidays. For some, it may be a regular seasonal experience, and for others, there may be the loss of a loved one, a trying disease, a job loss, or a time of depression in one particular year. As a person who is generally cheerful about Christmas festivities, it was a great reminder to be aware, understanding, and caring toward those who may be hurting for any number of reasons.

Check out Kat Kinsman's informative CNN article based on her personal experiences battling depression:

She also has a great older piece on depression that may be helpful for some:

Friday, December 21, 2012

Final (Belated) Cambodia Update

Letter co-written by Matthew & Kristen Campbell

Dear Friends,

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the Bay Area! We wanted to (finally) write to give an update about our trip to Cambodia this past summer. We really appreciate your prayers and support and want to let you know about how God is working in Cambodia and in us.

Our experiences on this twelve-day trip included some light-hearted ones in which we experienced some interesting aspects of Cambodian culture, and others which broke our hearts as we learned about some of Cambodia’s violent history.  On a lighter cultural note, we both tried fried tarantula (Matthew popped a whole spider in his mouth just like the picture of our friend Mark to the left!), and we each had a bite of durian cake, which is made from a notoriously stinky fruit. We also learned how silk is made by hand!

Perhaps the deepest impressions, however, were left by our visits to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the killing fields, as we learned that around 25%-35% of the population of Cambodia was killed during the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970’s. At the start of the regime, all of the cities were evacuated, with people being told they could return home in a few days. In reality, families were forced into years of agricultural labor in the countryside, with the hope of developing a Communist agrarian society. Intellectuals, doctors, teachers, monks, even those who wore glasses (which were believed to represent education, wealth, or elitism), as well as anyone who opposed the regime leader (Pol Pot), were killed as enemies of the state. At Tuol Sleng prison (a former school), people were interrogated and tortured, sometimes by soldiers as young as twelve years old, and then taken to the countryside to be brutally murdered and left in mass graves (which are known as the killing fields). Out of nearly 20,000 people that went through Tuol Sleng, there were only seven survivors. Moreover, Tuol Sleng is just one of many interrogation prisons that were located throughout the country. Many other Cambodians who were not killed directly died of disease or starvation due to harsh working and living conditions in the countryside. The individuals who lived through this experience are now the parents and grandparents of today, and we learned that this historical backdrop is an important part of understanding the problem of human trafficking in Cambodia.

So what did we actually do in Cambodia? We primarily partnered with Agape International Missions (AIM) to run “Kids’ Club” at the Rahab’s House community center in a town called Svay Pak.  This town is known to be a “destination location” for pedophiles. At Kid’s Club, we sang songs, danced, told Bible stories with puppets, and did arts and crafts with the children. We were told that five years ago, nearly every one of the of the children in Svay Pak was being trafficked (sold for prostitution).  The very community center where we were holding Kid’s Club was a former brothel of underage prostitution that AIM and International Justice Mission (IJM) helped to shut down. Today, due to the work of a variety of nonprofit organizations, children in this town are much less likely to be abused; however, more work is left to be done.  The pastor at a new church in this village knew for certain that 17 girls in attendance at Kids’ Club were being trafficked. This represents tremendous progress, yet it was still heart-breaking to know that some of the six to twelve-year-old girls sitting in front of us were being forced to have sex with adult men (many of them “sex tourists” from the West) on a nightly basis.

In addition to Kids’ Club, we had time each day to use our individual gifts to assist AIM in a variety of ways. AIM recognizes that child sex trafficking is a complex issue requiring a multi-faceted solution, so they have a wide variety of ministries attacking the problem. For example, AIM runs a gym where pimps and traffickers can mingle with aid workers. As a result, some of these pimps and traffickers have renounced their former ways and are helping to turn other perpetrators around. Some of the men from our team got to spend time at the gym with the traffickers and have conversations with them.

Another important aspect of AIM’s ministry is the development of fair trade factories that provide formerly trafficked women (once they are sixteen years or older) with training in a trade.  One of the problems with child sex trafficking is that those who are rescued may feel that they have no skills besides prostitution, and ultimately believe they have no choice but to return to sex work for “good pay” or find work in a sweat shop for insufficient income. AIM is providing an alternative by opening factories that pay fair wages and provide a work environment which is much safer than most alternatives. These factories provide a living wage, family-style lunch, free child care, and one hour of education to workers each day. So far AIM has opened one factory and is aiming to have ten factories running within two years. Many members of our team had the opportunity to visit the first factory, and some members of our team used their experience in fashion design to consult on the clothing patterns being used, the methods of sewing being employed, the quality check processes, and the layout/design ideas. We also feel hopeful that over time, through both national economic change and through the education AIM is providing to the rescued women and to the children of Svay Pak, young people may have (and create) an even wider variety of economic opportunities in future. Perhaps some of the children we met will fill the vast gaps left by the Khmer Rouge regime's systematic extermination of the nation's professionals decades ago.

AIM also runs a school for grades K-12 and pays for the most promising students to attend local private schools after grade six. The students and teachers were eager to learn, and this is where we were able to help! It is a special treat for the students to attend arts classes between all of their academic study time. Matthew taught guitar classes every day for several hours, and Kristen taught a liturgical dance class. The Sunday before we left, one student played a guitar song during church, and the dance class (equal parts male and female) performed a worship dance in the Sunday service.

In between the Kids’ Club activities each day at AIM, our team also drove to several factories in the area, which manufacture bricks, to distribute clothing we had collected for the children. Some of these kids take a van to Kids’ Club every day, and they are easily identified by their extremely dirty clothing and their penchant to fall asleep, even during loud singing. These children live in one-room shacks and squalor, and many help their families make bricks in dangerous working conditions. Their joy at receiving the packages of clothing was tremendous, yet our hearts were heavy to know that their needs remain great each and every day.

Towards the end of our time in Cambodia, we had the opportunity to visit Agape Restoration Center, a home run by AIM for rescued victims of child sex trafficking. We planned a luau-themed party for the girls there, including a lunch together, nail and face painting, games, and more. It was a lot of fun, and it was very special getting to see how resilient these young women are!

Throughout the week, we also dropped in on some other organizations that are fighting trafficking in Cambodia, including Hagar International, International Justice Mission, and Bloom Asia (a cake business in Phnom Pehn—the capital city—employing formerly trafficked women). They explained some of the ongoing challenges, such as underage prostitution moving “underground” in recent years as a result of the success in shutting down child brothels. While the brothel closings show progress is being made, the underground activity is much more difficult to prosecute, and corruption remains rampant in Cambodia’s law enforcement. Despite these difficulties, we also felt encouraged as they shared about how each of their organizations is uniquely contributing to end child sex trafficking.

Overall, we feel that God showed us a lot about what He is doing in Cambodia and how much is left to be done. After returning home and pushing through traveler’s sicknesses, we have had more time to process; indeed the experience was very inspiring and eye-opening. We feel confident that God is calling us to serve abroad for about two years when Matthew finishes his graduate school program, although at this point we are still not sure in what part of the world that might be.  As part of our discerning process, our plan is to make a short-term trip to another country this coming summer. Perhaps God will ultimately point us to a new place for our longer term service, or He may send us back to Cambodia!

Our team also shared responsibilities for keeping a group blog throughout the trip, which details our daily events: Please feel free to contact us with any questions you may have, and thank you again for your prayers and support!

