Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Natural Childbirth Practices & A review of The Business of Being Born

The Business of Being Born. This documentary explains why Natural childbirth practices should be preferred.

Less than a month ago, my sister gave birth to her first child. It's a boy. He is the first child in our family of the next generation, a child after 18 years. It's a moment of happiness. The delivery took place at B.P. Koirala Institute of Health Sciences in Nepal, arguably one of the best hospitals in the country. All of us wanted her to have a normal delivery, if possible. We were all very hopeful since she went to the best hospital in the country. But the doctors performed a Cesarean section, popularly known as C-section. Because contractions did not start, the doctors injected her with a chemical to trigger contractions. Despite this, there were no contractions. 

Then the doctor told her that since contractions did not begin within six hours, she had no choice but to have a surgery to get the baby out safely. As experts, the doctor told my sister and her husband that if they were to wait any longer, the chemical might enter the child's body and inflict serious damage. When I heard all of this, it really infuriated me. It also made me very sad that doctors did not give complete information before injecting the contraction inducing drug. Whatever the motivations/incentives the medical professionals might have had, it was unethical and inappropriate. Furthermore, due to inadequacy of facilities, two childbirths were being performed on one bed. That is just unimaginable, even for a developing country like Nepal.

A review of the documentary: The Business of Being Born

I wanted to find out more about childbirth practices elsewhere for comparisons. I came across a documentary on childbirth titled, " The Business of Being Born" which chronicles around this same issue that I wanted to learn and know more about. It compares the natural childbirth practices performed in assistance with midwives against childbirths carried out in hospitals by surgeons. For anyone who is interested in knowing more about childbirth practices in the US and elsewhere, this is a good documentary to watch, readily available on Netflix. I'm not going to embarrass you by describing the details but will quote some statistics that will surprise you. 
In America, midwives attend less than 8% of all births and less than 1% of those occur outside a hospital. At the same time, the US has the second worst newborn death rate in the developed world.
Another interesting statistics, 
In 1900, 95% of all births took place in the home. In 1938, half the births took place at home, and the trend continued to spiral downward.
Today, less than 1% of childbirth takes place at home in the US. That is surprisingly low. From an economic perspective, childbirths performed at home under supervision of trained mid-wives is several times cheaper. At hospitals, on average it costs around $13,000 but with mid-wives, an average of $4000. These numbers are quoted in the documentary. Experts unanimously agree that childbirths are safer and better when performed at homes under mid-wives yet, why are more women choosing to go to hospitals? Is it mere fear espoused by popular media or is there something more? It turns out more than 70% of European women have childbirths at home. Yet maternity deaths are lower. Other countries spend less and have better results than the U.S. Isn't that a double whammy?

What about the aftereffects? The documentary doesn't describe what happens after a surgery is performed, how long it takes for the wound to heal or how does it affect the strength of the individual later. 

The bottom line is: if a pregnant woman goes to a hospital, hospital staff will wait for a few hours, if contractions don't start, pitocin is injected. Then, depending on the course of action, more drugs are injected to either ease the pain or control contractions. Epidural is injected to ease pain. Eventually, an incision is made, a C-section, to perform the surgery. Despite the technology getting better, the number of incisions being made during childbirth is rising and is at an all-time high. Many fear if someone does not intervene, it is on its way to hitting a 100% mark. If you go to a hospital, they don't want to wait. They just want to perform the operation and want you out of there so that they can accommodate someone else. However sad you think this practice is, it is THE truth.

Review of College Inc: a documentary on commercialization of education

College Inc, a documentary by PBS Frontline on commercialization of education. Source:
I have been watching a lot of documentaries this summer since my internship ended. The one I recently watched is called "College Inc." This is about commercialization of education, mushrooming of online courses and for-profit education. The documentary made by PBS Frontline is very powerful and unsettling. It explains why I see disproportionately more University of Phoenix advertisements. I do not want to spoil it for you, but after watching the documentary, you will realize that for-profit universities like U. of Phoenix spend more on marketing and sales than on compensating faculties and other staffs. 

