Mental Illness, the 2nd Amendment, and the Rest of Us.

When I first saw footage of WDBJ-TV reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward being gunned down on live television in 2015, I was horrified. Later in the day, when I read more about the shooter, a disgruntled former employee named Vester L. Flanagan II, I froze.

In 2000, Flanagan filed charges, later dropped, against another former employer, NBC affiliate WTWC in Tallahassee, claiming a bigoted, hostile work environment. He further claimed that a high-ranking WTWC executive once called him a “monkey.”

Two springs ago, during my first semester teaching at a major area university, a student made a startling, utterly false accusation against me.

He claimed I called him a monkey.

Quickly investigated and dismissed — this young man, an international student from West Africa, accused other instructors of using the exact same slur, and claimed the university and numerous classmates were conspiring against him — the matter would’ve been easy to shrug off but for two things. One, my student was mentally ill. And two, he was allowed to return to class.

After a series of erratic actions around campus — none violent, but several ominous — he was visited at his apartment by a county Crisis Intervention Team. They found sufficient reason to petition for emergency committal and had the student hospitalized in a psychiatric facility for three days. Seventy-two hours later, he was discharged.

Immediately afterward, he was required to meet with the university’s own mental-healthcare team so that it, too, could assess him. Until that meeting took place, he was officially banned from campus.

Here’s where I say that the university acted properly and did what it could to keep everyone safe without violating anyone’s rights. Of course, that’s the rub: Once it completed its assessment and determined that the student was a) delusional, but b) not a threat, the school was compelled to allow his return.

Knowing my anxiousness over the situation — this was my first time teaching, after all, and this student had made accusations not only against me, but also another student in my class — the university offered to post security outside my door in the days following his return to campus.

Again, though, he was allowed to be there. That meant security couldn’t prevent him from entering; they could merely (possibly) intervene if something happened once he was inside. To my mind, it was an absurd scenario.

“Maybe I should come with you today,” said my husband on the morning this student was set to return. “I could just sit in the back and make sure everything is okay.”

I was grateful, but not enthusiastic.

“You can’t,” I said, thinking of our four children. “Our kids need at least one parent.”

I wasn’t trying to be melodramatic, just rational. We’ve all seen the headlines and watched interviews with eyewitnesses. “It all happened so fast. He just pulled out a gun and started shooting.” It’s become such a common story that it’s no longer a story at all.

We can do better than this.

Wherever you stand on the gun-control issue, everyone seems to agree that “something” needs to be done about the mentally ill, whether it’s Vester Flanagan in Roanoke (it’s obvious he “was disturbed in some way,” said Franklin County Sheriff Bill Overton), James T. Hodgkinson taking aim at Congressman Steve Scalise and others, or my student, a tormented young man who’d written to me in an earlier email that “I am currently undergoing some ‘psychological trauma’ preventing me from operating effectively. As much as I tried, I have not been able to stabilize my mind for the past few days.”

Where are our policies for the people who fall somewhere between “unstable” and “poses no threat”? What do we do when a person is hearing voices, but those voices are declared benign? And when do we infringe on an individual’s right to return to a workplace or classroom in the name of others’ right not to be put in danger?

I don’t have the answers, only questions. Although I grew afraid of my troubled student — who abruptly returned to class one day, stood in the middle of the room looking at me with a briefcase in hand, and then left, never to return — I felt compassion for him, too. He was living with demons I cannot fathom.

Yet, had the worst happened, others would simply shake their heads at the senselessness of his actions and wonder why “something” couldn’t have been done.

Share Button

You Can’t Take It with You

file0001324983978Struggling to find that truly special, one-of-a-kind holiday gift? Here’s an idea: Instead of looking at the mall, look in the mirror.

It’s you.

Or, actually, your body—once you’re done with it.

Granted, it’s not all that spectacular. (Fell off the ol’ 100-squats-a-day wagon again, eh?) But to med students learning anatomy, EMTs needing to practice lifesaving procedures, or creepy researchers eager to do god-knows-what with various parts and accessories, your body is perfect.

(I’m kidding about researchers being creepy. I’m sure they’re perfectly lovely, normal people who happen to enjoy hanging out alone in labs and pickling dead things. It’s really no different than your awful scrapbooking habit, if you think about it.)

Here in Maryland, we have the country’s only state-sponsored body-donor program (yet crabs get all the press on our bumper stickers). Once registered, future deceased Free-Staters are promised that their bodies will be collected (and organs donated), used for appropriate research, cremated, and then returned to loved ones. All at no cost.

Beat that, Walmart.

Squeamish about the spiritual implications of becoming a glorified science project? Think of it this way: If there’s a higher power and an afterlife, you won’t need your body when you’re dead. And if there’s no higher power or afterlife, you won’t need your body when you’re dead.

So consider donating your body to science—and don’t keep your wishes a secret. Tell your family about your plans (just not on Christmas morning; you know how they are), and take comfort in the fact that yours will be the gift that keeps on giving.

After all, ‘tis the season.


Whaddyathink? Would you consider donating your body to science? Let me know!