In Christ,
Kristen & Matthew Campbell

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

At-Home Fitness for $200: Courtesy of "The Man" (i.e. My Employer)

Note: I do not represent my employer in any way. I write only on my own behalf. Any views expressed here are my own and are not necessarily representative of the views of my employer.

One of the constant themes of our employee surveys is that we all want more generous benefits. This year, my employer decided that as part of our benefits package, we could be reimbursed up to $200 for fitness-related expenses. This could include items like gym memberships and exercise equipment. There were a few exclusions (no reimbursement for that stylish new gym outfit or the fees for your soccer league), but all-in-all, it seemed like a pretty generous open-ended deal! So this year, my husband and I bought $199.51 worth of fitness stuff.

I thought it might be a fun idea to share what $200 can buy. Perhaps this will inspire you to see that workout equipment can be affordable, or if you help determine benefits for your own company, maybe this will spark an idea to assist your employees! So here is what we were able to get this year:

First, I purchased an adjustable work-out bench for my husband's birthday in October. He had been talking about wanting one for months and was totally surprised that I thought of it for a gift! He assumed it was a future dream to be realized when we have a house some day. But I figured we could store it on our apartment's patio with a covering, if need be. I also knew that the calendar year was already well on its way, so we had better start spending if we wanted to hit $200 before New Years! The bench cost $98.54 on Amazon. However, when it arrived, the seat for the bench was drilled incorrectly, such that it had to be put on backwards and was ever so slightly crooked. Amazon told us we could not simply send back the seat portion for a new one. Our options were to (1) disassemble the entire bench and return it for a full refund, (2) disassemble the bench and send it back in order to be shipped a brand new one, or (3) keep the bench and be refunded 30% of the purchase price. Neither of the disassembling options sounded very fun. We went for option 3, and they refunded us exactly $30.00. It is very much a functioning bench, with what really amounts to a slight aesthetic flaw. So the total for the bench ended up at $68.54.

Then, I decided to buy some workout DVD's to get in shape at home. (I already owned a couple of those small, brightly colored dumbbells, so all I needed were the moves!) Jillian Michaels' videos are consistently rated highly on Amazon, so I thought they were a pretty safe choice for a 40-60 minute workout. Plus, I had tried out one of the DVD's at a girlfriend's house earlier in the year and thought it was pretty fun (and hard, of course). I bought two Jillian Michaels videos on Amazon for $18.30.

Next, we decided that my husband needed some weights to use with his bench! So on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, we went to Sports Authority, and to our delight, they were having a holiday sale on weights. We bought a set of two threaded dumbbell handles ($24.79), plus four 2.5-lb weights ($2.14 each), four 5-lb weights ($4.28 each), and four 10-lb weights ($8.58 each). We also purchased one 25-lb weight to be used for sit-ups ($19.05). With our $5.00-off coupon for joining the free Sports Authority loyalty club, plus tax, we spent a total of $112.67 on the weights.

So to summarize, we spent $68.54 on a workout bench, $18.30 on workout videos, and $112.67 on dumbbell weights, for a total of $199.51. And it was all reimbursed back to us by my employer! I was amazed that we came so close to the total allowed, but we did it! To be fair, we had a couple of lucky breaks in there, with the $30 off the workout bench and buying the weights on sale. At the same time, I know there are a plethora of sales throughout the year, so I think others might be able to have similar luck if they wait patiently to buy at good times. Sports equipment, like the dumbbells, also often comes in sets of varying price and quality, so you may be able to locate an affordable brand online. Another awesome option is to purchase used equipment at a store like Play It Again Sports!

I think this is such a great idea for a company to encourage employees to maintain a healthy lifestyle. In the long run, the goal is to save on medical expenses by having healthier employees. But in the short term, these purchases made me feel more positive about my company's investment in me as a whole. We probably would not have bought most of these things without the assistance, but as a result of the benefit, we can feel better equipped to get in shape at home. Now I just need to start using everything! (New Year's resolution, anyone?) Do you or someone you know get similar benefits from your employer? Please share!

Happy fitness shopping!

Image Credits:

Friday, December 14, 2012

Human Trafficking Hotline Flyer

A while back, I wrote about International Justice Mission's launch of the "Freedom Commons" webpage. This is a website showing steps that you as an individual can take to combat human trafficking. For example, the site provides form letters that you can send to your representatives in Congress regarding upcoming votes on trafficking-related legislation.

One thing I did recently from this site was to print out and post flyers in my community for the National Trafficking Hotline. These flyers provide information about what trafficking is and the phone number for a confidential toll-free hotline that you can call if you are a victim of trafficking or have suspicions about an instance of trafficking. Download the flyer here!

Also, after you print out the flyer and put it up, you can tag your efforts in an online interactive map here!

This is such an easy thing to do, yet it has the potential to change someone's life. So try it! Put up flyers at your workplace, church, community center, or other local establishment, and become a modern-day abolitionist!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Protect Yourself from Sunburn with....Sun Glasses?

A few days ago, I saw that Anderson Cooper was in the news for sunburning his eyes. The strange thing is, this is the second reference to eye sunburn that I have heard in the last week!

Since I finally bought my first pair of prescription sunglasses about a month ago, this seems like a good time to talk about the importance of eye protection for your health (you know, now that I can self-righteously say I have actually been following the right advice).

I stopped wearing contacts about three years ago due to the problems I was having working on a computer for eight to ten hours a day. After trying multiple brands of lenses and solution, I decided glasses were easier and suited me just fine. But that meant I could no longer wear traditional sunglasses. So I went without. During the months of the year when the sun got particularly bright while driving, I put down my visor and/or  squinted. I reasoned that $500 for a fashion statement was just not worth it.

Recently, however, I saw that a local store was having a sale for 40% off prescription sunglasses, so I went for it! With the discount, and avoiding all of the fancy-schmancy add-ons, they were more affordable than I had imagined. Now, after reading more about the damage the sun can do to my eyes, I am so thankful I got them. My family has a history of skin cancer, so I apply sun block religiously when I will be in the sun for more than thirty minutes. It never occurred to me that sun exposure also puts me at higher risk for another family disease, macular degeneration, which ultimately led my grandmother to be legally blind beyond correction.

According to GalTime online magazine, an eye sunburn will causes irritation and will typically feel like there is grit in your eyes that cannot be removed with water. It can even lead to photokeratitis, or temporary vision loss, commonly referred to as snow blindness. (Anderson Cooper had both of these symptoms.) If your eyes are sunburned, the only things you can do are stay out of the sun, use lubricating eye drops, and wait up to a week to heal. If that does not correct the issue, or if the pain is strong/gets worse, seek medical attention immediately.

Sun exposure not only has the potential to cause temporary irritation and blindness, but it can also have long-term effects. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, exposure to ultraviolet light can increase your risk of developing cataracts, macular degeneration (as I mentioned above with my grandmother), and eye growths, including cancer. Light-sensitive cells in your eyes may also be important to getting a restful night's sleep. A moderate amount of natural light during the day is believed to help these cells function, but over-exposure to sunlight can cause damage.

