Category Archives: Decision Making

Guest Blog: The Importance of Voting

By Xander Dale (13)

Every year, many students like you turn 18 and cast their vote, fulfilling the most basic act in our American society.  After casting your vote, your ballot will then be sent through a long and thorough process, but here is the real question – does your vote really count?

Only 45% of Americans vote, in the final tally.  What can we do to fix that?

I think a big reason the voting turnout isn’t as great as it could be is because many citizens feel that their vote is just a grain of sand on a gigantic beach, and their vote will not sway the election at all.  However, those grains of said will add up in the end.  For example, in the recent election, each candidate had a very similar number of votes, and if we had just had another couple of hundred people vote, the election could have ended differently.  A few times, a single vote or a few votes could have changed America – for example, Texas might not have become a state if one U.S. Senator had voted differently.  If only a few people had voted differently in 1960, Richard Nixon would have become president rather than John F. Kennedy.

Another likely reason American citizens decide not to vote is because registering to vote is relatively difficult here compared to other countries.  For example, a few other countries have their citizens automatically registered to vote, and I think that would be much more effective, even though it would be more work for the government.

To try to effectively increase the American voting turnout, I think there are few changes that could/should be made.  I think that some sort of “Universal Voting registration” would change the number of people voting by a large amount – a sort of “out-out” rather than an “out-in” system.  I think that the problem of voters feeling that their vote won’t matter can’t change with only 1 action, but changing other things can help.  For example, maybe the electoral colleges should be filled more proportionately, instead of all the Electoral College votes going toward the winning candidate, we could create a ratio of Electoral College votes to popular votes, in order to make the popular votes more appealing.

In conclusion, our voting process is flawed in a few ways, and there are a few ways to fix our voting issues.  These include making voting “opt-out” rather than “opt-in” system or changing the proportionality of the Electoral College.

 

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Filed under Decision Making, Politics

A Doctor’s “Creed” – A Medical Review  

Creed

“I’ll fight, if you fight.”  Adonis Creed, to Rocky Balboa.

“First, do no harm.”  Hippocrates.

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History of the Present Movie

The newest addition to the “Rocky” franchise, Creed, has gathered critical commendation as the best entry in years.  Like many of my generation, I was a convert to the original Rocky (1977), rooting for the workingman’s underdog from Philly against the Hollywood champ, Apollo Creed.  I delighted in the moral victory earned for completing the fight, despite the official loss on the judge’s score cards.  I absorbed all the iconic scenes: running up the courthouse stairs, chasing a chicken around the yard, and punching the slabs of beef.    Like many, I followed Rocky Balboa’s transformation over the years, holding my nose at his transformation into a cultural icon and buffoon-like superhero.  Even as future medical student, the horrific violence that was at the center of the storyline never troubled me.

It was with some trepidation, then, that I let my 12-year old son talk me into seeing this newest entry.  It was his preference over that other movie-saga of my youth, Star Wars.  But I had heard good reviews, including from a social worker colleague and an overheard locker-room comment that Stallone was a candidate for an Oscar for his role, a nomination which would be his first since Rocky.  The nuanced updating of Rocky as a mentor to Apollo’s kid promised a breath of fresh air into the storyline.  “Fine,” I thought, I’ll give it a try.”

 Review of Symptoms (No Spoilers)

The critics are right – it is the best Rocky movie since the original.  It is an inspiring story on two related fronts: the importance of pursuing your own vision while owning one’s past.  These themes play out in both main characters, Adonis and Rocky.  Over the course of the movie, each avoids owning their past, leading to difficulties in dealing with the present.  Conflicts arise, especially between the two, as the past threatens the future. As the climactic fight sequence arrives, both slowly own their past, and that emotional catharsis clears the field for moving into the future.  While predictable, the understated dialogue and tough-love demeanor make it work.  And then the overstated punches get thrown.

The director faces a similar challenge, trying to advance the new themes, while echoing the past,without descending into a cheesy reproduction.   The allusions to the private Rocky vs Apollo “third fight” that freeze-frames to end the second film is a nice touch – didn’t you really want to know who won the deciding match?   An appearance of the actual Rocky Balboa statue, with photographing tourists, is a perfect touch.  The re-ascent of the Courthouse stairs is imagined with a deft nostalgic touch.   Overall, the call-backs work, fitting smoothly into the narrative flow.rocky1

One bit of nostalgia doesn’t quite fit: I’m not sure Stallone’s performance is Oscar-worthy.  His genuine skill as an actor shakes off decades of shlock, a surprising butterfly, perhaps with crippled wings, emerging from its shell.  His understated charm works as an older man passing on the torch of fame.  One roots for the character and the actor to pull it off, and it really happens.  The buzz for awards is a consequence from the low expectations he’s set over the years.  But ultimately, this is Stallone as Rocky, a near-enough match to credit too much to acting brilliance.  It’s a ultimately a bit sad to see Stallone, the genuine actor, whose been lost over the years to the action-hero automaton.

