TEDMED 2017 - Limitless in a Limited World

I remember lamenting as a child that I was born too late and all the interesting problems of the world were already solved. I would never invent electricity or the bicycle. And Wikipedia? I could have come up with that! On one hand, this speaks to the safe shelter of my childhood, that I never knew the terrors young children around the world continue to experience. On the other, the sentiment was appropriate for someone taking inaugural steps in learning how things worked. To me, the world was figured out. Not perfect, but the major work seemed done.

Fortunately, I was naïvely, seriously, and deliciously wrong. We are just getting started.

TEDMED is the medical community’s collective imagination of what it means to be alive and well, how best to preserve dignity in illness, and what it means to be a provider and a patient. When I say “the medical community,” I really just mean “community” in general. Who has never been a patient or experienced the suffering of a loved one? Which other issues affect us as deeply and universally as health, life, and death? The medical community is the world; the patient is you and the patient is me. Perhaps that’s why medicine has its own branch of TED.

We are just getting started, in the sense that American healthcare is at a crossroad of many dimensions – philosophical, financial, political, cultural, even existential. We are standing in the middle of a labyrinth, not just a binary fork in the road. Like any buzzing beehive, innovators are specialized to solve different pieces of the puzzle. The Limitless theme at the conference last week was formatted around many “what if” questions. What if electricity could be medicine? What if cells of the body were studied like a fruit salad instead of a smoothie? My favorite “what if,” which I think captures the audacity of imagination, was:

What if visionaries ruled the world?

The uniting forces of this beehive, aside from an investment in the big questions, are my favorite qualities among humans – curiosity, openness, compassion. One consistent theme that receives a standing ovation at TEDMED is any display of courage, from fighting Ebola to facing the black hole of grief to taking a pause and starting over when a speaker forgets his/her lines on stage. I think these human elements are the only limitless forces at our disposal. Our job is to not waste it, and not waste each other.

It has been a long road from learning to questioning what we think we know. I hope to keep doing both indefinitely. Like The Alchemist says – the secret to happiness is to marvel and do work at the same time.

I leave you with some words that stayed most vividly in my mind from 2017’s stage program. Look for their talks and all the others when they become available. My apologies for paraphrasing some:

“Please do not insult the chimpanzees by calling bullies ‘alpha male.'” Frans de Waal “My strong, handsome, vegetarian husband…” Zoë Keating “Why did medicine have so much to offer my sister, and so little to offer patients like _____ with schizophrenia?” Steven McCarroll “This is it, the whole of human knowledge in the 1700’s.” Jay Walker displaying an old book from his Library of Human Imagination “…but when he walked towards one of them, they backed away.” Soka Moses “Without telling anyone, I told my bike ‘goodbye.'” Matt King “Watch the babies withdraw, it’ll break your heart.” Jim Johnson “‘There will be a last time you do anything.” Lucy Kalanithi “Who guards the guards? We will.” Betty Diamond “Mr. President…” Bill Frist “(speaking of a young woman in Syrian war zone: “she was always messing up her contraception.”) Aleppo physician, anonymous for safety. “Fear contains awe and submission; you don’t get to profound love without profound grief.” Jennifer Chenoweth