Reflections on TEDMED 2017 “Limitless”

I’m sitting in the San Diego airport awaiting my journey to get home to my son in Texas. It’s tough to describe the experience of TEDMED, especially after my first one. There is literally just too much to digest. However, I have downloaded all the season 2 of “Stranger Things” to watch in airport and planes and I’m not letting myself watch it until I have written down a few take-homes. So I’m seriously motivated to do this.

Initially I was torn by the theme of “Limitless”. Why? Probably because I am a Geriatrician and a Hospice Physician. Much of my doctoring career is spent witnessing the natural limits of our human bodies. Moreover, I spend a heck of a lot of time helping families and loved ones understand that indeed our physical selves have limits and there are not a “limitless” number of options for treatment to extend both quality and quantity of physical life. Segway: If you haven’t read it yet, please do read Dr. Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal”. So of course going into TEDMED I was a tad skeptical, perhaps cynical.  Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised. Oh and the beauty and nature of Palm Springs CA certainly didn’t hurt.

Not only did I meet amazing people, of many walks of the healthcare spectrum, the variety of the TEDMED talks did have an accurate theme of Limitless. But it wasn’t about the limitless of the human body. Of course, a number of brilliant scientists did speak about the almost miraculous problems they are solving with gene therapy, engineering, immune modulation, novel research with potentially massive impacts to lessen some of the limits of the human body. But more impressive to me than their science was the limitless nature of their persistence and drive to move onward and upward, even in the face of political, financial and cultural hurdles.

What inspired me the most were the non-scientists who spoke. From first responders like Dr. Soka Moses in the Ebola outbreak in Liberia and Dr Farida a female ObGyne who stayed in Aleppo under siege to artists such as Zoe Keating (cellist and patient advocate) and Sophie Andrews who developed the Silver Line in the UK, I heard the undercurrent of the limitlessness of the human spirit. I realized the appropriateness of the title “Limitless” when I heard the stories of those with truly limitless courage, limitless love, limitless hope, limitless patience, limitless perseverance under the most harrowing odds. Many of the non-scientists were artists, or just humanitarians who had overcome major personal tragedies and assaults on their own dignity and rather than just surviving, found ways to turn their pain and suffering (or really rotten lemons) into the sweetest lemonade that they in turn shared with everyone they encountered to foster thriving. Interestingly, those who were the greatest success stories often relied on the limitless of another human’s faith in them to overcome.

This is getting a tad disjointed because to my relief my husband just FaceTimed me from a London airport on his way to Nigeria. But it just might relate. If anyone reads my blog consistently (which somewhat to my pleasant surprise but also horror I discovered I have at least one subscriber who was at TEDMED) they know our lives have been anything but perfect. We have had a trying summer of personal loss of family and marriage difficulties. Thankfully, and I suspect largely due to what we now know is a limitless amount of love, care and support we have from friends near and far, we are working on things and supporting each other. We are learning to love again.

Here’s where my personal experience of limitless and the TEDMED experience of limitless coincide. The pattern I saw emerge was that alone it is very difficult for the human spirit to tap in to its limitless potential. We are not meant to walk in this life alone. However, when we put aside our insecurities, our preconceived notions of one another, and our fears and allow ourselves to find community with our fellow humans, we realize the true potential of the limitlessness of the human spirit. When we don’t feel alone, we are able to give of ourselves in extraordinary ways. In my marriage, for a long time my husband and I both felt alone and isolated. Our community who believed in us as individuals but also as a couple brought us up. For many of the TEDMED speakers, when one would think they should have never overcome their physical and emotional odds, if there was just one other human who cared enough to show they had faith in them, they were able to tap into their limitless courage, or hope, or caring, or empathy, or creative abilities and rise like a phoenix of human spirit despite adversity.

Despite my initial skepticism, I am walking away from TEDMED Limitless with renewed hope. I will always be a tad cynical, but more importantly I know my spirit has a limitless potential to love, care, help and change my world, even if it’s just my small world of a few patients and my nuclear family. I’m listening to my playlist as I write this in a crowded space. It’s very diverse between pop, hip hop, alternative, cello, country, you name it. But the song that just came on as I am wrapping this up seems like it’s meant to be. It’s Pink’s new Beautiful Trauma Album. She ballads, “I fight because I have to, I fight for us to know the truth. There’s not enough rope to tie me down, there’s not enough tape to shut this mouth. The stones you throw can make me bleed, but I won’t stop until we’re free. Wild hearts can’t be broken.” I rediscovered in TEDMED 2017 that the human spirit is indeed limitless. And a limitless spirit can not be broken. I am so grateful for my experience and those who shared theirs with me.

Now on to binge watching “Stranger Things”.


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