Share Button

5 Reasons Why I Public-School My Kids


People often ask why I’ve taken the unusual step of public-schooling my children. Aren’t I worried they’ll become too socialized? Should I risk leaving their calculus instruction to professionals? Are reading groups really better with more than one student?

Well, I’ll tell you. After no hours of wrestling with the issue, I decided to public-school my four kids because:

1)      I Don’t Miss Them. I adore my children. We go way back. Does that mean we should spend Every Waking Moment together? Only if I can start drinking before noon.

2)      They Deserve to Learn in a Small, Nurturing Environment. We all deserve things. Get in line.

3)      They’re Basically Being Warehoused Eight Hours a Day. You say that like it’s a bad thing.

4)      I Don’t Love Watching Them Learn. I love watching them sleep.

5)      It Stifles Their Passion. Children should be allowed to blissfully follow their desires. In theory. In practice, were my semi-feral kids to embrace all their passions, they’d end up in prison.

So there you have it—five reasons why I public-school my kids. Do I ever secretly wish we could spend long afternoons together exploring how a caterpillar spins a chrysalis or why salt makes water boil faster?

I don’t even understand the question.

Share Button

It’s Parties Time?


“We’ll have my party at that bouncy place from last year,” announces my kindergartner, Elie, “and then we’ll have my other party at Chuck E. Cheese.”

Other party?

Now that she’s approaching the age of maturity—6—it’s time to come clean with her.

Mommy can only stomach the idea of back-to-back parties when the words “pub” and “crawl” appear together on the invitation.

Might the bouncy house be located in a pub?

It mightn’t.

Besides, there’s the money issue.

Mentally calculating the cost of inviting every kid in her class (the school’s well-intentioned but financially ruinous policy) to her birthday, I’m not even sure we can swing one fete.

I consider hosting a soiree at our house, but we did that more than a decade ago when our oldest daughter turned 5, and I still have a limp.

“Why don’t we just go with Chuck E. Cheese since we’ve already done the bouncy house?” I ask, suddenly remembering that the pizza-slinging hellhole at least serves beer.

“It’ll be fun!”

It won’t be fun.

For me.

But it’s not about me. It’s about her.

She’s the last of four, so my husband and I tend to indulge her; the end of the parenting-a-little-kid tunnel is in sight.

Plus, there’s the whole heart thing.

Born with a deadly cardiac defect and having endured way too many surgeries and procedures, Elie need only finger the scars on her chest before I’m online pricing ponies.

Luckily, she’s still too young to play the “I almost died” card.

That day will come—and will surely involve a puppy of some sort—but it hasn’t arrived yet.

For a while longer, at least, I can put my foot down.

“Sorry, Sweetie,” I say, “but it has to be one or the other. We can’t do both.”

And then I catch a glimpse of the faded suture marks near her throat.

Damn it.

Maybe two parties wouldn’t be that expensive…















Share Button

“Walk on Water” by Michael Ruhlman


Some books pull you in from the opening pages, grabbing your attention before you even know you’re hooked. Others build your interest over time, weaving fact and narrative into an engrossing tapestry that subtly wraps you in their grasp.

A few do both.

Walk on Water: The Miracle of Saving Children’s Lives, by Michael Ruhlman, is one of those books.

A riveting history of pediatric cardiovascular surgery told mostly through the groundbreaking work of New Zealander Roger Mee at the Cleveland Clinic in the 1990s, Walk on Water manages to be compelling and detailed without becoming maudlin or too “inside baseball.”

For the lay reader, the book is a 332-page snapshot of an intimidating, sometimes inscrutable world that’s as overwhelming as it is awesome, as terrifying as it is promising.

But for the parents of “heart babies”—whose memories of invasive procedures, relentlessly beeping monitors, sleepless nights in the ICU, and knee-weakening odds are wide, deep, and ever present—it’s testimony.

That’s how the book felt to me, at least.

After the birth of our fourth child, Elie, in November 2007, my husband and I received a crash course in pediatric CV surgery and all the innovations and unknowns that go with it.

Fortunate to live near Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC, and its rock-star cardiac surgeon, the Aussie Richard Jonas (who gets several mentions in the book), we were lucky that Elie benefited from the most up-to-date—and highly successful—treatments available to kids born with complex heart defects.

It wasn’t until reading Walk on Water, though, that I realized just how much luck had to do with it and that, if our youngest daughter’s truncus arteriosus and pulmonary hypertension had been present, instead, in our oldest daughter (born in 1991), the outcome could’ve been very different.

That’s because, as the book chronicles, the field of pediatric CV surgery was, up until relatively recently, quite short on triumphs. Long-term successes were rare.

But thanks to pioneers like Mee, Jonas, Ed Bove, and Frank Hanley, not to mention the countless unnamed nurses, physician’s assistants, nurse practitioners, respiratory therapists, and others working behind the scenes to heal children’s broken hearts, such successes are no longer the exception. They’re the rule.

Although I highly recommend Walk on Water to “heart parents” who’ve already been in the trenches, I especially encourage those parents’ families and friends to read this incredible book. As gut-wrenching and downright sad as it can be, it’s equally as hopeful and life-affirming

Kind of like the world of pediatric CV surgery itself.

Share Button