Watch the full episode. See more FRONTLINE.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Future of Miller Fountain at Trinity University

Lifeless empty Miller Fountain at Trinity University due to water restrictions imposed by SAWS. Photo: Digital Subway
Trinity University has experienced a temporary albeit important loss in its essence and tradition ever since Miller Fountain stopped sprouting water. Dry and lifeless, it no longer adorns Trinity’s iconic Bell Tower or the Northrup Building, which houses the “Oval Office of Trinity”. Instead, it sits mournfully among the adjacent rubble from drilling and construction sites.

The Miller Fountain has remained shut for a long time in compliance with San Antonio Water System’s (SAWS) Phase Two Drought water restrictions. The last time it sprouted was during Senior’s graduation (see picture below) and that was only for a day. The fountain has remained shut before that due to Phase One water restrictions imposed by SAWS. The sprouts that gushed forth out of fountain’s nozzles had served to palliate souls that took refuge in its solace. Instead of offering a repose to humans (who visited it for occasional escapes), an empty fountain now further aggravates feelings of emptiness and failure.

 Paurakh and me during his graduation. Best of luck for his Ph.D program at Stanford University. 
Furthermore, Trinity students have not celebrated their birthdays in the old-fashioned way ever since the fountains went dry. An important tradition has been to throw the student in the fountain on the midnight of their birthday. This has been followed without any ordinance or mention in Student Handbook. A reason to rejoice though is that some Trinity students have not given up on this tradition despite this. On one occasion, my friends and I hand-carried water in our bottles and mugs to the fountain and poured it on the birthday boy as a symbolic gesture of celebrating birthday and also upholding the Trinity tradition. I have seen some others do the same.

Water level in Edwards Aquifer for the recent 12 months. Source: SAWS website.
It is natural to ask then, when will the drought restrictions be lifted? When will Trinity students start enjoying the beauty, serenity and the tradition offered by Miller Fountain they had hitherto taken for granted? The answer lies on SAWS website. Currently, San Antonio is in Phase Two water restrictions due to drought which has decreased the water level in Edwards Aquifer. Edwards Aquifer is the only source of clean drinking water from the underground in San Antonio. The water level has been receding due to lack of rainfall but continued usage by city dwellers. Phase I is enacted when the water level drops below 660 ft below sea level. And Phase II is enacted when it drops below 650 ft below sea level. Currently, the water level is around 643 ft. Following the water level trend in the last two months, SAWS might have to declare Phase III soon if, the water level drops below 640 ft. The water restrictions will be even stricter and seeing sprouts in Miller Fountain might be a distant dream.

So, is it all doom for Trinity students  and residents of San Antonio? Should we all start praying to the God for showering us with some love and rain? Of course, there is an option for us to reduce our water consumption by taking shorter showers and using electric razors among others. We are talking about a drastic change in water consumption habits here. And that is not easy.

Verdant grass despite SAWS restrictions because Trinity uses recycled/reclaimed water. Photo: Digital Subway
On the positive side, the grasses and lawns at Trinity have still remained verdant and green, thanks to sprinkling that has been performed duly. During phase II, use of non-handheld sprinklers are prohibited, but Trinity seems to have gotten around that because it uses recycled, treated water. 

Another note to SAWS and other city dwellers (who might be jealous) to justify Trinity's use of sprinklers. Photo: Digital Subway
A short term and a hell lot easier solution to get Miller Fountain operational is to get a waiver from SAWS. If Trinity can convince SAWS that fountain’s operation is essential for reasons other than aesthetics alone and that only secondary (treated) water is being used, an exception might be granted. If not, Trinity could always use the condensate from its cooling and heating units. Condensates in most air conditioning units go to waste by default. Harvesting rainwater and treating it for circulation in the fountains is also a possibility. If all fails, the talented students and professors in Chemistry department might devise an experiment to produce inexpensive water that does not come from SAWS and thus not subject to drought restrictions. The dry fountains should serve as the innovation bed for Trinity’s creative minds.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Cultural Symbolism Behind Grass