 Medical Decision Making (Spoiler Alert)

My biggest problem with the movie was from a medical perspective.  A number of issues distracted me from the storyline, and they stemmed from the lousy doctoring, bad medicine, and questionable morality.

  1. First, Do No Harm — Cancer is featured as a significant part of the storyline. After a sparring session in which Rocky ends by vomiting and passing out, he is hospitalized. Following a hospitalization, he returns to the doctor’s office to find out he has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer of lymph nodes.  He is told by the doctor that he needs surgery and chemotherapy.  He refuses to consider treatment, saying that he saw his wife Adrian go through that, and “it didn’t go so well.”  He asks the flabbergasted doctor to keep this private.  She apparently agrees to do so, but gives him some pamphlets to read.  He sticks them in his pocket and heads out.  Most of the scene plays out with both parties standing up, rather than sitting for a heart-to-heart conversation.
  • So many things bothered me about this scene: the doctor’s paternalistic approach to the care, the blunt delivering of a life-threatening diagnosis, and the heavy-handed insistence on treatment without further discussion.  What about shared decision making?  What about asking about the patient’s experience?   When the patient says he had a prior “bad experience” with his wife, aren’t you going to explore this?  I was applauding internally when Rocky walked out the door, until I realized HE was supposed to the one acting inappropriately.
  • Ok, I admit that it’s a movie, that nobody wants to observe a 15 minute shared-decision-making conversation, and the plot needs to move along.  I also understand that doctor’s sometimes, perhaps often, act in this heavy-handed way, as Amy Berman has so eloquently taught us.  But I was appalled to see this portrayed so clumsily in a movie for mass consumption.  It feeds into the perception that cancer is a death-sentence, that heavy-doses of chemotherapy is the only way to cure the disease, and anyone thinking otherwise is misguided as best and foolish at worst.  This is a dangerous perception, with each element of the above containing falsehoods.
  1. The “War against Cancer” – A primary storyline for the movie is that Rocky’s legendary hardheadedness is at fault for his decision-making about cancer – that he is “giving up” by refusing to undergo chemotherapy. Adonis threatens not to fight in the championship bout unless Rocky “fights” against his cancer – i.e. he chooses to get accept chemo. Stemming back to the “War on Cancer”, we have continued to propagate the imagery of “fighting” or “battling” against an enemy, with the image of “giving up” or “quitting” on the other side of the ledger.  Given an opportunity to use Rocky’s cancer diagnosis as a metaphor for wisdom, understanding, and communication, the film falls into the same cultural trap of a war.
  1. Head trauma – Who can forget Rocky, in the midst of being pummeled by Apollo, his eyes swollen shut, telling his trainer to “cut me, Micky” – to cut his eyelids so he can see? The dramatic scene is a consequence of all the head trauma from the fight. One of the themes of Creed is that Apollo DIED from being punched in the head, which is why Adonis’s step-mother won’t let him fight.  One of the least believable parts of the movie, frankly, is that Rocky has lived long enough to get cancer, rather than suffering from Traumatic Brain Injury from repeated concussions.
  • The film doesn’t shy away from illustrating the damage occurring.  In the final dramatic scene, Adonis is knocked cold, blood flying, (with significant screaming from a woman in our theater) – only to literally spring up from the mat to finish the fight.  With his formerly anti-violence step-mother at home cheering him on, he finishes the fight, eyes swollen shut and massive bruising on his face (and presumably to his brain).  It was difficult to walk out of the theater, directly past the marquee for the movie Concussion, and not reflect on the glorification of head trauma we had just witnessed.

Thankfully, after the movie, I asked my son what he thought about boxing, and he said, “I’ll stick with gymnastics.”

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Filed under Decision Making, End of Life Care, Geriatric Oncology

Everest: A Movie Micro-Review

284px-Mount_Everest_as_seen_from_Drukair2_PLW_edit

To my wife’s chagrin, I love the book Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, the first-person account of the 1996 disaster on Mt. Everest. It’s gripping, terrifying, and heartbreaking, highlighting the difficulty of decision-making in lifeboats — even when those lifeboats of one’s own creation.

