Less about the world, more about me.

Month: April 2013

An emotive clinging to prejudice

The Constitutional Convention recently had to address the issue of marriage equality. It attracted a great deal of attention and submissions. Even I had a go. The Convention ended its deliberations by overwhelmingly voting to recommend steps be taken to facilitate full marriage equality in this country. As expected, the entire process was quickly called into question by the opponents of equality.

While they were lambasting the process for not following its recommendations, the anti-equality think-tank, The Iona Institute, was being criticised for the misuse of a study on family trends. This crass ploy has been loudly and severally commented on. Follow these links, herehere and here to read about what was attempted by Iona.

I don’t wish to add to the quality commentary already made by other bloggers. I want instead, to highlight something that Iona Director and Irish Independent columnist, David Quinn, wrote in his response to being called out for this misuse of data.

I draw your attention to these few lines;
“The available data does not allow us to say how well children raised by same-sex couples fare compared with the biological married family.
It would be invalid, therefore, and a misuse of the Child Trends paper quoted above to pretend the available research shows that children raised by same-sex couples do worse than children raised by their own married, biological parents…

And to this day it remains the case that there are no large national surveys that allows us to draw reliable conclusions about the children of same-sex couples.”

An admission, that at best the only position one can take on marriage equality, if one is to rely solely on the best available data, is one of agnosticism. A remarkable concession for someone from a conservative anti-equality organisation to make. It is a tacit admission, that adopting a homophobic stance, is not a reasoned and scientific decision, reached after much investigation, but a confessional and reactionary position, rooted in the doctrinaire homophobia of the Roman Catholic Church.

Of course this lack of evidence works both ways. Gay couples have not been around long enough, nor exist in large enough numbers, for the kind of definitive studies which get taken seriously by dry academics and disinterested policy-makers. What those of us who are in favour of marriage equality have are, positive small scale studies and a particular view of history that indicate this, is the time to embrace change.

In the liberal democracies of western Europe and the Americas, changes to how we treat the vulnerable have always been incremental and careful. And these changes have consistently had to contend with the forces of inertia, prejudice and vested interest. Fortunately progress continues to be made.

Children no longer work down mines in horrible conditions. Today, even adults working in mines are afforded a level of safety unimagined a century ago. Women have moved from chattel to being almost equal with men (they still lag behind in financial and political power and continue to lack the kind of physical autonomy men take for granted, but progress to date has been transformative).

Slavery has all but disappeared in our liberal democracies. Where it remains, it is deep underground in the criminal world. Non-whites are legally the equal to white people in every way. Economic power remains centered in white elites, but again, property to citizenship is unquestionably a dramatic advance.

We once discriminated on grounds of religion. For centuries sectarian hate scarred and scoured our lands. Today things are so much better that it is now even safe to be an atheist. Have we achieved a truly secular democracy? No. The various sects still have an inordinate amount of political clout, but step by step, they are being excluded from the lives of those who do not wish to endure their interference.

Gay people have moved from the status of criminals to the cusp of gaining full marriage rights. They suffer rates of mental ill-health and abuse above the rest of us, but increasingly the homophobes who inflict this emotional and physical distress are being faced down.

Again and again the law is changed to demonstrate our growing empathy and humanity. And again and again there are those who rail against this desire to respect the marginalised, to empower the hated, to embrace the other. No study was required to demonstrate that treating another human as property was innately disordered, that is lessened us all. No scientific data is required to show that inhumanity begets inhumanity. No statistics need be examined to show that witless prejudice risks vicious impunity.

Quinn and his ilk have been, for centuries, on the wrong side of history. The narrowness of their vision and the spite they spew is insidious because it can delay and it does wound. But the ultimate demise of this vision of hate is all but assured. He doesn’t have the science, he doesn’t have the numbers, he doesn’t even have the confessional power his Church once wielded. All he has is a desperate and an emotive clinging to a prejudice.

History will not be kind to him, but he has succeeded in one thing. I now feel sorry for him. How could I not? For he has lost.

Column: Why choose homeopathy?

My column in The Kerryman. 24 April, 2013

It’s twenty years since I was in Tralee General for an endoscopy. They shoved a camera down my throat to look at my stomach. OK it wasn’t that bad. They’d given me some meds, which had me grinning like a fool throughout.

