Friday, June 29, 2012

Real People, Real Inspirations...

As I shared with you all in a previous post of mine- I have been sacrificing my afternoon siesta time to help out  a close friends team in a research project (as an unpaid volunteer for friendships sake) involving growing stem cells and turning them into nerve cells- that’s the short description of what their team is trying to do. This has long term ramifications (if it succeeds, which is a big if, considering the rate of current progress) involving growing new organs and limbs spontaneously (by the end-point of the research- say in 2025/2030?) to replace the ones lost without resorting to donor parts which might not be accepted by the recipient's body but are frequently rejected or require lifelong drugs like cyclosporine to suppress the rejection reflex of the body. My friend in the mistaken belief that I somehow know more than him in the field of tissue culture (see the power of self-promotion?) as I have previously grown successfully -Fibroblasts, Osteoblasts etc -although not Stem Cells till now (remember that dialogue from the Tamil movie 16 vayathinalae? Aatha koli valartha, adu valartha, naiye dhan…and substitute stem cells there) - requested my presence and participation in the team as an independent outside consultant (a troubleshooter) - and I agreed to do so in a weak moment of emotional (friendship) blackmail.

And as anyone who has done any research knows by bitter experiences- doing research involves long hours of boredom, loneliness and frequent questioning of our own sanity...why the hell am I sitting here on a Saturday afternoon watching one cell split from another (oh so slowly), when I could be out there watching a newly released movie on a Saturday matinee show like everyone else my age? And when the cells in question are the notoriously fastidious, finicky, slow growers like stem cells who refuse to join the group but remain alone and anti-social you wish they were a little bit bigger so you can kick some sense into them. But a scientific training does not permit you to throw temper tantrums- you are trained to accept facts as they are rather than how you wish them to be- when you cut the tissue bleeds, when you suture, it takes 72 hours for the epithelial cells to actually start healing the wound, and when you are culturing something as fragile as stem cells, you have to wait for it to grow at their own speed and no amount of growth factors injection will speed them up- all you might end up with in that case will be cancerous cells.

And in those long, lonely hours of just sitting around waiting for things to happen, you tend to ask yourself why you are doing this, why going through all this boredom and torture and what really inspires you to sit and watch stem cells which might grow into tissue, which might grow into organs and which might someday be the answer to people. And that’s when for the sake of your own sanity and to motivate yourself you look around for people to inspire you, for people who have beat the odds and survived and achieved things- inspirational people, in short.

As readers of my blog know, I have never been a fan of blockbuster self help books, or inspirational stories about people who swam the oceans singlehanded or climbed Mount Everest without oxygen (why the hell would anyone do that?). And it’s primarily because they fail to connect with me and my experiences. In the Tamil language there is a saying which goes like this – “avan avan vali avannuku dhan theriyum”-  translated loosely as – The intensity of the pain can be adequately judged only by the person suffering and others cannot understand. When you get your finger caught in the door jamb- no amount of inspirational stories about people who bore stoically even greater pain is never going to reduce your pain one bit.

Everyone has their own unique set of problems in life and the fact that someone has survived something similar will connect with the sufferer far better than the statement that “hey, that guy climbed Mount Everest, this guy swum the Pacific, what are you worried about?”..try telling this to a guy who believing that the next semester exams would be in august, walks up to the college notice board one day in June to check out whether the sports day has been announced and finds that the next exam is scheduled for the middle of what kind of inspirational story would you tell that poor guy to motivate him? And as Morpheus says to Neo in that cult classic “The Matrix”- no one can explain to you what the matrix is -you just have to experience it yourself.

So the point I am trying to make with all these bad examples given above is a simple one - one man’s inspirational story need not inspire anyone else. And that’s why I rarely talk about inspirational stories, or share them on face book or tell about people who inspired me. But...and this is a qualified but- there are sometimes people who despite yourself will break through your cynicism with their stories of real inspiration. The person I am going to talk to you about now is one such person who has really inspired me- not by doing anything extraordinary, but by leading an ordinary life despite extraordinary odds stacked against her. 

The person who has inspired me to write this post about and whose story I am now going to share with you all - Malvika Iyer, is someone I know only online through her poetry blog and her twitter timeline. As readers of my earlier posts know, I am extremely skeptical when it comes to people I meet online and their achievements on their profiles -which are rarely as true in real life as they claim it to be. But with Malvika, (excuse my nosiness- but as a pseudo-journalist, I do have to check my facts and sources out before stamping them with my writing) I checked out her story and I found every word true. Don’t believe me? Read the write-ups here- by so many other eminent publications.... 

As the facts in the newspaper article say (for her full story-let’s wait for her autobiography in her own words)... She was a victim of a bomb blast at the age of thirteen years and lost both her hands. Can you imagine yourself at the age of thirteen? As far as I remember, the only worthwhile thing I did when I was thirteen, was introduce the concept of wearing suspenders over the shirt to school- instead of wearing a regular belt as per school rules- trying to be different and as usual being so far ahead of the fashion curve to be misunderstood and laughed at. .anyway to come back to Malvika she not only didn’t give into despair or fall into any depression, as she had every right to be, she pulled her life back to normal and putting her heart and soul into studying passed her school leaving exams with flying colours- so much so that she got a seat in the prestigious St.Stephens college in Delhi. She is now doing her M.Phil in Madras School of Social Work in Chennai- to work with people who are more unfortunate then her- giving back her mite to society.

People who follow the Hindi soaps on Star TV would remember Sudha Chandran- the actress and dancer who lost her two legs to an accident but went on to achieve great things in her chosen career with the help of prosthetic limbs. Malavika's is a similar story coupled with the fact that while Sudha had her accident in her twenties, at an age when you are more mature and can understand how life is unfair, Malvika lost hers when she was thirteen, an age when you are just out of childhood, unsure of yourself and the only thing on your head is studies, exams and people of the opposite sex. When the concepts of something dangerous and life changing happening to you is never even a thought and all you think is about regular stuff like the other kids. So can you imagine a young girl like that with not an inkling of concepts like sickness or illness or injury suddenly losing two limbs and trying to understand how it happened, why it happened and what she was going to do for the rest of her life?

And that’s why I called her an inspiration to even cynical old me...the fact that she did not give up, but picked herself up, to study hard and make a successful career and life. And we should not forget that she did this in India- where there are not much support groups for blast survivors or accident victims unlike the west where you have whole groups of people to help out if want to become a Pistorius (the athlete). In India we pay that victim a paltry compensation and leave him or her to fend for themselves. The support system – for rehabilitation- is so weak that to get a Jaipur foot, you sometimes have to go all the way to Jaipur. And it’s usually the parents who are left to support and motivate the child with no one else to offer help.

So, I hope that you readers are with me when I say that the real inspirational stories are not of those who have achieved extraordinary things in their lives, but ordinary people who have achieved a normal life despite extraordinary events happening to them. I find such people inspiring, do you? 

And that’s the kind of persons I remind myself of in the lab every time another batch of antibody incubation goes wrong and we have to start from scratch or when I feel so bored that I just want to give up and go home to watch some TV- if they didn’t give up, why should I? And I hope that we can crack the mystery of the stem cell-growth factor combos pretty soon and that we can soon grow new limbs in place of the old and make a difference to people like Malvika's, wish our team luck.

(Disclaimer- As always pictures courtesy Google Images)

(P.S. And I guess typing stuff like this to pass the time in the lab also helps a bit- so three cheers to blogging- the lonely mans companion)

(P.P.S....the author of this post will be no way responsible if anyone after reading this decides to set up an home based stem cell lab to cook some of these critters up)

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