Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Assorted Weird Diseases Part I—There’s Plenty More to Fear than Fear Itself

The other morning I woke up to the radio, and before I even had my eyes open I was hearing the saga of Dawn Becerra. Wow, what an eye-opening story! It seems that poor Dawn was vacationing in Mexico a few years ago when she made the mistake of eating a "pork" taco. It made her sick for 3 weeks. But that was just the beginning of Dawn's woes. Sometime later she began suffering seizures and more illness, and eventually the doctors at the Mayo Clinic found that a worm from the taco had made its way into her skull and was happily chewing away on brain tissue. The doctors eventually removed the worm (it was already dead—probably from years of eating fatty foods) in a 6-hour operation, and fortunately Dawn is okay today.

Think she's given up eating "pork"?

Just a few years ago things like brain-eating worms crawling out of tacos would have been seen only in Japanese (no, make that Mexican) horror movies. Today, though, it doesn't seem so strange. Just look at some of the assorted weird diseases that have been in the news lately.

  • E. coli Contamination—E. coli, the bacteria found in animal excrement, has been big news ever since four people died and another 700 got sick from eating at the now-infamous Jack-In-The-Box restaurant chain. (New corporate slogan: "We're cookin' the sh*t out of our burgers.")
    In the years since then major outbreaks, meat recalls, and other newsworthy E. coli disasters have come around just about every hour. My own personal favorite was the "Cornstock" party, where guests got sick after some hearty partying (they apparently consumed a steer, a hog, and an ostrich along the way!) in a farmer's field in Illinois. Embarrassed party organizers swore that the field was cleaned of manure in advance of the event, but they probably couldn't say the same for the steer, hog and ostrich.
  • Mad Cow Disease—Let me see if I've got this straight… There's this renegade protein running around that even modern sterilization procedures can't destroy. Everyone in Europe is terrified of it, but here in the Colonies we've been a bit slow to catch on. Anyway, it turns cows' brains to mush, and will do the same thing to people if they eat the cows. Since nearly everyone eats cows, and since this disease can take years to manifest itself, this is an accident waiting to happen. We could wake up tomorrow and find that the people left alive on earth are a few vegetarians. (We'd all be very rich and enjoy the last laugh, but heck, we'd probably get bored.) Is that pretty much it?
  • Foot-and-Mouth Disease—Nobody seems to understand this disease, but it too appears to be driving the Europeans loony—causing them to kill all their farm animals and light large fires with them. This, in turn, causes major depression to spread among us animal-rights types. This may be the most frustrating and distressing disease of all.

    I could go on. In addition to the above, people are getting sick every day from Pfiesteria piscicida streptococcus, giardia, salmonella, Listeria Monocytogenes, Campylobacter jejuni, chlamydia and even toxic algae. And there seem to be new things that could be turned into Japanese horror movies appearing all the time.

    What all these assorted weird diseases have in common, of course, is that they are all intrinsically linked to the raising and eating of animals. So, does anyone ever suggest that vegetarianism is an answer to the problem? No, that would be too easy. Instead, we promote irradiation, quarantine the boots of people who have been traipsing around the European countryside, and generally do a lot of worrying. And of course the most common advice given by our medical community is to "make sure your meat is well-cooked."

    Well-cooked meat? That may be a partial answer, but it seems ironic that, as I write this, well-done meats have just joined cigarettes, asbestos, DDT and arsenic on the federal government's official list of substances suspected of causing cancer.

    Would you rather be afflicted by assorted weird diseases or by good old-fashioned cancer? It's a heck of a choice for meat-eaters.


    [Next time, in exciting Part II, we'll look at some of the dumb things we humans do to make sure new assorted weird diseases keep coming, and get shared by everyone!]

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Animal Lovers

"I believe that mink are raised for being turned into fur coats and if we didn't wear fur coats those little animals would never have been born. So is it better not to have been born or to have lived for a year or two to have been turned into a fur coat? I don't know." —Supermodel Barbi Benton


Several weeks ago I spotted an article in the "Living" section of the paper that really should have been in the obituaries. It was about furs, and how they are supposedly making a comeback with the elite fashion set.