The movie is a faithful rendering of the tragedy, plucking away madly at the heartstrings as people freeze to death while talking to loved ones on the phone. It succeeds in telling the two most compelling stories, about Rob Hall and Beck Wethers. It modestly fails in showing the reasons for the tragedy — primarily people’s desire’s to achieve a goal overcoming their rational capacity to recognize when that goal is no longer achievable.

It is a near-great movie, better for those who have read the excellent book than for those seeing it without that benefit. Recommend for those who have read the book, wait for home rental or streaming on a nice screen for those who have not.

Side note: My 12-year old found it “boring”, except for the parts where people fell off the mountainside, which were not “dramatic enough” for him.

Side-side note: Krakauer, the author of Into Thin Air, didn’t like the movie, in which he’s a character. He has a small role in the movie, and some of the worse criticisms are reserved by the director his character.

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Filed under Decision Making, psychology, Risk

Robin Williams, Jimmy Wales, and Holes in the Universe

Many years ago, during my first stint living in the Windy City, Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia fame lived with us.  During that time, he told us a funny story.  He was in a park in a major city, I believe it was Central Park, but I can’t be certain.  He saw an aggressive mime bothering someone in the way mimes do, although this one seemed even more active and annoying than usual.  Suddenly, the man serving as the “audience” for the mime just slugged the mime, knocking him down.  I laughed – haven’t we all wanted to do this at some point in our lives?

This would have just been a cute story, except that Jimmy related seeing Williams on a talk show many years later – TELLING THE SAME STORY!  Only in that version, Williams was the mime being slugged.  I was laughing hysterically now, imaging my favorite comedian, being punched by some stranger who never knew his brush with fame.

All these many years later, I’m as stunned as everyone else at Mr. Williams’ death from suicide. Even as a physician who cares for many patients with depression, knowing the dangers it brings, I feel as sucker-punched as Williams-as-mime must have.

I vividly remember the first time I saw Williams on TV – in his role as Mork from Ork on my favorite childhood show, Happy Days.  His appearance on that family sit-com, in justice, should have been the “jump-the-shark” moment for the original “jump-the-shark” moment.  We would be calling such derailments of successful shows that have over-run their course the “alien-from-Ork” moments, I believe – except that Williams was just so damn funny.

I heard that, during the try-outs for the part of Mork, each applicant was asked to sit like an alien.  Williams spontaneously chose his now-famous head-down/ass-up posture, which nearly won him the role by itself.

There is nobody I can think of who filled my life with laughter as much as Robin Williams.  I watched Mork and Mindy religiously.  Even as a kid, I would stay up late, after begging my parents, to see him on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.  I watched every one of the charity specials that he co-hosted with Billy Crystal and Whoopie Goldberg.  I have seen virtually all of his movies, especially the comedies. I love to laugh, and nobody made me laugh more than he did.  The manic craziness, combined with the abstract flight-of-ideas, and the obvious delight in response of an audience – any audience – was infectious beyond belief.  There is just nothing like it.

I have read that one of the “reasons”, if such can be adduced after someone suffering from depression kills themselves, that he committed suicide was a recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease. Since I treat many people with this disease, I wanted to comment that I hope that’s not true.  Many people with PD have a wonderful quality-of-life with the diagnosis, receiving treatments for it.  But I can’t help but wonder if, after playing the role of neurologist Oliver Sacks in the movie Awakenings, Robin was reminded of the unfortunate outcomes from that initial episode of using carbidopa/levodopa to treat a variant of PD.  But it is haunting to watch that film and not wonder a bit.

Now that Mr. Williams has written the final chapter of his life, he has left a hole in the universe, it seems.  His life, as much as anyone’s, was a singularity – and like the outer space version of such, it has left a black hole behind.  I wonder at this feeling of loss, this presence-of-an-absence, that some people leave behind.  It’s the converse of the bright flare of joy such people bring to our lives, and I’m going to try and le that shine on in my memory, as much as possible.  He really was the funniest person I’ve ever seen, and I see in my mind’s eye, him being punched for being TOO good a mime, with an astonished Jimmy Wales looking on, heading out to change the world in another way.  And you can read all about one due to the vision of the other.

