Thursday, January 10, 2013

New Year's Resolve - Phagocytosing the Fear - 2013 edition

The phagocyte has learned to eat Streptofearus immunus.  Good job, phagocyte.  Keep knocking out fear of the immune system and all things pathological, one piece of knowledge at a time.
New year, new you - I'm now old enough to know just how quickly New Year's resolutions fly out the window.  If in doubt, just visit the gym on Jan 2 and then again one month later.  Notice any striking differences?  Hence, why I was a bit hesitant to publicly write the following post outlining a New Year's resolution for myself (Although, maybe by putting words down publicly, I will actually follow through?  Anyone want to hold me accountable?).

I've personally reflected quite a bit lately on life - where I've been, where I am, and where I'd like to go.  It was nearly 10 years ago that I decided I wanted to go to graduate school to research the intricacies of the brain and nervous system.  I really had no idea what I was getting myself into, but a youthful passion and perhaps a little selfish pride packed up the car with a brand new, equally youthful and passionate spouse and a highly caffeinated furry child named Java.  Leaving our Midwest home and all things familiar, we embarked on our Oregon Trail.

A youthful Java shortly after moving to Oregon :)

At the time, I'm not sure where I thought life would be 10 years down the road, but it certainly involved a career in doing neuroscience research.  The reality of today is much different than I had envisioned 10 years ago.

I "blame" the immune system.    You see, the immune system keeps ravaging my family.  I live in constant fear of the food allergy/anaphylaxis bomb that my little guy, JR (now 4), is sitting on.  But it isn't just my son.  My mother struggles with the autoimmune disease, lupus, and it is a nasty uninvited intruder, indeed.  After years of lupus flares, she just had hip replacement surgery to rid her of the pain caused by lupus annihilating the cartilage in that joint.   My mother-in-law struggles with a different autoimmune disease, Sjogren's syndrome.  A cousin deals with Chrohn's disease, an autoimmune disorder affecting the digestive tract.  Yet another cousin has a severe peanut allergy and asthma. There are others, too.  Then, nearly a year ago, less than a month after my other little guy, Luke, was born, a milk protein allergy surfaced... sigh. 

The thing is, I don't know how to fix the problem.  I can't make my son's allergies go away.  I can't make my family's immune systems stop attacking their own cells and tissues, and I honestly feel so helpless.  But, I have a knowledge, and I have a passion.  I was incredibly passionate about my work and my discoveries in neuroscience, yet something else took hold of me that the prideful, selfish me of 10 years ago didn't see coming, a love for my family.  Through a lot of anxiety and fear, I'm pushing forward to understand the immune system because maybe, just maybe, I can have a part in fixing this problem that my family and so many others out there are dealing with. 

Over blueberry pancakes the other morning, JR and I chatted.  His sweet and innocent conversations remind me just how fun it is to have a 4 year old, because I realize just how amazing of a person he is becoming!  However, part of conversation made me realize that every day his sweet innocence is being chipped away at by the hard knocks of life.   I learned just how heart-broken he is by activities that he can not do because of his multiple food allergies (e.g. decorating and eating cupcakes at school).  So I promised him, "JR.  Mommy is reading a lot and trying to learn as much as I can about allergies.  If we can understand how allergies work, then maybe we can make your allergies go away, and you can eat the same cupcakes that your friends are eating."  To which he replied, "Yes.  We will have to go to the Dr. and try eating the cupcakes."  I love this sweet child :).

In order to understand the immune system, I need to suck it up and eat my fear of the immune system.  The funny thing is that I always remind my intro anatomy and physiology students to focus on the big picture and not get lost in the details.  I see so much anxiety and fear with test-taking and learning human anatomy and physiology for the first time.  The funny thing is that I need to heed my own advice.  There are so many cells of the immune system (T-cells, and B-cells, and macrophages, and neutrophils, and mast cells, and eosinophils, and on and on...).  As I dig deeper, I know exactly how my students feel.  Right now, these cells are mere acquaintances to me.  I keep forgetting their names and their jobs.  I keep reading about them, but I truly do not know them or their personality quirks or how they behave when alone or in a crowd.  As time goes on, though, they are becoming more familiar to me as I continue to read more and more.  Perhaps some of them are even becoming my friends (or foes?). Sometimes I wish I could just take a ride on the magic school bus and watch the lymphocytes in action, see what happens when a mast cell encounters a big, bad antigen (peanuts, anyone?), experience anaphylaxis from the inside. Then, maybe I could watch all the players, see all the moving parts, and figure it all out because I've experienced it on their level.  Wishful thinking.  I just need to keep adding to the drama that is unfolding in my head (Groundhog Day?) bit by bit as new little pieces are revealed through the ever so "easy" reading of scientific journals.  Miss Frizzle?  Where are you?  Can you be my teacher?

I started this blog because I wanted to learn more about the immune system, chronicle the journey, but most of all help other individuals and families out there dealing with all things immunologically challenging.  Like the phagocyte (immune cell which "eats" things like bacteria and other debris), I resolve to eat my fear of not knowing enough or not being expert enough to share more scientific blog posts.  It turns out that some of the best ideas can come from very unlikely places.  Never before has my love of science and curiosity to understand the unknown been driven by a crazy passion to do something because I love my family so much.  I can't wait to see where the next 10 years will take me!  May you also phagocytose your fear and accomplish amazing things!  Happy 2013, all.
Scanning electron micrograph of a phagocyte (yellow, right) phagocytosing anthrax bacilli (orange, left).


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