Jennifer Ko, photo taken by Jason Ko
In the past, most sunglasses were simply tinted glass or plastic that blocked out some portion of visible light. This made it possible to look directly at bright reflections or even at the sun itself without causing pain or a blink reflex. Unfortunately, while visible light is what makes us blink when we look at the sun, it is not what causes the actual damage to our eyes. It is the ultraviolet light (UV rays) which are not visible that can burn our skin and eyes. By making it easier to look directly at the sun, these tinted glasses actually caused more harm than good, because they allowed UV rays to go directly into the retina, without the wearer feeling a thing. These types of glasses gave the illusion of protection by repressing the blink reflex. But we have that reflex for a reason! Nowadays, fewer and fewer sunglasses are simply tinted glass; many, if not most, also have polarization to block out unseen harmful rays.

So lesson number one is to only buy sunglasses that block out at least 95% of ultraviolet A rays and 99% of ultraviolet B rays. The ability to block UV rays is not determined by how dark the lenses are or the price tag on the frames, so don't be fooled! Look for a special label that describes the UV protection, or if purchasing prescription sunglasses, make sure to ask your provider if this protection is included.

Secondly, choose sunglasses with a larger lens to protect your eyes more fully. Sun rays can enter your eyes from any direction, so the more coverage, the better. (Lucky for you, big glasses are cool these days!) It is also a good idea to wear a hat if you are out in the open. When skiing, it is especially critical to wear sun glasses or goggles that provide the full range protection, including from the snow reflecting under your feet.

Thirdly, the American Academy of Ophthalmology also warns that UV rays can pass through clouds, so it is safest to continue wearing your sunglasses when outside during the day, even if the sun is hiding. This is especially true when the sun is highest in the sky, between about 10am and 2pm. (I have not been so good at this one yet, because I don't think of putting on the sunglasses unless my eyes feel irritated by the visible light. I am hoping to make this a new habit.) The same applies to a solar eclipse; while it may not feel bad in the same way as staring directly at the midday sun, it can be just as damaging.

And lastly, the UV rays from tanning beds can also cause eye damage. Tanning beds can produce UV levels up to one hundred times what we receive naturally from the sun. My best advice would be not to engage in indoor tanning at all, since it is known to significantly increase your risk of skin cancer and eye disease. For example, according to "The Skin Cancer Foundation," a study from the International Journal of Cancer found that those who used indoor tanning before the age of 35 had a 75% higher likelihood of getting melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. While the tanning industry has gone to great lengths to state that these claims are false, for your own sake, please believe the scientists who say it is true - they are right. However, if you still plan to hit the salon on occasion, as I know is the reality for many individuals, take adequate precautions to limit the damage to your eyes by wearing polarized tanning goggles. Simply shutting your eyes or putting a towel over them actually does not block out enough UV rays to prevent damage.

Polarized sun glasses are an important aspect of preventative medicine for the eyes. I am happy that I look hip in my new shades (notice my cool lingo now that I have purchased them), but I am even happier that they can be so much more than the latest fashion statement!

Photo Credit:
  • Special thanks to my awesome and beautiful friend, Jen Ko, for letting me use her photo from her fashion blog, "Life Unrefined." She is a talented writer, a fashionable dresser, and an even better person. Her blog's tag line is, "Beauty is Authenticity," and I can say without hesitation that Jen is one of the most authentic and encouraging people I know. Check out her site!
Article Sources:

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Holiday Gifts that Matter

Not sure what to get your loved ones for the holidays this year? One idea that you may not have considered is donating to a non-profit organization in someone's honor.

For example, if your mother is a teacher, she might appreciate a donation in her honor to an organization that supports education for the underprivileged. Or if your best friend is interested in public health, he may be touched by a contribution to an organization supporting HIV research. Does your loved one value children? Try giving in his or her honor to a non-profit providing food and shelter for orphans. Does your mentor talk a lot about women's rights? Consider providing a micro-loan or giving the gift of livestock to help a woman start a business. The list is endless.

When someone asks me what I want for Christmas, I often feel like I have no need for more stuff to clutter up my life. I have so much already. And I hear this same thing from my parents, relatives, and friends. So this year, try something a little different! And while the huge nonprofits we all know are great, consider searching for a smaller local organization or finding targeted programs within the larger organizations that provide for the specific need that touches your heart.

Here are some of my favorite organizations this year:

The Fistula Foundation
Based in San Jose, CA

This organization helps provide life-changing surgery for women who have suffered from obstetric fistula, a hole between the vaginal wall and the bladder or rectum, which can develop as a result of prolonged obstructed labor. Obstetric fistula is almost never seen in the United States, as a result of advances in emergency obstetric care, but it is all too common in the developing world. For many women living with fistulas, they suffer daily shame as they leak bodily fluids and may even be rejected by their families and communities. I feel very strongly about this issue, and I am certain if you read about it in my July blog post, you will be deeply touched, as well:

CASA of San Mateo County
Based in San Mateo, CA

This organization trains volunteers to be Court Appointed Special Advocates for youth who are in the child welfare system, either due to abuse or criminal activity. A CASA mentors a youth, advocates for his or her needs with other professionals (teachers, social workers, therapists, etc.), and reports to the courts on the best options for the child. I have been volunteering as a CASA for almost two years now, and it has been a tremendous blessing for both myself and the child I mentor. And the good news is that there are CASA programs throughout the country. Please consider supporting this organization that is changing the lives of foster children and struggling youth. And if you feel so inclined, consider becoming a CASA yourself! Read more here:

Agape International Missions
Based in Roseville, CA

Agape International Missions (AIM) is an organization working to end child sex trafficking in Cambodia. Their mission is to fight trafficking, restore victims, and transform communities through a multi-faceted approach. This is also the organization with which Matthew and I volunteered on our trip this summer. We are still working to put together a follow-up letter about all we did there (which will be our Christmas card this year and will also be posted to the blog when complete). We were amazed by the ways lives were being changed, but there is so much still to be done to end this horrible evil. AIM needs your support to continue its transformative work in Cambodia. Learn more about AIM and the months leading up to our trip here:

Samaritan's Purse
Based in Boone, NC

I have been participating in Operation Christmas Child with Samaritan's Purse since I was a child. This program involves filling a shoe box with school supplies, toiletries, and small toys to be given to a child in the developing world. This is a great activity for families to open up dialogue with their children about gratitude for what we have and the importance of giving to those in need. For many of these children, this may be the only holiday gift they ever receive. Many of my friends know that I hoard small toys in my closet all year (based on when they go on super sale) just for this program! This year, I got together with some friends to shop and build our boxes together. In addition, Samaritan's Purse publishes a "Holiday Gift Catalog," with items that Samaritan's Purse will purchase using your donation and will distribute in the developing world to assist with relief work. These gifts each have a suggested donation amount and can be given in someone else's honor. Some examples include emergency medicine ($60), household water filters ($100), milk ($4), mosquito nets ($10), fruit trees ($45), dairy animals ($70), and many more.

These organizations would be a great place to start, but there are also many more in need of your support. If you or a loved one has a passion, chances are someone is helping in that area!

Another idea is to do a family donation pool. In my very large extended family, we used to have a gift exchange where each adult drew the name of another adult and gave that individual a Christmas gift worth approximately $50. In a large family, it can be expensive to exchange gifts with everyone, so this ensured that all members received a gift without having to spend a fortune every year. Of course, this system had flaws. Sometimes "the draw" got rigged by an individual who had a great present idea for someone else. Other times, the gifts were not necessarily something the receiver actually liked. A few years ago, the family decided to change the draw. Now, instead of buying gifts, everyone who wants to participate gives $50 to go towards a charity, and each year, a different family member gets to choose the nonprofit organization that will receive the funds. There are some stipulations that it cannot be a political group or an otherwise "controversial" charity, but it is generally open to go towards any worthy cause. This has resulted in some awesome gifts to great organizations, including the year I was studying abroad (2007), when my aunt decided to designate the gift towards Baca Ortiz Children's Hospital in Quito, Ecuador (which I had told her about back then and which I also wrote about in my blog in March of this year)!