Perfect grass after months of hard work & maintenance at Trinity University's renovated Soccer Stadium. Photo: Digital Subway

           Grass, despite being one of the most abundant life forms on the Earth, has failed to draw any noticeable attention or  secure its berth in human hearts and minds. The fact that I am even writing about grass may appear mind-boggling to some. Grass is a form of weed that adorns our garden, gives it a verdant appearance, adds vernal fresh air but needs to be trimmed down duly to maintain its aesthetics. And that’s all. I argue that grass carries with itself cultural symbols which vary across transoceanic boundaries. It impacts our lives in subtle yet important ways and therefore deserves more visible attention. Let me explain.
Grass, by the virtue of possessing a naturally green color is soothing to eyes. Unsurprisingly, after spending the entire day staring at light emanating screens at work, we go out for a run or a walk in the park rich with luscious green grass and vegetation because it soothes our eyes and offers the much needed repose to our soul that we so desperately seek. It is true that grass has receded from our vicinity as time has passed and we have to travel greater and greater distances when we desire to find solace in its vernal serenity. Yet, we still desire to have them close to our dwelling, albeit in limited amounts, of which lawns are the prime examples. Well-maintained luscious green grass is still characteristic of beautiful campuses, mansions and corporate complexes. It has certainly gone from being universal to available only to the luxurious in urban areas. It is nature’s gift that its prevalence has still been maintained in rural areas though. Nevertheless, grass has become a symbol of ornamental display.
        Cultural distinctions associated with grass across transoceanic boundaries can be understood more clearly if we foray into attitudes held towards walking on grass in these regions. My parents and grandparents in South Asia encouraged me to walk barefooted on grass, especially in the morning when dew is still fresh on their leaves. This is known to soothe one’s heel which in turn calms one’s minds. Take a continental stride right from Asia to America, walking on grass is prohibited and considered socially inappropriate. On one occasion, my friends and I took the shortcut by walking on grass instead of concrete pavement. One of the professors behind us yelled out, “Don’t walk on grass. Get off immediately.” Unhappily, we obliged.
            In another instance, a student complained because we were playing soccer in the open space. His argument was that we were killing the grass. In America, walking on grass is a taboo unless you are in the park or forest. Grass is grown and nurtured painstakingly, and watered frequently using an extensive network of fancy sprinklers supported by underground water pipelines. Municipal water suppliers even have clear guidelines and restrictions about what days and times the lawn can be watered. Clearly, any person in (rural) areas where grass grows abundantly would find this excessive expenditure of energy astonishing, if not out rightly ludicrous.
             Growing and mowing grass is a cultural activity in America. Lawn-moving is centered around this and holds a unique position in every American’s heart. Every American has his/her own memories of lawn mowing in childhood. For some, it might have been a source of additional income or a (bi) weekly ritual performed with their dad. For others it might have just been a punishment for some misdeed or a mandatory chore for continued reception of pocket money. Whatever the reason may be, every American can relate to lawn mowing. There can be some exceptions and there always are. And of course, many absolutely abhor mowing their lawn just as they do shaving (since they share a similar trait, are repetitive and monotonous) and others love it because it allows them an opportunity to reconnect with nature, expend some energy naturally or because it is a mutual family activity. This whole experience and childhood memories are centered around grass yet, we regard them with utter indifference. I did not seek motorized assistance for mowing my lawn as a kid, but I too have memories of cutting grass using a traditional “khurpi”. It was not for aesthetic reasons but rather because I enjoyed feeding the grass to the cows and buffaloes that my grandparents reared. The joy I felt as these pleasant and docile creatures munched on the grass I fed incentivized me to spend hours cutting grass as a child. Incentives diminish as we mature, I agree and eventually vanish in some cases, such as this one.
              It will be false to claim that grass has only received indifference despite its cultural and salubrious significance. Humans have selectively chosen varieties that have superior softness and aesthetics. Some of the best grasses to walk on, albeit forbidden fall in this exquisite category and are colloquially known as “carpet grass” because of its appearance. I hope that by now, you are somewhat convinced that grasses are not simply fodder for vegetarians but also cultural and visual fodder for humans.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Naturalist’s Remorse