They looked at and took a sample of my stomach lining to test. I had the procedure because for two years I’d been suffering from indigestion, stomach pain and was throwing up blood. There was very little drama involved though, as we all knew what we’d find.

It’d be duodenal ulcers and a bacteria called helicobactor pylori. This is a common bacteria, identified in 1982 by a couple of Australian doctors to be the main culprit behind ulcers. No one had previously thought bacteria could survive in the acidic world of the stomach. They completely rewrote the medical books on the subject and got themselves a Nobel Prize too.

This is important because instead of being diagnosed with a chronic and life limiting condition, as ulcers once were, I was instead diagnosed with a curable disease. I was given a course of drugs and the pain ended. More importantly, it wasn’t necessary to see a Dietician, who’d have explained to me what white foods were e.g. boiled chicken. Shudder.

These days if someone suffers the same symptoms I’d had, there might be a temptation to visit a homeopath. This form of alternative medicine became very popular during the Boom. Almost as popular as buying holiday homes in Bulgaria.

Not that I’m suggesting homeopathy is a ridiculous and futile waste of time. Each of us is free to spend our money as we see fit. Each of us is free to seek whatever advice we want. It is however important to inform ourselves about how best to make a decision regarding our health.

On the one hand we have overpaid and arrogant Consultants. A bunch of largely conservative men who were slow to accept the existence of germs, the best way to treat polio, that woman could be doctors and who even today still lag behind nurses in hand hygiene. A bunch men tied to the not always honest, multi-billion euro drugs industry.

Then there are the homeopaths who sell pills that are so diluted, no active ingredient can be detected. Homeopaths claim that the more dilute something is, the stronger it is. Good luck convincing your mother that the weaker something is the stronger it is, when you next make her a mug of tea. She’ll quickly explain to you what weak really means.

To prove a drug works, we use a double-blind test. This means randomly dividing a group into two, one of which is given the experimental drug. Those being tested, don’t know what they’ve been given. Even the doctors and nurses giving the drugs don’t know. It’s a pure test.

This is the gold standard. They terrify drugs companies because they may have billions tied up in the development of just one drug. If it fails the double-blind, then that company could go under.

Homeopathy, despite being around for over two centuries, has yet to prove itself to be a credible medication. In spite of this, you can still buy them, since a pill with no active ingredients isn’t harmful. One cannot overdose or have bad side-effects taking what is essentially nothing.

Remember that when you feel let down by your doctor. See a second and even a third doctor, before giving in to the alternative.

Kerry Column 40

Column: Power in numbers, even if on the dole

My column in The Kerryman. 17 April, 2013

I grew up during the 80s in Kerry. I was old enough then, to know there wasn’t much in the way of work and that a lot of people relied on the dole. I also knew I had a lot of relations who had been forced to emigrate in search of work. Every Christmas they would send back parcels of clothes, that very rarely fit. I could never understand how the Americans got to grow so big.

I wasn’t old enough to know if money was being sent back, but we do know that millions of dollars was sent to the families left behind by emigrants. Often this was all that kept a family afloat during the many recessions this country has endured. During the ‘boom’ we thought those days were forever behind us. So far behind us that men and women from all the world flocked to these shores, so that they too could send money back to their relations.

Unfortunately the boom was so shockingly mismanaged our sons and daughters are again leaving Ireland to find work. Once again many of those left behind are existing on the dole. So many men and women who were once working, now have mortgages, have children in school, have ambition, but are forced to take the help of social welfare for their needs and the needs of their family.

Having been on the dole twice in the last 20 years, I know how entirely powerless one can feel, when one is relying on strangers for just enough money to get through the week. But I certainly don’t know what it’s like to be on the dole and have a family to support and a mortgage to pay. That kind of nightmare has fortunately never visited me.

I also don’t know what it’s like to be classed as ‘long-term unemployed’ which means being unemployed for over a year. Where does one find the discipline to maintain a routine, when one is unemployed for that length of time? Yet 44% of our unemployed family members, friends and neighbours, are now in that situation.

Worse, many of them have skills which are no longer needed in our economy. A lot of the jobs being created these days require language skills and computer skills that too many of our unemployed people just don’t have. Companies from all over the world, attracted by our favourable tax regime, set up shop and then have to import qualified workers to fill the many vacancies they are creating.