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Filed under Comedy, Decision Making, End of Life Care, Philosophy

Trust and Behavior – Personal, Professional, and Political

Personal

My wife and I are placing significant trust in two young people we’ve never met before tonight.  We’re going to dinner together and leaving our boys — ages 11, 8, and 8 — with two strangers we’ve only met on the phone.  We’re even doing so in a place we’ve never been before.  Hopefully, we won’t be arrested for parental negligence, like a Florida mom was for allowing her 7 year old to walk to the park.

In addition to the trust we’re placing in these two young women strangers, we’re placing a significant amount of trust in our young boys, especially our eldest son.  He’s a smart 11 year old kid, with reasonable judgment, generally cautious, but with bouts of immaturity. We’ve gone through contingencies, he has a phone to contact us, and he wants to be more “grown up”.  He’s done well given appropriate leeway in the past.  Unfortunately, as Nicholas Nassim Taleb and others point out, successful past performance isn’t always a reliable guide to future success – a problem when large consequences are at stake. Our 8 year-old twins are rambunctious boys, one is very risk-averse and the other is risk-seeking; both are argumentative.  All of this was relayed to the babysitters.  They seemed perplexed that we were telling them all of this – apparently recognizing the extreme risk-aversion in the parents as more important than that of the kids.

The paradox of trust is that it involves a judgment of people in the face of insufficient evidence and lots of uncertainty.  Human beings make choices, and past action in similar circumstances is no guarantee of similar future action.  Even more difficult is predicting how people will behave in brand new circumstances. Trust when applied to human beings requires a judgement about character – that their virtues/values will guide their actions in a consistent, life-affirming way.  But there is no guarantee.  And mistakes are brutal in their consequences.  And yet, the greatest rewards flow to those who take the biggest risks.  As someone who studies decision making in a medical context, I’m hyper-aware of all of these issues.

Professional

I spend much of my professional life as a physician counseling people on risk.  As a physician caring for older patients with cancer, I’m constantly trying to provide my best advice for patient to balance the risks of having cancer with the risks of being treated for cancer.  One of my personal practice patterns is not only to tell patients and families what I think they should do, but to explain at some length WHY I suggest this.  Most appreciate knowing this additional information, although some find it overwhelming and confusing.

Over time, many of my patients have come to trust my judgment, even to the point of insisting that other doctors contact me before they allow a procedure or a treatment to take place.  I believe this trust comes from three sources: my willingness to explain the uncertain trade-offs they face, my constant reassurance that their quality of life is my highest goal, and my willingness to support whatever decision they ultimately make.  Also, my track-record is pretty good, in telling people what to expect, which tends to inspire trust.  The investment of extra time in clinic is worth the improved outcomes down the road.

Political  

I often marvel at the willingness of politicians to make definitive statements about uncertain events involving many people.  Having to act on issues that affect millions, or even billions, of people in the face of such uncertainty would be virtually impossible for most people, and certainly for me.  Yet we ask our presidents to do this on a nearly daily basis.  Today, I read in the news that we’ve decided to use military force, in the face of rising violence by terrorists, in the form of bombs, in Iraq.  Having supported our on-going troop withdrawl from that country, I’m unsure this is a good idea or not.  Hopefully, it will help the beleaguered people in the north of the country being brutally killed by the terrorists.  On the other hand, it might lead to escalation of violence in the country, increasing the overall violence in the area, to little effect.  Even worse, it appears to be a concession that our current policies in Iraq specifically, and the Middle East general, are failing.  I’m not sure whether this is a good thing to do, and I do not trust our government to choose wisely.  In the face of all this uncertainty, I truly don’t understand how to feel any trust.  As Ronald Reagan reminded us, when it comes to the politics of foreign policy, “Trust, but verify.”

Follow-up

Throughout the night, several people asked us, “What did you do with the kids? You didn’t leave them alone, did you?”  We received several text messages from the kids, including pictures of them having fun at the amusement park.  We had a fun, relaxing time, even seeing a celebrity from a favorite TV show, proving that Black Swan events aren’t always negative events.  We returned home from our event to find that the kids had a great time — and to our surprise, so did the sitters!   The kids spent many hours playing on the beach and riding rides, playing games, and eating ice cream.  The sitters had many delighted stories to tell. A win all around – we were right to trust the young ladies.  Professionally, my clinic continues to grow, enough that I need more time and space to see everyone we need to see.  Referrals continue to pour in.   Politically, unfortunately, I see no end to the problems, which continue to grow as we  drop some more bombs on Iraq.

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Filed under Decision Making, Philosophy, Risk, Trust