Sunday, July 19, 2009

Only Connect

A flash of lightning instantly brightens my room, suddenly awakening me. I remember a trick learned during childhood and count, waiting for the deafening presence of thunder -- ten seconds pass, then eight; the storm is getting closer. It's 1:30 am and I get up to closer my window, through which rain -- an amount I've never before experienced, being from the desert of Southern California -- is streaming into my small room. The next day, everyone at work was speaking of the storm. "Well, it was so hot yesterday -- thunderstorms were only to be expected!" This is so counterintuitive to my Californian mentality; it never rains in the summer, and most especially not following a hot spell. Being a tiny bit English at heart, I enjoyed the rainy weather and the opportunity to stop feeling pressured to be a tourist. It was instead the appropriate time to relax and curl up with a cup of tea, a novel, and good company.
The weather, although predictably unpredictable judging from the weather reports (it will be sunny and rainy everyday this week!), has been very nice during my time here. It’s already been almost five weeks (I am afraid my blog is a little bit late) but I feel I’ve taken advantage of the warm, clear skies. Two weekends ago I found myself courageously hiking to the top of the Saleve, the mountain genevois that is actually in France. The difficulty of the ascent was offset somewhat by a quaint town halfway up where I was able to stop and rest before continuing on the journey. Here I met two friendly German boys who were spending the summer, much like myself, working in Switzerland. They were nice enough to let my friend and I use the pass they had bought for the telepherique, a cable car that carries passengers to the top of the Saleve and back, so that we wouldn’t have to hike down the mountain.

Before reaching the top I met another friendly couple who invited us to have drinks with them at the restaurant on the top of the mountain. He was a graduate of UC Berkley, incredibly outgoing, and had moved to Geneva 25 years ago to be with his wife, who was Swiss German and a marathoner. Full of advice and charm, they gave us a tour of Geneva and France from the peak. The view was absolutely astounding and I’m sure the hike made it all the better for the effort. They pointed out the Mont Blanc and the Swiss borders, told about the prevalence of Marmots (which appeared in stuffed form at the gift shop), and gave us lessons on Swiss culture. Apparently it is difficult to meet people in Switzerland, especially Geneva, as people are wont to acknowledge only people to whom they have been formally introduced. “It’s not like it is in America. They think a friend of a friend is fine – they know he is a good person – but with others…they’re not so sure.” Now, in light of this conception, I feel blessed to have met so many incredibly friendly and generous people in the city.

During a trip last weekend to the Musées d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva, I was fortunate enough to meet David, a former student of art history, and had a day which could have come straight from the movie, Before Sunrise – minus the romance, of course. He was enjoying the exhibit at the museum as well, taking in the beautiful sculptures and paintings (some done by painters from Geneva of Lake Leman and Mont Blanc, others painted by various famous artists) and was surprised to run into someone else at the museum (it was very quiet for a Saturday and apparently is always so). He treated me to coffee on the terrace and, being a native Swiss French familiar with the city, took me on a long tour, showing me everything -- places to see live music, good restaurants to try, open-air cinemas, the lake by boat, and even somewhere where I could try basil-flavored ice cream. It was nice to find someone who didn’t fall into the steotype that the couple at the Saleve described as I had a completely wonderful day discussing art, literature, and the differences between cultures with someone I would never have met otherwise!

Other than these excursions and more days spent lakeside, I have been throwing myself wholeheartedly into my work at the lab. My project involves analyzing MRIs (or IRMs, as they say in French) taken at a term gestational age from preterm neonates; the ultimate goal is to be able to accurately prognosticate based on values acquired from the MRI. I’ve quickly realized that 99% of the battle in clinical research is getting the data from your patient population in one place and ready for analysis. When I started and saw that we had over 100 patients and immediately thought that this was great – everyone was always complaining about the number of subjects included in a given study, and here we were with loads of data on our hands. Only days later, patients started slipping through my fingers as I found that there were at least five different protocols used when taking the MRIs meaning that data was inconsistent across patients (a common problem when data is acquired over a period of years and better scans become available), ten patients were missing crucial scans, and 23 needed the data reconstructed (a process that we weren’t entirely sure was going to be possible but, thankfully, were able to figure out on Friday!).

Aside from these minor mishaps (which are a part of all research), I am so grateful to have stumbled upon such a wonderful lab. My P.I., Dr. Huppi, is such a role model as a clinician scientist and has been incredibly generous in giving me advice about my future career options. The other neonatologist that I’ve been working with closely, Dr. Lodygensky, was generous enough to lend me his beautiful office with a gorgeous view from the 4th floor of the entire city (he explained that he was abandoning it as the hospital puts ridiculous constraints on the internet – a statement which turned out to be true as it took me a few weeks to figure out how to gain access to e-mail). As a huge Mac fan/user, I was delighted to learn that all the computers used in the hospital and for research are Macs…and that program help is but a call away to someone who has now become jokingly referred to as my “best friend.” Dr. Lodygensky was also kind enough to steal a pair of scrubs for me and give me a personal tour in English of the NICU/PICU; he even took me see an examination of a very preterm (26 weeks gestational age) preterm neonate that had just been delivered by cesarean section. “As neonatologists, we run to wait,” he explained, after we had sprinted from a meeting with two Dutch physicians only to find ourselves sitting on the terrace, drinking espresso and waiting for the baby to be delivered. The whole lab threw a party in celebration of the 4th of July, taking me to a beautiful restaurant on the lake in France where I tried traditional Perche caught from the lake and leaving me incredibly touched and a bit surprised to be celebrating this definitively American holiday in Switzerland.

Already, I feel myself being pulled in the direction of neonatology and neurology and am very much looking forward to starting rotations in the hospital. Perhaps I may even be able to come back to Geneva someday for a subinternship (although, it might be best to learn French before then)! Until then, I’m hoping to make some progress on this project in the final stretches of my time here (sadly, only three more weeks left) and enjoy the opportunity to connect with the new friends I’ve made.

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