These new people enrich our state and our culture, but having to attract workers from outside Ireland doesn’t do much to address the immediate problem of our near 15% unemployment. Students are doing their bit by increasingly applying for the kind of courses our economy now needs, but they are at least four years away from being suitably trained.

So what now for the men and women trying to survive on social welfare? It seems sympathy for these victims of the political mismanagement of our economy, is already on the wane. Our government beats the drum of welfare reform, while helping politicians to pay for their constituency offices.

If there is one thing unemployed people can do to help themselves, is realise that any group with nearly half a million members, is a group with a lot of power. Pensioners realised this years ago. It’s about time unemployed people copped on to this as well.

Kerry Column 41

Mourning a Sister.

Last week I wrote an article
 about Organ Donor Awareness week. A friend from the twitterverse then contacted me to share his story.  

This is the story of my sister’s organ donation. I have changed some facts so as to protect the identities of those that I love. But it’s the story from my perspective, the only one I can tell. I will refer to my sister as Anne.

Just over three years ago, one Tuesday evening my sister called me to tell me that Anne who lived in America had suffered an aneurysm and was in hospital with probable brain surgery to happen any second. None of us had any idea what this really meant but brain surgery is never going to be an appendix operation. Bear in mind, I may have some of the fine details relating to medical procedures wrong, but that’s ok, I don’t pretend to be a doctor.

We learned very quickly that effectively there was a weakness that had always been there in her brain that for some reason popped, increasing pressure in the areas around it. She had been brought to hospital and after an initial period of lucidity passed out. She never regained consciousness.

She had three operations but effectively too much damage had been done and parts of her brain had been deprived of oxygen for too long for it to hope to recover. This all happened over the space of about a week. Our family travelled within days to be with her and her family. Even before I left I knew that there was no hope of her ever coming back and that the best that we could hope for was for her to survive in a vegetative state on ventilators etc.

When I got there it was a terrible thing to see, this strong, independent woman a shell of herself. Half her head shaved and dented where they had operated and put part of her skull into her stomach cavity (to maintain blood supply should they be ever able to replace it). Unable to feed herself, surrounded by tubes and machines that go bing. Despite it all, there was laughter, knowing she wasn’t coming back there was still laughter through it all. Tears and unspeakable grief but still laughter.

When it became obvious that she could not live independently of the machinery, we all agreed that we could not possibly bring what was left of her home, to maintain her body when her personality, her “herness” was gone forever. She had said to her family that she would never want to live like that and we knew that we just had to let her go. At this point we brought up the possibility of organ donation and timelines to switching off her life support. The staff at the hospital were amazing. No avoiding any hard truths, but also full of compassion and respect. Wonderful people. From the surgeons to the orderlies, the front of house staff to the two ladies who looked after Anne 24/7, wonderful people all. Sometimes I think about these guys and the power of what they do. The strength of these people. The decency.
We met with the Organ Donor representatives who explained all the potential outcomes, what needed to happen and by when, to allow her organs to be useful to someone else. We also dealt with the hospital’s ethics committee who were wonderfully compassionate and helpful. There was paperwork and discussions and more paperwork and more ethics meetings but over a three day period the decision was made.

When the time came we all knew that when they took her off ventilation that there was a possibility that she could go into arrest immediately, within hours or it could be that weeks could pass. There was an outside possibility that her body could continue for years without support.

For her organs to be donated there was a window of one hour from the removal of ventilation to the point where the organs would have been so depleted of oxygen that they would have been rendered unusable.
We said our goodbyes and she was taken away.

We had been offered but declined two places downstairs where the organ donation team were ready, it was a small area and in my mind’s eye I could see a team of surgeons, doctors and couriers with iceboxes, ambulances outside with their engines on and across the city, potential donors and their families ready to go to surgery.
At this point, our sister was well gone. All that was her had fled. What we had was not really her and could never be again. What was her was broken. We were waiting for the inevitable. Part of me wishes that I had stayed with her until she died but there is a difference between talking about “harvesting” and witnessing it.

A representative from the Donor organisation stayed with us while her colleague had left to be on hand when Anne’s ventilator was removed and I guess we all relaxed as much as we could. However, 15 minutes after we were told that she had been taken off life support, the rep’s phone buzzed. She looked at us and told us that Anne had arrested. There was a second or so pause while it sunk in and then, release.

