By Clinton Colmenares, BA, Clemson University
Since 1995, when I became a medical reporter at a now-defunct independent weekly newspaper called the San Antonio Medical Gazette (RIP), I’ve considered my job to be part writer and part educator, a medium between jargon-driven scientists and the general public. For the past seventeen years, I’ve worked for major research universities and academic medical centers. These jobs have put me in the company of trauma surgeons who put pieces back together to make people whole; the late Noble Laureate Oliver Smithies, who created knockout mice; engineers who coat nano-particles with materials that target specific bacteria. Their work is amazing! It can also be intimidating for the non-scientist. Irresponsible people with nefarious motives are all too eager to fan fear into a raging fire that challenges a people’s (voters’) values. Science, they’re led to believe, threatens their jobs, their religions, their traditional values.
A colleague once told me, “Nobody will care about science unless they care about the scientist.” As amazing as trauma surgery, genetics and advanced materials engineering are, it’s difficult to care about them without the human element. I talk to faculty and graduate students regularly, encouraging them to share their human side, to relate to the non-scientists of the world. To illustrate, I share one of my stories.
My step-grandfather, Wil, was a Marine. He had USMC and the globe-and-eagle tattooed on his forearms to prove it. He also had lingering traumatic stress and myriad medical conditions–diabetes, heart disease, recurring gout, and a sometimes-violent temper. But he was always kind to me, and he was the only adult male who was a constant in my life. I loved him tremendously.
During the war, Wil was one of 60,000 Americans fighting 30,000 Japanese on a piece of rock sticking out of the South Pacific called Guadalcanal. The battle lasted seven months, but Wil fought it until he died, in 1978, a week before I started fourth grade.
In the early 70s, when we lived in Houston, Wil was a frequent patient at the VA hospital, a hulking rectangle of brick across the street from a Nabisco factory. You could step out of the hospital and the smell of its disinfectant into the hot Houston sun and be greeted by the buttery smell of Ritz Crackers or Fig Newtons as it drifted through the city smog.
Because my grandmother kept me during the day, I was a frequent visitor to the VA. I remember walking the dark basement corridors, with its low ceilings lined with pipes and valves. I sat with my Bugs Bunny coloring books and 64-count Crayola crayons for hours on end, in hard, molded plastic seats, while my grandmother visited Wil on the ward or in an ICU, where I wasn’t allowed. Sometimes a nurse would stop and talk with me. Mostly, I sat, at the ends of hallways tiled in hospital green.
Sometimes I shopped at the canteen for candy, weaving my way through crowds of men, my height just below their elbows as they shuffled in slippers and striped robes, smoking. There were generations of wounded warriors — haggard WW I vets hanging on as long as they could; WW II vets, men Wil’s age who seemed to be the majority; Korean vets and kids from Vietnam.
One memory stands above them all.
My grandmother and I were sitting in the cafeteria, where she nursed vending-machine coffee. It must have been lunchtime; the place was crowded with men walking and wheeling in to pick up trays and move through the lines. I looked up as the double doors to the cafeteria opened and an orderly wheeled a gurney through, headed straight toward our table. I stared at the boy being pushed through the crowd. He was young, probably a few years older than my sister. I remember him as blonde and good looking, and all I could see was his head. Below his neck, down to his feet, he was covered in white sheets. I could tell his body was under there, but didn’t know why he was covered.
I turned to my Grandmother. “He’s a quadriplegic,” she said. “He can’t move his arms or his legs.”
I was mesmerized. I don’t know what I must have been thinking. It was scary, seeing someone so different from me, from all the other men in the hospital I’d seen. How could a body lose function of all its limbs? How could someone be frozen, laid out on a metal table, and still be alive? He was a boy, he should have been driving through the neighborhood in a VW bus. Maybe I was faced with the notion that if something as dramatic and damaging could happen to this guy, it could happen to me? Maybe I wondered why something to terrible could happen in war, but in every war movie I watched men either died immediately or they survived without a scratch.
I forgot about that scene for many years, until I started working as a medical reporter, walking the hallways of the Catholic hospital in downtown San Antonio, and through the basement corridors of the health science center. The hospital green brought it back to me. The color made me sick as a child. It wasn’t green, it was weak, as if life had been drained from it. It still stimulates a visceral response.
When I share these memories with faculty, I tell them, there’s no way of knowing if all the hours I spent in a hospital as a little boy influenced my decision to become a reporter with a special beat, one that put me inside hospitals and waiting rooms and laboratories that are never numbered in any rational order.
But, I tell them, I know this. I remember all those hours and the way it felt, sometimes in limbo between Wil’s health and his next heart attack. And after I had the beat for a while, after I observed a heart surgery that would have saved Wil if it had been available twenty years earlier, and after talked with the parents of dying children and the children of dying parents, the memory of that young man, that boy, who couldn’t move his arms or his legs, who rode atop a metal table, became vivid, and it hasn’t left. It makes me care about what I do.
Then, I ask them, why do they do what they do? Why does a scientist search for the genetic underpinnings of disease? Why do oncologists become oncologists and not ophthalmologists? What is it, deep down, that motivates researchers to spend the bulk of their lives chasing answers? If they think it’s science for the sake of science, they’re either narcissistic or lying.
I encourage scientists not to spend their lives talking with other scientists. I ask them to find what it is that drives them. For most, it’s not just a love of statistics or the comfort of a flourescently lit lab where they spend eighty hours a week. There’s something deeper. Most people, I think, are motivated by empathy. That’s the part that the non-science public can understand and care about, so share it with them! Don’t be afraid to relate to someone.
I suspect that in almost everyone’s past–in your past, regardless of your vocation–there’s a young quadriplegic being wheeled past his brothers who are standing and walking.
If you’ve forgotten that memory, that motivation, dig it up. If it’s present, share it. We need to care about each other. We need to relate.
Clinton Colmenares is the director of research communications at Clemson University. His career ambition is to help create a more science-savvy public that values research at least as much as professional football. He previously worked at newspapers in San Antonio, Montgomery (Alabama) and Nashville, and at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, the University of Maine, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Alabama at Birmingham.