After I looked at the pictures (smiling women ringed with dead bodies) I took some anti-depressant drugs and read the text of the article. Buried toward the end, after the interviews with fashion designers and other wealthy people, was only a brief mention of the animal rights issues involved. One fur owner (not the original owner, unfortunately), when asked if she felt guilty, smiled from behind her coat of carnage and said, "I'm an animal lover."

"Oh gee," I wanted to tell her. "I didn't know. I guess that makes it all okay."


All this got me to thinking about all the self-proclaimed "animal lovers" in our society. Take John (warning: not a real person) for example. He might tell you he's an animal lover because he keeps three dogs, four cats, and some exotic birds locked up all day in his tiny house. Marge would want you to know she's an animal lover too, because she's always doting on Fufi, her toy poodle with the trick haircut and spandex jogging suit. (Fufi is so neurotic by this time that she'd agree.) George is definitely an animal lover because he spends big bucks stocking the private lake where he fishes during the summer.

None of this impresses us vegetarians. We know that eating animals is the A#1, super primo, meanest thing we do to them. Try as we might, it's hard to take meat eaters seriously when they tell us they love animals. That's true even if they are otherwise doing some wonderful and good things. It's not that they're bad people, it's just that they don't make the connection. It might be more accurate to say that they love animals under certain limited circumstances. They compartmentalize their feelings.

When it comes to treating animals well one minute and hideously the next, humans are as fickle as can be. On the one hand we torture and kill cats and dogs in our medical laboratories, but on the other hand we pamper them as our pets, and spend big bucks on their medical care. On the third hand (wait, I'm running out of hands!) we train the people who provide that medical care by doing more hideous experiments on cats and dogs. That certainly makes sense, doesn't it?

Every time I think we vegetarians could put an end to this madness, I'm reminded of how many of us feed meat to our pets. Yeah, sometimes we conveniently compartmentalize our ethics just like everyone else. Once I even met a vegetarian whose whole reason for changing his diet was that he'd spent his career experimenting on animals and he wanted to make up for some of his sins by not eating them. No kidding.

As for folks like John, Marge, George, and the woman in the fur coat, there's a communications problem out there too. Unfortunately the English language is not precise enough to distinguish "love," as in "I will love, help and protect you," from "love," as in "I love how you make me feel powerful," or "I love how you taste." I, for one, wouldn't mind it if someone could coin a few new words that would make this distinction. Any volunteers?

This kind of communication problem brings to mind the old Twilight Zone episode about the aliens who came to earth and were very nice to us lowly earthlings. They'd even written a book entitled To Serve Man.

Our "encounters of the third kind" with these aliens were going really well until one fateful day. That was the day we finally figured out that To Serve Man was a cookbook.

I guess those aliens were "human lovers" the way some humans are "animal lovers."

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

An Insider’s Look at the US Medical System

I recently had the chance to get a 4-day, inside look at a real, functioning emergency room and hospital. I came upon this unique opportunity (actually, it came upon me) when I happened to be the driver of the losing vehicle in an automobile/bicycle winner-take-all grudge match staged at a local intersection. (Please do not try this at home!) In any event, I am fine, thanks, and the experience was most enlightening—even better than watching old reruns of ER!

Now, I know it's always been fashionable among vegetarians to bash Western medicine. I've done my share of that bashing in the past, and nothing in this experience changed my mind about the things that I've written and said. On the other hand, our medical institutions are incredibly good at some of the things that they do, particularly in the practice of "horizontal" medicine. (That's Dr. Michael Klaper's term for what doctors do when the patient arrives in a "horizontal" position.) Here's a sample of the good and the bad that I experienced during my recent sojourn.