We knew then that she would be declared legally dead and her body operated on. I don’t dwell too much on what that must have meant. I know intellectually it’s just a corpse and of course she had already gone, her mind had already gone before her body did, but I can fully understand another view that could consider this process horrific. But, then I think of what I know now and it helps me with my grief and makes me smile and be continuously proud of my sister. Helping others even after her heart had stopped beating. Typical of her.

We stayed at the hospital, sitting in the room she had been in for nearly two weeks only with no bed, no tubes, no machines, for only another ten minutes or so. The arrangements had already been made with a local undertaker and to bring her body home even before she had died.

Both her kidneys and her liver were successfully transplanted the day Anne died. Saving three lives. Her eyes and bone marrow were also donated, but I am to this day still unsure of what happened, whether they were donated or simply used in experiments. But all to the greater good.

After the dust has settled and life does go on, as the cliche goes, I am proud of my sister, that her final act benefitted others.

So, organ donation? Tragedy happens all of the time. This was a natural one, a fault in her brain that would pop one day. I can understand that. I can put it somewhere. To lose someone to a drunk driver or an act of violence… I don’t know how anyone can cope with that. But cope they do. But, in my case, from where I sit, the tragedy that occurred to us, to lose someone so precious has turned into an occasion of happiness and pride. Knowing our loss became a gain, a rescue, a lifesaving event for at least three other families makes my heart burst with pride for my sister.

The grief, brought to the front of my mind through the action of writing this, will always be there. But it genuinely is tempered by the happiness and second chance it has brought others. I’d always carried a donor card, always believed that it was the right thing to do, to donate your organs should the unthinkable happen, but I had never expected to be involved on what I call “edge” stuff, to be right there in the middle of it.

The gift of life my sister gave does not necessarily impact the grief of some but it has worked for me. Through it all, there’s happiness that others benefitted. Maybe I bury my grief with this, maybe I mask it but I grieved terribly for her before her heart had even stopped. I know that this is not a reason to encourage donations in general as if doing “this” will assuage “that” and it’s not the reason our family chose to be involved in the donation. But it is true anyway.
I don’t believe that organs should be state property, or even that an opt out system should apply, the decision that was made in our case was and is empowering. All I would ask is that people think about it. Whatever is right for you, is right for you, but at least think about it and be comfortable with it. I don’t think less of those that don’t carry the card, download the app or tick the box on their drivers license, as long as that’s a decision that they’ve made, rather than a default setting.

Maybe one day I will meet those that have my sister’s eyes, kidneys and liver inside them. Maybe someone else looking through her eyes at me would freak me out, perhaps kidneys and liver only then. And, they’re not my sister’s anymore anyway. They are a vital part of someone else who has been given a second chance at life.

I am not superstitious or religious, nor do I believe in divine intervention one way or the other, but there’s a part of me that likes to think that before Anne was brought down to the operating theatre and we had told her to let go, that it was ok to, that she knew somewhere inside she had to let go to make a difference even though she no longer had the capacity to do so. I wish that were true and that I could know it. That she chose to let go for others.

But whatever her intention or otherwise, people live today that otherwise would not. I know very little about them, vague occupations, family statuses and locations but it is of no matter. They live.

I miss my sister terribly and always will, she was something else. You would have liked her.

Column: Donate your organs

My column in The Kerryman. 10 April, 2013

Just before last Christmas I had myself subjected to a series of expensive medical tests, to see how my heart was doing. Approaching 40, over weight, an only recently reformed heavy smoker and a dodgy family medical history, led to me to think it would be best to have a quick look at the engine, to see if I’d done any real damage up to that point. Fortunately I got the all clear.

By all clear, I mean the complicated algorithm into which the consultant fed all my details, said, that I have a 5% chance of a heart attack. I’d have to be over 13% to merit medication. Dodged the bullet as far as I’m concerned. Not that I’m resting on my laurels. I’m still off cigarettes, I’ve lost over 6kgs since the tests and I’m exercising more. I can confidently say, that I’m probably now at less than 5% risk of suffering a heart attack.

Does that mean I definitely won’t have a heart attack tomorrow? No. The only people who are at 0% risk, are the already deceased. The rest of us must labour on knowing, that as we get older, the chances of suffering heart disease, or any other life ending or life altering condition, is always increasing.