And of course, nothing beats the gift of your time! Consider serving with friends or family this holiday season! This year, my friends and I went to a nursing home and sang Christmas carols with the seniors. (I can't take credit for the idea. It was all thanks to my amazing friend Jen Ko, but I was happy to join along!) It was such a hit that our thirty minutes of prepared carols turned into fifty minutes, with the last twenty being special requests for favorite songs. Afterwards, we had the opportunity to sit down and talk to the residents while doing crafts. So many of them expressed how much they appreciated our visit and wanted us to come back. The staff also told us that some of the residents who could not get out of bed were enjoying listening from their rooms across the hall. As a result, we are thinking about making our visits a regular occurrence, maybe once every few months.

Caroling with Seniors: My friends on the piano,
playing guitar, and singing throughout the room.

For another example, SF City Impact will be delivering 5,000 hot meals and serving 300 sit-down Christmas dinners to the poor in the Tenderloin on December 15. They will also be hosting a Christmas block party that involves that same number of meals on Christmas day. Each event is made possible by 500 volunteers in 26 positions! What an awesome way to love those in need and to build deeper relationships with your own loved ones while doing it!

Some other serving ideas I have seen implemented in my community are: writing Christmas cards to people who otherwise would receive none, baking cookies for prisoners, throwing a teacher-appreciation party for your local school, serving a meal at a local shelter, praying for those who are hurting, sorting cans at the food bank, inviting an international friend or coworker to your holiday celebrations, sending a package to our troops overseas, and the list goes on.

It is clear that I definitely advocate serving personally and donating in a loved one's honor for Christmas. One thing to keep in mind throughout the rest of the year, however, is that many charitable organizations see a surge of giving in December, but are lacking feet on the ground and are struggling for funds during other critical times (especially during the summer months). While it is important and meaningful to budget for holiday gifts, I would also urge you to plan recurrent serving opportunities and to consider setting aside a monthly giving amount as part of your regular budget to support these organizations year-round! With the New Year coming, it is a perfect time to revisit your schedules and monthly expenses, so that you can plan ahead to bless others regularly, as you are able.

He has shown you, O Mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.  ~Micah 6:8

Note: All images are directly from each organization's website, except for the photo of Christmas caroling, which was taken by my friend, Jennifer Ko.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Einstein's Brain

CREDIT: Falk, Lepore & Noe, 2012
National Museum of Health and Medicine
Recently, there have been several news reports about Einstein's brain, due to newly uncovered photographs released on November 16 in the journal, "Brain." Apparently, scientists believe the more ridges and valleys a brain has, the more surface area it contains for neurons. This may be an important facet of an individual's potential to be a "genius," and Einstein's brain has an especially complicated topography.

Einstein's brain is said to have thicker gray matter (tied to conscious thought), more complex folds in the prefrontal cortex (used for abstract thought and planning), extra folds in the occipital lobes (related to visual processing), and asymmetrical right and left parietal lobes (key for spacial and mathematical reasoning). His right parietal lobe even has a rare extra fold, which gave him a significant inborn advantage, according to Sandra Witelson at McMaster University. For a good summary, check out this video on CNN:
Click the image above to open the CNN video in a new tab.

Yet scientists believe the brain is not a fixed organ - it can be changed for the better through choices to learn new things, actively engaging with mental challenges, playing memory games, participating in the arts, and a wide range of other activities that engage various regions of the brain and essentially grow the mind. Of course, the brain can also be harmed by trauma, drug and alcohol use, tobacco, etc. (I'm not sure if television really kills brain cells, as parents like to say, but hey, you never know!) Although the science community has made tremendous strides in understanding the human brain over the last few decades, there is so much left unknown about this complex and mysterious organ. Most likely, brain development and the shape of an individual's adult brain is based on a combination of the brain's shape at birth and the usage/thinking/experiences actively put into its development.

CREDIT: Falk, Lepore & Noe, 2012
National Museum of Health and Medicine
According to Dean Falk, an anthropologist at Florida State University, "It was both nature and nurture. [Einstein] was born with a very good brain, and he had the kinds of experiences that allowed him to develop the potential he had."

Maybe there is hope for me yet! Mensa, here I come!


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What Goes In Must Come Out (Your Mind is a Sponge!)

Lately, I have been thinking about how I can take care of my own mental health. I have always thought of myself as a stable person, having been through some disappointments, family/friend deaths, break-ups, and the like, without having a major breakdown. (Sure, some crying in my room, maybe even a talk with a therapist, but I could always "pick myself up" shortly thereafter.)

But the more mildly traumatic experiences I go through (parents' divorce, car accident, even secondary traumatic experiences from reading through child abuse court cases), the more I realize that as resilient as my mind is, it is also very fragile. After my car accident in November 2010, I imagined the details of the accident, screamed out loud at other cars that so much as inched in my direction, and cried during my one hour commute on nearly a daily basis for months. I thought I was stronger than that. But I wasn't. Even when I told myself to be strong and stop being illogical about the road conditions, it seemed that I was only partially in control of the way my mind responded to the whole experience. It is hard for me to imagine what I would do if faced with a greater trauma. In may ways, I don't think we can know how our minds will behave until something happens and we just...react.

Many of life's traumas are outside of our control. I could not have predicted my car accident. Yet such unpredictable events can hold tremendous power over our mental health. (It's a little scary!)

Something I have realized lately, however, is that there are also so many things that we do have control over in terms of what goes into our minds. Think about how many choices we make in a day about which television shows to watch, which music stations to listen to, which news articles to read, which friends to call, which magazines to buy. Each of these choices has the potential to result in a lot of information intake for our minds. Knowing how much the uncontrollable traumas in my life have affected my mental health at different periods, I have concluded that as much as it is within my control to do so, I ought to be intentional about what I purposefully allow to engage my brain. I can and should prevent the unnecessary small (but often daily and accumulating) "traumas" that I can avoid.

Internet News Comments

I was talking to my husband a couple weeks ago, lamenting that people are basically rotten and critical of each other and that certain people just go around hating each other all of the time. Because he knows me well, and due to my tone and frustration level, my husband had the good sense to stop me and say, "Where is this coming from?" When I paused to think about it, the response was clear: "The comments at the bottom of the political articles I have been reading today." What a wonderful five second revelation!

But why should it have surprised me? The internet is a great place for the sharing of ideas. Yet the anonymity and lack of accountability for the things we say online often leads to harsher exchanges than I can picture having in person with most people I know, let alone with a stranger I've just met. It is easy for me to tell JoeJoe118 that he is an ignorant fool based on the 20 characters he has posted on At the same time, it is highly likely that I know a flesh and blood person in my real life who agrees with Joe's views, and I have a much more complex and moderated opinion of that individual than I do of Joe (and would also likely express my disagreement in different words to that individual).