  • Security guards are there to keep us safe. I arrived at the emergency room in a bit of distress. (If I had been a car, a mechanic might have said that I had an alignment problem.) Did anyone offer to let me lie down? No. Pain medication? Not for 7-1/2 hours. A bandage for my bleeding elbow or leg? Never. After I'd been there for a few minutes, though, the uniformed security guard on duty came over to me and asked, "Can I get you some ice for that arm?" I was very happy to take this kind soul up on his offer. Obviously, in the US medical system, security guards are a critical link in the provision of emergency services. God bless 'em!
  • Your medical dollars at work. There are two reasons why Americans spend over a trillion dollars a year on medicine, and why those costs increase every year by double-digit percentages: prescription drugs and paperwork. Speaking of the latter, my first night in the hospital I had to give my medical history three separate times—the first two to doctors and the third to a nurse. Any clerk with minimal training could have done this, filling out a database questionnaire on the computer. Such a simple change in procedure would have saved the hospital at least $100 on me that night, and would have substantially lessened the risk of a mistake being made because of incomplete or conflicting data. (Of course, an even better and cheaper solution would be to keep everyone's medical information in a database accessible by doctors over the Internet—but that would be too simple, I guess.)
  • Hospital beds are hard to come by. It was 10 o'clock at night and I'd been in the emergency room for four hours when they told me I was being admitted to the hospital. But then they said I would have to wait for a bed to become available. I thought about that and panicked. "What?!" I screamed. "Who checks out of a hospital at 10:00 at night? A dead person, that's who! You're going to put me in a dead person's bed, aren't you?!" It took me several minutes to calm down, after which I realized that somebody had probably died in every bed in the hospital. By 1:30 in the morning, more than 8 hours after my accident, I was finally tucked away in one of those beds, feeling like the dead person myself. I had Benedryl to put me to sleep, two syringes of morphine in my veins for the pain, and I was still wearing my dirty bicycling clothes.
  • The forms aren't made for vegetarians. I became a vegetarian for ethical reasons alone. But I do have to say that it was awfully nice to say "no… no… no" when they asked over and over again if I had any of the long string of diet-induced maladies on the hospital's charts. (It was also nice to say "none!" when asked what drugs I take regularly.) "You seem pretty healthy …for such an old guy," I was told several times. "I'm a vegan," I would reply, trying to get in a good word for the cause. "You can write that on my chart!"
  • The food isn't made for vegetarians. My first day in the hospital the only thing I was offered to eat was a quart of barium drink (Mmmm!) that would make my organs glow under the cat scan. (By the way, they don't use real cats in this procedure.) The food didn't improve much after that. Indeed, the only thing remotely healthy about hospital food is the small portions. In general, hospital diets are tailored to make patients come back soon and come back often. If you're a vegetarian, expect to eat a lot of eggs and cheese. If you're a vegan and ask nicely, they'll bring you a plain salad and a baked potato. …Kind of like being in Texas.
  • Hospital people aren't necessarily healthy people… I can't tell you how many really unhealthy people I saw in the hospital—and they were working there! It struck me as very odd—kind of like walking into a health club and seeing the whole staff smoking cigarettes. One morning a very overweight and out-of-shape young woman was pushing my wheelchair to x-ray. As she huffed and puffed it was all I could do to keep from saying, "Gee lady, maybe we'd better trade places."
  • …but they do work hard. I saw doctors on rounds at 5 in the morning, and people putting in 16-hour days on Labor Day weekend. And then, of course, there are the people who toil all night long, waking patients up every 2 hours to take their pulse and make sure they're still with us. (I guess these are the folks who phone the emergency room to tell them when beds open up.)
  • Misdiagnoses happen. You always know you're in trouble when they repeat a medical test on you. That's what happened to me. Then, a few hours later, a stern-faced doctor trailing half-a-dozen medical students showed up beside my bed. "There's one thing we didn't tell you about your test results…" he began. "You may have Gilbert's Disease, a really horrible disease of the liver." Immediately I recalled all the stories I'd heard of relatively healthy people going into the hospital and never coming out alive. Then the doctor smiled. "Actually, I have Gilbert's Disease!" Well, it turns out that Gilbert's Disease is a disease without any bad symptoms at all, and in any event I didn't even have it. The official diagnosis, given to me after still more tests the next day, was that I just "beat the crap" out of my liver. (Doctors do love those fancy medical terms!)
  • Sometimes, they get it all right. When you see all the chaos in a modern hospital, see one thing bungled after the other ("What did you say you were allergic to?"), and wait around endlessly for every simple procedure, it's tempting to just write off the entire medical community. But that's often when something extraordinary happens. It happened to me. In my case they found a potentially serious problem (a partially collapsed lung) and fixed it. (They put a tube in my chest and re-inflated the lung—thereafter giving me the perfect excuse for looking like a blimp!) I don't want to sound corny, but it's almost magical to watch up-close (okay, too close) as very smart, very well-trained doctors and nurses use some of the most sophisticated machines science has ever developed to do miraculous repairs on the human body. If I ever grouse about modern medicine again (and I'm sure I will), just remind me of that, and I'll put everything in perspective. I may have learned it the hard way, but I have to admit hospitals are pretty amazing. …Now, as the bills roll in, I just wish I could say the same thing about insurance companies.