Ultimately that 5% figure is meaningless. We are all educated enough these days to know what we must do to lower our chances of getting heart disease. It’s boring stuff. Move around more, eat less fun foods and stop hammering into the alcohol and smokes. We can do all that but we also know, that no matter how good we are, sometimes our genes just won’t play ball.

When we eat ourselves into heart disease or when our genes let us down, we are fortunate enough to be living in an age, where medical science can do remarkable things to save people who only a decade ago, would be facing death. There are surgeries and there are medications, which can cure or alleviate. They can even replace your heart! Think on the wonder of that. They take a heart from someone else’s body and put it into your chest. And they make it beat again. Perhaps we watch so many medical dramas on TV, that the mad wonder of replacing a heart is lost to us.

The first human to human heart transplant, took place in 1967. The surgery was performed by a South African doctor, called Christiaan Barnard. That’s how recent it was. Less than 40 years ago. Only a few years before that, the first lung transplant was carried out. The first kidney transplant took place in the 50s.

There was a high mortality rate in these early surgeries because they didn’t know how to stop the patient rejecting the new organs. Once immunosuppressive medications were developed, transplants became the everyday wonder we know today.

The next step is probably going to be the ability to grow blood and organs from scratch. Imagine that. Having replacement parts grown to order. No more waiting for years for a new kidney, or watching a child die as no suitable heart can be found for transplant.

Today however, the biggest problem these modern wonder workers face, is a lack of raw materials. And by raw materials I mean us, our organs. Remember that and then have the difficult and unpleasant conversation with your family. Let them know with 100% certainty, that every part of your body that can be used to help a living person, had better be used. Or else…

Kerry Column 42

Column:It isn’t all about Threesomes.

My column in The Kerryman. 3 April, 2013

When I was growing up in Kerry during the 80s, one thing I swore, I’d never begin a sentence with, ‘In my day…’ For nearly 30 years I’ve stuck to that.

In my day young people were expected to be as ignorant about sex as their parents and it worked. It worked because any mistakes this ignorance caused, were quietly shipped off to a distant relation, or to England, or a Laundry, or if it involved a Priest, simply moved to another parish.

Then things started to attack our ignorance. Our generation was given a huge scare by AIDS. There were strong women looking for control of their bodies and futures. Some pregnant women wouldn’t be shamed into giving up their babies. We learned that girls and their babies died, if left out in the cold. We discovered Bishops, even our own Bishop Casey, had normal sexual appetites, which they indulged. We discovered some Bishops would not protect our children from perverts with other kinds of appetites.

We learned that children who received sensible sex education were more likely to have positive experiences of sex, to wait till they were older to have sex and to be safe having sex. We learned that young people with good self-esteem were less likely to make choices about sex they later regretted.

Today we have the internet and even with the poor quality of internet speeds in Kerry, we know that the average age that children are exposed to pornography is 11. Think on that, 11.

What hasn’t changed since the 80s is that parents who are too embarrassed to speak to their children about sex, will teach their children to be too embarrassed to speak to them about sex. What hasn’t changed, is that the only one more ignorant about sex than a teenager, is two (or worse three) teenagers about to have sex.

How do we help teenagers make the best possible decisions? First, parents get over the embarrassment and talk to your children about sex. Be the people your children turn to. Second, teach your children to value themselves too highly to be pressurised into making decisions they are not ready to make. Thirdly, make sure they have access to information. All kinds of information. Finally, investigate the information they are looking at. If they look up something, like threesomes for example, it doesn’t necessarily mean they want to try that. Most likely they’ve heard the term and just want to know what it actually is.

Young people these days (another phrase I hoped to never use) are exposed to exactly the same pressures we once were, only lots more of it and in a lot more ways. A large part of that is the internet. Fortunately the internet can also help teenagers and their parents to better deal with these intense pressures.

Take for example the charity, SpunOut.ie. If you are a parent of older teens, have a look at it. It has over 3000 articles and some of them will make you uncomfortable and maybe even spitting mad. It is however a huge source of information for 16 to 25 year olds and for you the parents.

The HSE part funds this charity with a donation worth less than the cost of a TD and gets much more in return. This little piece of the internet gives young people and their parents a common language. But it is a dead language, unless you’ve raised your child to be a young adult, with confidence enough to make decisions you may not agree with, but that you can respect.

Kerry Column 43

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