Construction and man-made pavements outnumber natural paths for walking. Photo: Digital Subway

It is easy to fall prey to machinations of a plebian lifestyle. And it normally takes a stimulant or in its absence, a conscious effort to resist this temptation. Our deviation from spiritual to material beings has followed along a continuum, which is largely why many of us have embraced without any questioning. However, once in a while we come down with this bout of dissatisfaction, sense of guilt or maybe even acute depression and are not sure how or why it came about. I will share with you a little revelation (self-rambling) I had.

A few days ago, I was taking a barefooted walk. I hope you know that walking without an artificial layer of protection between our heels and the Earth is fun. The experience is not transformative yet it is uniquely rewarding because suddenly we have a greater awareness of our surroundings. While walking in our shoes, our heels are indifferent to grass, gravel pavements or tarred roads.
Barefooted, I could feel the textures of pebbles, thick and thin grasses, tarred roads and varieties of soil. While I was trying to avoid concrete pavements, just because walking on grass felt a lot softer and kinder on my heels, it struck me that walking on grass has become a luxury. Everywhere I looked, I saw concrete pavements. Grass was rare. I came to realize that one of the most abundant substances on the Earth had become a rarity in the region with high population density. Nature is absent where humans are present. And this feeling pushed me into further contemplation, an abysmal realization as I would later determine.
Trinity University's beauty is marred by construction and concrete rubble. Photo: Digital Subway
The roads and pavements that we have constructed out of tons of cement, sand, rocks, fired clay and tar has been brought about by mass displacements of these substances from its original destination. Thousands of clay-fired bricks for construction is prepared by digging out large amounts of clay which leaves behind islands of emptied Earth, only later to be filled as puddles or ponds by rain. Tons of concrete is manufactured by mining limestone from caves and mountains which renders them unstable and vulnerable to further erosion. Similarly, sand for preparing the right density of concrete is obtained by digging up river basins or grinding rocks collected from rivers or mountains which alters the landscape and decreases the capacity of rivers to soak water. What we proudly call development is limited to our vicinity and if seen, in the light of a larger area is an unplanned, unwise and eco-destructive resource displacement.
It does not always require one to be in a thinking session to be struck by such grossly inappropriate human actions. All it takes is a receptive mind. We do not always realize the full implications or ramifications of our actions. Circumspection, although essential has been used very infrequently. Take for instance, the remorse and suffering after a natural disaster like flood strikes a region. We are smart and quick to call it a “natural” disaster oblivious of the fact that it could have been caused due to our own unwise action of emptying out sands from river-beds. Similarly, by replacing natural grasses with concrete pavements, we reduce its natural capacity to maintain moisture, regulate water cycle and resist desertification. And then again, we feel terrible that the God brought upon us yet another drought or excessive rainfall this season.
Natural imbalances that we (humans) are inducing inadvertently have been pointed out by several naturalists, scientists, saints and philosophers alike. However, the human populations driven by materialistic instincts are more comfortable believing the rational explanations offered by economists that environmental impacts are simply by-products of development. A less pristine environment is tolerable to maintain the high standards of living. We are assured that even if we have unusually hot summers or frigid winters, air conditioning units (thanks to smart engineers) will continue to keep us cozy. Occasional brown-outs or black-outs caused on days with severe weather (an unusual snow day or during a heat wave) is attributed to anomalies in our aging transmission grid and electrical failures. Unless we are willing to admit that development is synonymous to ecological destruction, we may lie as much as we like about “natural” causes of calamities but their frequencies will keep increasing. The fact that 2010 and 2011 were among the years with most “natural” disasters around the world should serve as an evidence to the claim proposed in this article.