I actually realized that reading these negative news comments was filling me with negativity, which I was regurgitating in my other conversations. Yes, it was still my choice what words to use in any given moment, but the ideas I was contemplating and the words that were most readily available on the "surface" of my brain, so to speak, were condescending or despairing ones.

This is not the type of conversationalist or person I want to be! I realize now that if I want this to change, I need to impose a limit on myself regarding the number and type of comments I read. The interesting thing is that in some way, if I am honest about my core, I actually enjoy reading the snide comments, even as they bring me down with them. Some of them validate the rude things I actually think but would never say out loud, whereas others make me feel superior when I can say at least I'm not that mean. Either way, I come out on top as the good guy. It gives me the ability to watch other people's drama and fighting, even to contribute to it on occasion, without having any real stake in or knowledge of the ultimate well-being of these cyber people. Who cares if these comments make someone feel like dirt? They started it! They shouldn't be reading the comments if they can't handle the tone.

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As much as I may relish the experience of taking in the negativity for a moment, when I ask myself, "Is this really good for me? Is this making me a better person? Am I learning something valuable? Am I doing something meaningful for someone else?" most of the time, the answer is no. And when I ask, "Is this hurting my mind in unintended ways?" oftentimes the answer is yes.

The great thing is that while I do not have any control over what other people write on comment boards, I do have the choice not to read the comments. And this is a discipline I have recently been striving to undertake. I still like to read a couple of comments after each article to gauge others' reactions or learn of new facts unmentioned in the article. However, before I find myself twenty comments down and fuming about the plight of humanity, I am now quick to ask myself, "Is this beneficial?" If the answer is not a clear "yes" after those first few comments, then I muster up my strength and close the article. The momentary enjoyment of a few snide remarks is not worth the potential lasting impact on my mental state. So I choose to look at something more meaningful or uplifting. I see this as preventative medicine for the mind.

Another Website Example (facebook-related)

Recently, one of my friends forwarded me a link to a website that posts screen-shots and commentary on other people's racist facebook posts. She was emailing it to me expressing disbelief that people could be so disgraceful, especially posting such ignorant thoughts on a forum as public as facebook. The commentary on the website is written to point out just how bad these racist people are and how incredible it is that they still exist in the twenty-first century. While I may agree with many of the points being made in the commentary, this site gave me reason to pause and once again ask, "How is reading this website benefiting me or society? Is it possible it is hurting me?"

What I am not saying is that we avoid awareness of "unpleasant things" and pretend the world is a perfect place. On the contrary, I read a lot of books about difficult world issues and news about current events. I want to have my eyes wide open to the hurt of others in order to empathize and support them. But I am usually reading these things from a posture of desiring knowledge to help develop solutions or prevent similar events in future. There are undoubtedly many other good reasons to be educated about disturbing or difficult things. But that is not the same vantage point, in my opinion, as the "gawk and shake my head" experience that this website encourages. Here is an excerpt of my (colloquially worded) email response to my friend (note - we are very good friends and express our opinions about various issues frequently to one another, so this was not an out-of-the-ordinary critical commentary that I suddenly sprang on her):

I don't think it's all that helpful/healthy to read much of this junk. It's obviously very messed up, we know it's messed up, and we are always going to think it's horrible. Yet to me, this site also feels a little bit like voyeurism into something twistedly entertaining and anonymously judgmental. There are people with very distorted views of reality and of love, and there are always going to be people like that. But I think this sort of website can also become fuel to skew your own beliefs in what those who are "other" from you in this country are like (rural versus urban, living in certain states, having certain political affiliations, having higher education or not, etc.) Negativity and "isms" abound across the spectrum, from what I can tell. We should definitely be aware in order to fight against such issues in our culture, but I don't know if it's good to spend too much time consuming the rhetoric.

Another way of stating the above is that we take a secret pleasure in thinking of ourselves as better than those who are quoted on the site and revel in seeing them lambasted in a public space. Yet isn't this the same sort of thinking for which we are criticizing them in the first place? These are people we have never met. They do appear to have a skewed view of humanity from what we can see on this website. But beyond that, we know little of them, and yet we easily hate them. Of course, we rightly disagree with racist comments. But once we are made aware that racism still exists and understand some of the fuel behind it, what value are we adding to society by leering in disgust at these complete strangers from the comfort of our sofas? Furthermore, is it possible that our voyeurism is potentially fueling our own stereotypes of others and filling our minds with negative thoughts that serve little positive purpose? Is spending time disapproving of the people on this website beneficial?

When I saw the website, it immediately reminded me of my new commitment not to read news comments that encourage excessive negativity. I decided that reading one or two of the posts on the website was enough to get the flavor of the quotations and to see the main points being made. When I noticed myself starting to feel angry and superior, I closed the site.


The concept of controlling what goes into your brain in order to curb what comes out is not exclusive to  reading internet content, of course. I had a similar experience with the television show "Hoarders." I had never seen it before, when I noticed some of my friends raving about the show on social media. So one evening when I was bored, I decided to check out an episode through A&E's website. The show documents the experiences of people who accumulate possessions to such an extreme that it harms their health, relationships, homes, and lives in general. After watching one episode, I was interested in the subject and thankful to be educated that this exists. I also felt sad for the people who seemed to be suffering so much from the mental illness that brought them to this place. One of the individuals profiled, for example, had always had some compulsive buying and hoarding tendencies, but it took over her life after the death of her child. Her remaining children were left to live in the filth of her problem.

A couple of days later, I watched a second episode. One of the women featured was an elderly lady whose hoarding had gotten so bad that when her plumbing stopped working, she wore adult diapers and just threw them on the floor rather than disposing of them. Her house had thousands of pounds of diapers and feces in it, bug and mouse infestations, and was literally rotting due to the several-foot-high piles of garbage throughout every room. Since her bedroom was no longer viable for sleeping, she tied herself into a medical toilet seat in her kitchen on top of a pile of trash to sleep at night. She retold a story about one night when she did fall out of the toilet seat and  was unable to get out of the trash pile for hours; she could have died. The thought of an elderly woman living this way brought me to tears. I also started to feel extremely disturbed. A few hours later, I realized why when I had this thought: I was watching this woman's mental illness as a form of entertainment. Wow.

Is that form of entertainment really helpful and beneficial? I don't think so. I am glad that some of these individuals are getting help through the show, but watching episode after episode of self-destruction through mental illness seems voyeuristic, even cruel, as viewers simply stare in disbelief and disgust at the path these people have taken. I also noticed myself feeling down and confused after the episodes I did watch, even feeling slightly paranoid that my love of buying gifts for others could morph into an insatiable obsession with collecting junk and that the small pile of papers on the kitchen table might be a sign of something sinister in my future involving large piles of trash (as if my super organized husband would ever let that happen). I decided that it is not healthy to feed these ideas to my mind on a regular basis and do not plan to watch the show again. It may be fascinating to peer into the tragedies of this mental illness, but it is far from uplifting for me personally and does not at all involve me in providing assistance to the individuals affected. There are other ways that I can and do engage with mental illness in my community, by supporting programs and individuals who need it. While these outlets can also be mentally challenging and emotionally taxing, I believe they are making a real difference in the lives of others and growing me as a person, so I will stick to them rather than engaging from a distance through television.