Monday, July 2, 2007


We're a society of junkies. Ninety-nine percent of us are hooked on something bad. Something really bad. It's something so addictive, and so dangerous, that only three other things in life come close: tobacco, cocaine and Jerry Springer. What's worse, we're addicting our kids too.

That "something", of course, is meat and the other animal products we humans consume so voraciously. People just can't help themselves.

Now, I know what you're thinking. Sure, meat seems to have an unnatural hold on many folks. But isn't it a bit much to call it an "addiction"? Isn't it more of a "habit," or maybe just an unfortunate routine people have gotten themselves into? Isn't it an awfully big stretch to compare the addictive nature of meat-eating to human vices like cigarettes and drugs? And how could it ever rise to the level of Jerry Springer?! Is this perhaps just one more instance when the brain of a certain vegetarian columnist has succumbed to the effects of global warming?

Well, it is true that I've been out in the sun a lot lately. But I still think I'm right about this addiction thing. Let's take a look at some of the common behaviors we associate with addiction and see how meat-eating stacks up:

1. "I've got to have my fix! NOW!"—The vast, vast majority of people in our society eat meat, usually accompanied by significant quantities of other animal products, 2–3 times a day, every day of their lives. Need any more be said?

2. "I'm a little uncomfortable when I'm out of touch..."—People who are addicted get very uneasy about the prospect of being in a situation where they won't have access to the source of their addiction. I know this can happen with meat. I regularly taunt meat-eaters with the threat of dinner at the mythical "Tofu Palace" (shame on me!). And I'm always prepared for the peeked look I get when I suggest a restaurant with the word "green" or "natural" or "harvest" in the name. ("Gee [nervous laugh], will they have meat there?")

Consider, if you will, my experience last year when I was with a group of people planning a weekend in the mountains. The subject turned to food, and since several of us were vegetarian we offered to make vegetarian chili for Saturday night's dinner. Looking around the room I noticed some pretty uncomfortable looks on people's faces. Finally someone said, "We can make our own chili, thanks."

People turning down a free meal? People offering to cook when someone else will do it for them? There has to be some kind of powerful reason for behavior like that! Could it be addiction?

3. "…but I don't have a problem. I could give it up any time!"—Denial, of course, is the hallmark of addiction. How often do we vegetarians hear, "I've really cut back on red meat," or "I could be a vegetarian, but my husband…," or "You know, I eat very little meat." Every day, huh? (And isn't it funny that we usually hear this right after the person in question has ordered a cheeseburger?)

Now, how often do we hear "I've done it. I've given up meat completely and forever!"? Once in a month of leap years?

Does there seem to be a gap between the way people subjectively view themselves and their behavior? Is this addiction?

I'm not sure what causes this addiction to meat. I know it has cultural and "force of habit" elements, but I suspect there's a large physical component as well. Maybe while meat is clogging up people's arteries with its fat and cholesterol it's also sending out miniature secret agents to our brains with subliminal messages ("Eat me again! Soon!").

However this works, the addictive properties of meat sure make the job of promoting vegetarianism a lot more difficult. Last March I spent some time plugging the advantages of a meatless diet as part of the annual "Meat-Out Day" celebration. The message—try giving up meat for a day and see how you like it—is pretty straightforward, and no vegetarian thinks that it's asking much of meat-eaters to forego the stuff for only three out of the thousand meals they eat in a year. But the reactions that people have to this proposal are usually negative, and often not subtle at all. (Getting angry when confronted? Sounds like addition to me!)

There was one young man I spoke with (bleached-blond spiked hair, baggy shorts, tattoos, piercings, skateboard under one arm—your basic all-American kid) who seemed particularly resistant to the vegetarian message. Every time I would point out another reason not to eat meat he would get more upset. Finally, normal conversation became impossible, and I asked him what was so darned special about meat. He had turned red by this time, and he was literally bouncing up and down with nervous energy as he tried to think of something to say. "It's dope!" he finally blurted out. Then he shouted it again for emphasis: "Meat is dope, man!"

You know, I couldn't have agreed with him more.