Movies or "Other"

There are so many other examples I could provide, but of course, there is not space for them all, so I will just give one last one. The other night, my husband was trying to convince me to watch that new movie about Abraham Lincoln being a vampire slayer. Aside from the fact that the movie trailer just looks ridiculous, I also realized that watching scary movies gives me bad dreams. So I put a stop to that plan quickly. It is not wrong or weak to choose not to inflict a negative experience upon yourself when you are able. On the contrary, it often requires the strength of self control. Some people can handle scary movies just fine. I know I can't. So I exercise my will and choose not to open up my mind to the negative effects that are sure to come later.

For other people, movies are not a trigger of spiraling negativity. It may instead be a certain television show that portrays violent crime, or a certain facebook friend who is constantly talking about how much he or she "hates drama" (read: seems to always be surrounded by drama), or a book genre that reminds you of a difficult childhood experience, or a game that takes up too much of the time that you should be spending on other rejuvenating activities, or a magazine that prods you to feel badly about your body.

I think a lot of what it comes down to is knowing yourself, being willing to "get to know yourself" even better/more honestly by asking tough questions, and being willing to challenge the status quo of what you do every day. I have been reading CNN article comments for years. And I know some may judge me for my choice to limit my intake now, saying that I am too strict or that I am sheltering myself. But why should I put others' opinions or my normal routine ahead of what I know is best for my mental health?

I know that there are experiences that happen to me or around me that I cannot control and that have a profound impact on my mental health. I also know that much of what comes out of my mind is based on what I put into it by choice.

Therefore, I will guard that gate preciously.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Turkey and Sweet Potato Enchiladas

Turkey (without the skin) is among the healthier meats you can consume, and many of us have a lot of leftovers from Thanksgiving! I wanted to share a (somewhat) healthy recipe with you that combines wonderful on-hand ingredients to make the perfect blend of spicy and sweet!

Tonight, I made turkey & sweet potato enchiladas. Ok, so tortillas are not the healthiest addition to a meal.  Everything in moderation, right? But the rest of the ingredients are pretty good for you (did you know, for example, that sweet potatoes have a lot of important nutrients, including iron?), and I think this is a great use of ingredients that are likely already in your refrigerator after the big turkey day. I adapted this recipe from the ground turkey and yam tacos I made a few months ago (courtesy of, which I found by an online ingredient search. These Kristen-original-recipe enchiladas are super easy if you have leftovers, and even my husband, a self-proclaimed sweet potato hater, said these were delicious!

Makes 5 servings. 1 serving = 2 enchiladas.


  • 1/2 large white or yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 - 4 diced jalapeno peppers, depending on spice preference 
  • Optional: 4 oz diced canned green chilies (Note: I am not a big fan of spice, so I fearfully used one jalapeno when I made the original taco recipe last time. I was surprised at how mild it was. I actually wished I had used more. This time, I noticed we had a small can of green chili's in the cabinet, so I used 1 jalapeno plus the green chili's as an extra, and I would describe the result as medium spicy.)
  • 1/2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • ~3/4 lb leftover cooked turkey white meat, shredded or broken into small pieces
  • ~3/4 lb leftover cooked sweet potato chunks (I made this delicious sweet potato recipe for Thanksgiving this year and simply used what I still had left from that.)
  • 1/2 tablespoon chili powder
  • salt to taste
  • ~2 cups canned red or green enchilada sauce (or use more if you prefer your enchiladas very wet - I used medium spicy green enchilada sauce, which I find to be on the milder side of "medium spicy" when cooked in small quantities.)
  • 10 flour or corn tortillas
  • 1 cup low fat shredded cheddar cheese
  • Optional: Top with salsa and low fat sour cream to serve.


  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • In a skillet on medium-high heat, saute the onion and jalapenos until onions are translucent (about 5 minutes).
  • Add the already-cooked turkey pieces, already-cooked sweet potato chunks, chili powder, and salt to the skillet. Stir for another three to five minutes, until heated through.
  • Pour 1/2 the enchilada sauce into the skillet (~1 cup) and continue heating for two to three minutes, until hot throughout.
  • While the turkey and sweet potato mixture is heating, put all ten tortillas in a stack on a microwave-safe plate and microwave for 30 seconds, to soften slightly.
  • Grease a 9 x 13 baking pan.
  • Spoon about 1/10 of the turkey/sweet potato mixture onto each tortilla, fold in the sides of the tortilla, and roll the tortilla into a small tube shape. Place the roll into the 9 x 13 pan. You will probably be able to fit about 8 tortilla rolls across the pan, lined up parallel to one another, and then the two remaining tortilla rolls can go the long-way below the other eight rolls.
  • Pour the rest of the enchilada sauce into the 9 x 13 pan, over the tortilla rolls. Sprinkle the low fat cheddar cheese on top of everything.
  • Bake in the 350 degree oven for about 15 minutes, until the sauce is bubbly and the cheese has melted.
  • Serve two enchiladas on a plate, with salsa and/or low fat sour cream, as desired. Eat and enjoy!
I think you could make a version of this recipe work even if you have mashed sweet potatoes in your refrigerator. Rather than mixing sweet potato chunks into the turkey, instead, microwave 1-2 cups of mashed sweet potato and then spread a few tablespoons of mashed sweet potato onto each tortilla before rolling it up. Yum!

Another interesting healthy leftover idea I heard at work was to make stuffed peppers (but stuffed with turkey and cornbread dressing, rather than what you usually stuff into peppers.) This will of course not be healthy if you make your dressing/stuffing with two sticks of butter like a lot of boxed dressing calls for. But I usually use much less butter, and it still turns out very flavorful and rich. I also add lots of veggies to my dressing/stuffing, as well as extra water or broth for added moisture to compensate for the lack of butter. Thanksgiving-stuffed peppers will be my Wednesday night adventure. Hooray!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Paralysis Reversal

I just read an amazingly cool article about reversing paralysis in dogs with spinal injuries! A team at Cambridge University was able to take cells from the lining of dogs' noses, grow them further in a laboratory, implant them at the sites of spinal injury, and repair some of the damage.

According to the article, the researchers used 34 paralyzed pet dogs, 23 of which were given the transplant and the rest of which were injected with a neutral fluid. None of the dogs who received the placebo saw any changes to mobility, whereas many of the dogs who received the transplant regained their back-leg functioning. Some of the dogs were even able to walk on a treadmill with the help of a harness and were moving towards full mobility once the muscles could rebuild.

Apparently, the cells at the back of the nose are among the only that continue to regenerate nerves into adulthood. When implanted into the spine, these cells helped to regrow the damaged nerves and reconnect "communication" in the spine.

Although the result is very encouraging, scientists say there is still a long way to go. While the dogs regained the ability to fully or partially move their legs, other higher functions, such as bladder control or heat regulation, are not as easily repaired. Furthermore, scientists have pointed out that the complexity and physical length of the spine-to-brain nerves in the human body are greater than that of dogs. Still, this is excellent news for the potential to heal spinal cord injuries in humans in the future.

Friday, October 12, 2012

IJM Launches "Freedom Commons"

Hi friends!

You may be interested to know that International Justice Mission (IJM) just launched a website to help us regular folks take action against human trafficking. Among the many resources on the site are opportunities to email the presidential candidates and/or your congressmen to make the issue of human trafficking a priority.

Check out the site, and please forward to others:

Friday, September 28, 2012

Marketing Veggies to Kids: X-Ray Vision Carrots and Dinosaur Tree Broccoli

It's been a while since I have written something new for the blog. Alas, I have been extremely busy. I do have some ideas bubbling in my brain that I plan to get on the page sooner or later. But today I read two short articles that deserve a quick mention, so I felt I had to write!

Researchers wondered whether the same marketing strategies that make kids enthusiastic about junk foods could also work for health foods. Based on a small scale study, it looks like the answer is a resounding yes!

In five local elementary schools, researchers David Just and Brian Wansink added carrots to the school menu for three consecutive days. On the first and third days, the carrots went unnamed on the lunch line. On the second day, however, researchers named the carrots "X-Ray vision carrots" at some locations and "food of the day" at others. The names did not change how many carrots were purchased, but they did have a tremendous impact on how many of those carrots actually got eaten.

When carrots were unnamed, 35% were eaten. When named "Food of the Day," 32% were eaten. When named "X-Ray vision carrots," 66% were eaten. The carrots with the fun name had nearly double the consumption rate of the unnamed carrots!

Another experiment compared two nearby New York City schools. For one month, both schools had vegetables with no names. In the second month, one school gave fun titles to carrots, green beans, and broccoli, while the other continued without naming the foods. In the school with the titles, vegetable sales nearly doubled (+99%), and in the school without the names, veggie sales actually decreased 16%.

As I have said before, correlation doesn't mean causation, and these were pretty small studies. At the same time, my intuition has me convinced already. It's pretty amazing that a no-cost method of advertising may have such a profound influence on kids. This also has potential implications for how parents may "market" nutritious foods in the home. The CNN article, for example, mentions a child whose parents encouraged him to pretend he was a dinosaur eating trees, and that helped him to eat more broccoli!

It remains to be seen whether this tactic would work longer term (once the initial excitement of a new vegetable name wears off). And of course, X-ray vision may not offer the same appeal to older children. But marketing tactics are used every day in other ads targeting a wide range of age groups, and brands are constantly reshaping their images for new and exciting advertising. I don't see why these methods could not be cleverly applied to vegetables, as well. Advertising professionals and shrewd parents - I see a new place you can make an impact for the good!

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Further Reading:
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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Cambodia Trip Update #3

We leave tonight for the airport and depart at 1:40am on our way to Cambodia. We are very excited! If you would like to follow our progress throughout the trip, you can read our team blog here:

Also, for anyone still interested in supporting our trip financially, Matthew and I are fully funded. However, one of the members of our team, Kasey Van Ostrand, is still raising support. She is a recent graduate still looking for work, so I know that any financial support raised will be very helpful for her. To support her, go to this link and click "donate here." Then select her name from the drop-down.

Thank you all for your prayers and support!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Carly's Story

Carly's story is a really incredible one about an autistic girl getting her voice through typing. I cannot even imagine feeling trapped inside my body, as she expresses.

Yet a small part of me remains skeptical. As some of you may recall, there were a number of stories years back about facilitated communication, where a trained therapist assists an autistic individual with typing by holding the individual's hand over a keyboard. Unfortunately, studies showed that facilitated communication was not likely legitimate communication, but was actually a result of the facilitator guiding/influencing the communication by placing the autistic individual's hand. There is quite a bit of debate about the validity of the various studies, but they have consistently reported negative findings regarding the efficacy of FC.  I do not know whether FC works in some cases. Many parents are convinced that it does, and who am I to say otherwise? But there is at least some room to imagine the technique could be abused.  A 20/20 story exposed one instance that turned out to be a likely hoax, where a child accused her father of sexual molestation via facilitated communication. Naturally, this news report immediately made me think of that tragic outcome to what seemed to be an amazing therapy at the time.

But in this story, Carly guides her own hand, and at least to my untrained eye, it is pretty amazing. It seems like this "un-facilitated communication" (no one holding her hand) would be much harder to fake and influence than facilitated communication, especially in front of a camera and reporter. For Carly's sake, I hope this is a true picture of what is happening in her mind. And if it is, I think this is a real miracle that opens doors for one young woman, sheds light on autism in general, and offers hope for others.

Click the above photo to see the video about Carly

Friday, July 20, 2012

Obstetric Fistulas: A Preventable Tragedy

I recently read a book called, "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity For Women Worldwide," by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. The book discusses some of the most pressing issues facing women today, what is currently being done to help, and what still needs to be done to alleviate the problems. Kristof and WuDunn essentially argue that the oppression of women is the most important problem of our time and that many other social ills would be at least partially remedied if the status of women improved worldwide.

The book covers some extremely interesting topics, from human trafficking to educational opportunities to maternal and fetal health. Some of the issues the authors discuss were completely off my radar previously, but they have since struck a deep chord in my heart. The stories told by Kristof and WuDunn are among the most heart-wrenching I have ever heard, and the work being done to combat some of these injustices is truly inspiring. I would like to cover some of these topics, one in this post and then hopefully others in upcoming posts.

Today, I want to write about obstetric fistula, a serious injury to a woman as a result of prolonged obstructed labor in child birth. I had never heard of this condition until I read "Half the Sky." And what I read horrified and saddened me.

Obstructed labor is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the situation where "the presenting part of the fetus cannot progress into the birth canal, despite strong uterine contractions." The WHO also states that the most common cause of obstructed labor is a baby with a head too large to fit through the mother's pelvic brim. Other potential causes are a mis-positioned baby, and in more rare cases, locked twins or pelvic tumors. In the United States and other developed nations, obstructed labor is treated with surgical instruments that help the baby progress (such as forceps or vacuum extraction), or by cesarean section delivery. Due to these methods, most women in the U.S. with obstructed labor ultimately have a successful delivery. However, according to the WHO, "neglected obstructed labor is a major cause of maternal and newborn morbidity and mortality."

If left untreated, obstructed labor can cause asphyxia of the baby, leading to brain damage or death. In addition, prolonged obstructed labor can result in organ damage to the mother, and in very serious cases, obstetric fistula, a hole in the vaginal wall that connects the vagina with the bladder or the rectum or both. This condition is almost never seen in the United States, which is one of the main reasons I had never heard of it (and why even many OBGYN's in this country will never encounter it or learn to treat it). Obstetric fistula generally occurs in developing countries, where women often deliver children at home with an unskilled birth attendant or no attendant at all and may wait days to go to a hospital if the delivery is not progressing smoothly.

Once a fistula develops, the affected woman will be unable to control her bladder or bowel movements and will leak bodily fluids from her vagina.

The good news is that surgical procedures do exist to repair 90% of fistulas. The bad news is that many women who develop this condition have no access to a hospital that provides treatment and/or lack the funds to pay for it. If left untreated, a woman will essentially leak fluids for the rest of her life, and depending on her circumstance, may be divorced by her husband, abandoned by her family, and/or ostracized by society for the uncontrollable body functions and the odor of urine and excrement that she emits.

In "Half the Sky," Kristof and WuDunn tell the story of Mahabouba Muhammad, a young Ethiopian girl who was sold by a neighbor to be the second wife of a sixty-year-old man. Mahabouba was beaten by the man and his first wife, and when she tried to run away, she was caught and beaten even more severely. When she became pregnant, she feared for her life and the life of her unborn child, so at seven months, she finally made an escape back to her home town. When she arrived, she discovered that only her uncle remained, and he allowed her to stay in a hut nearby. I think it is best to tell the rest of the story in Kristof's and WuDunn's own words, from pages 94-95 of the paperback edition of "Half the Sky."
Mahabouba couldn't afford a midwife, so she tried to have the baby by herself. Unfortunately, her pelvis hadn't yet grown large enough to accommodate the baby's head, a common occurrence with young teenagers. She ended up in obstructed labor, with the baby stuck inside her birth passage. After seven days, Mahabouba fell unconscious, and at that point someone summoned a birth attendant. By then the baby had been wedged there for so long that the tissues between the baby's head and Mahabouba's pelvis had lost circulation and rotted away. When Mahabouba recovered consciousness, she found that the baby was dead and that she had no control over her bladder or bowels. She also couldn't walk or even stand, a consequence of nerve damage that is a frequent by-product of fistula.
"People said it was a curse," Mahabouba recalled. "They said, 'If you're cursed, you shouldn't stay here. You should leave.'" Mahabouba's uncle wanted to help the girl, but his wife feared that helping someone cursed by God would be sacrilegious. She urged her husband to take Mahabouba outside the village and leave the girl to be eaten by wild animals. He was torn. He gave Mahabouba food and water, but he also allowed the villagers to move her to a hut at the edge of the village.
"Then they took the door off," she added matter-of-factly, "so that the hyenas would get me." Sure enough, after darkness fell the hyenas came. Mahabouba couldn't move her legs, but she held a stick in her hand and waved it frantically at the hyenas, shouting at them. All night long, the hyenas circled her; all night long, Mahabouba fended them off.
She was fourteen years old.
When morning light came, Mahabouba realized that her only hope was to get out of the village to find help, and she was galvanized by a fierce determination to live. She had heard of  Western missionary in a nearby village, so she began to crawl in that direction, pulling her body with her arms. She was half dead when she arrived a day later at the doorstep of the missionary. Aghast, he rushed her inside, nursed her, and saved her life....

Obstetric fistulas are so troubling to me for multiple reasons.

The first is the terrible suffering it produces for those who must live with it, from the incontinence, to the indignity of the stench of bodily fluids, to the emotional cost of often losing the child, followed by the complete societal rejection that many women experience.

The second reason this complication is so troubling is that it is largely preventable. As I stated above, obstetric fistula is almost never seen in the United States, because women in obstructed labor have access to modern medical care before their labor is able to progress to that point. This should not be the exception in the world, but the standard of care for all women.

Furthermore, obstructed labor is more common in very young women who have not yet developed wide enough hips to allow for vaginal delivery; in many cultures, it is common for young teenagers or even pre-teens to be given in marriage and to conceive children. Delaying marriage and child rearing by a few years can make a world of difference, yet many young girls do not appear to have this option due to cultural or financial pressures. And without adequate access to health education, pre-natal care, and attended delivery, these young girls are put at even higher risk of problematic deliveries.

Another reason this condition is so distressing is that it is most often treatable once it occurs, but many women do not have access to the treatment. Given that poverty or lack of concern for women's health are largely to blame for prolonged obstructed labor in the first place, these are also core reasons why fistulas go untreated. The women who are most likely to get fistulas are the same women who are least likely to be able to access surgery. Unfortunately, this fate can subject a woman to a lifetime of completely unnecessary humiliation and despair.

As Kristof and WuDunn put it, obstetric fistula is the modern day leprosy.

The fact that this preventable and treatable condition is inhibiting the lives of nearly three million women worldwide is a true injustice, and something must be done! I confess that my heart has been able to remain hard to many troubling things in this world, but when I read the stories of women with obstetric fistula who have been castigated by society, I have no other option but to be heart broken. We must value the lives and dignity of women, and we must recognize that child birth is the basic reproductive function of a woman, not some fluffy privilege that should only be safe for the chosen few. The lives of these women and their children are not disposable - they are precious and sacred! These are real people, not objects to be cast aside by society or ignored out of apathy. Dignity matters!

So what can be done? Let me start with the remainder of Mahabouba's story from page 96 of the paper back version of "Half the Sky." You will recall that she ended up at the house of a missionary in a nearby village:
...On his next trip to Addis Ababa, he took Mahabouba with him to a compound of one-story white buildings on the edge of the city: The Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital.
There Mahabouba found scores of other girls and women also suffering from fistulas. On arrival, she was examined, bathed, given new clothes, and shown how to wash herself. Fistula patients often suffer wounds on their legs, from the acid in their urine eating away at the skin, but frequent washing can eliminate these sores. The girls in the hospital walk around in flip-flops, chattering with one another and steadily dripping urine - hospital staff joke that it is "puddle city" - but the floors are mopped several times an hour, and the girls are too busy socializing with one another to be embarrassed....
 ...In 1975, Catherine and Reg [Hamlin] founded Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, and it remains a lovely hillside compound of white buildings and verdant gardens. Catherine presides over the hospital....She is an exceptionally skilled surgeon, but because some patients don't have enough tissue left to repair they are given colostomies, so that feces leave the body through a hole made in the abdomen and are stored in a pouch that must be regularly disposed of. Patients with colostomies require ongoing care and live in a village near the hospital.
Mahabouba is one of those who couldn't be fully repaired. Physical therapy got her walking again, but she had to settle for a colostomy. Still, when she had recovered her mobility, Catherine put her to work in the hospital. At first, Mahabouba simply changed linens or helped patients wash, but gradually the doctors realized that she was smart and eager to do more, and they gave her more responsibilities. She learned to read and write, and she blossomed. She found a purpose in life. Today, if you were to visit the hospital, you might well see Mahabouba walking around - in her nurse's uniform. She has been promoted to the position of a senior nurse's aide. 
This is a both a tragic story that never had to be and a wonderful story of redemption. According to Kristof and WuDunn, 90% of fistulas are repairable, with the operation costing around $300. (According to other sites I have seen, it can be closer to $450, but regardless, this is much less than a typical operation and rehabilitation in the U.S.) People like Catherine and Reg Hamlin are starting hospitals to serve these women around the world. Of course, there are still vast regions without hospitals, people who are unaware of the locations of the nearest hospitals, and women who are unable to afford the costs of care.

So what does that mean for a person like me? Truth be told, I am still trying to figure that out. I am not a doctor or a nurse who can fly away and perform a fistula repair surgery. I am not a counselor who can help women reintegrate into society. And I live very far away from where most of this is happening. It is very easy to feel distressed and saddened from the comfort of my home and then to go back to my everyday life. But that seems too easy and too wrong.

For a start, I am trying to get the word out about fistulas through this blog and through conversations with friends. Secondly, I have decided to support some organizations that are providing fistula surgeries or are building new hospitals to do so, and I would encourage others to do the same. Some of the organizations mentioned in "Half the Sky" are listed below. Thirdly, well, I am still working on the thirdly. I am not sure where this newly found knowledge will take me, but I hope that God can use me in some way to make a difference. Kristof and WuDunn do offer some non-medical ideas, their main one being to support education of women and girls. Apparently, one study showed that giving girls a new $6 school uniform every 18 months increased the likelihood they would stay in school and thus delay marriage and pregnancy until physical maturation. These are the types of solutions even non-medical professionals can actively support, and perhaps this sort of indirect route is where God will take me. That remains to be seen, but I will keep you updated if I am inspired in a particular direction.

I hope this issue lands on your heart as it has mine and that you too resolve to act in some way.

To learn more about obstetric fistulas or to support organizations that are already helping provide prevention and care, take a look at these sites: