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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

How panhandlers use free credit cards
By Jim Rankin
Staff Reporter

Joanne Mitchell, 60, and an acquaintance panhandle at a subway entrance at Union Station.
Jim Rankin/Toronto Star

What would happen if, instead of spare change, you handed a person in need the means to shop for whatever they needed? What would they buy? Can you spare your credit card, sir?

In New York City, an advertising executive recently handed over her American Express Platinum Card to a homeless Manhattan man after he had asked her for change. The man, who had been without home after losing a job, used the card to buy $25 worth of deodorant, water and cigarettes. And then he returned the card.

Concerns over the wisdom of sharing of credits cards and credit card fraud aside, the unlikely encounter became a talking point — a feel-good story about, as the New York Post put it in a headline: “A bum you can trust — honest!”

Is that such a surprise?

Over the past two weeks, I wandered Toronto’s downtown core with five prepaid Visa and MasterCard gift cards, in $50 and $75 denominations, waiting for people to ask for money.

When they did, I asked them what they needed. A meal at a restaurant, groceries, a new pair of pants, they said. I handed out the cards and asked that they give them back when they’d finished shopping. I either waited at a coffee shop while they shopped or — in the case of those who could not buy what they needed nearby or were reticent about leaving their panhandling post — I said I’d return on another day to pick up the card. That’s when I would reveal that I was a journalist.

Some were unbelieving at first. All were grateful. Some declined the offer. Some who accepted didn’t come back, but those that did had stories to tell.

Early afternoon on Queen Street West. A young man with a short orange Mohawk haircut and a Superman tattoo on his left shoulder sat alone on the sidewalk, a skateboard at his side. A song by Michelle Shocked comes to mind, in which she asks: “What’s it like to be a skateboard punk rocker?”


His panhandling sign read: “Too ugly to prostitute. Spare some change.”

I asked him what he needed.

“Food would be nice.”

“Can I trust you with this?” I said, handing him a $50 card and telling him to buy what he needs, but that I need it back when he was done. He nodded and scrambled to his feet. He said he would be back in a half-hour.

He came back right on time, slurping from a large McDonald’s soft drink cup — root beer — and with sweat on his brow. He wanted to have pork and rice from a Vietnamese noodle joint on Spadina but they wouldn’t take the card. So, he scrambled to McDonald’s. Lunch was a double quarter-pounder with cheese.

He handed over the gift card, having spent $8.69.

His name is Jason. He’s 28, has brown eyes, a wide smile and good teeth. He has been on and off the streets of Toronto since he was 14. He grew up in Northern Ontario. His mother, he said, is a drinker and his dad died last year.

Now, he is homeless, living with friends or at a “secret spot” on the streets, but is waiting on an apartment. “I just got a POA for welfare,” he said. That’s a promise of address. He wants to get his driver’s licence and a job as a courier.

On a good day, he takes in $40 to $50 through panhandling, most of which he spends on communal food for friends. Of his most effective panning signs: “Like Obama, I like change,” and “Smile if you masturbate. Spare change if you like it.” He carries his belongings in a knapsack — just a bit of clothing and toiletries.

I handed the $50 card back to Jason to spend the rest as he likes. We shook hands and he went back to his spot on Queen.

A man sitting on a suitcase at Bay and King Streets was suspicious of the offer. “Can I buy groceries with it?” he asked. It was peak panhandling time and he did not want to leave his post. “Take care,” he said, turning down a $50 card. “But thanks a lot.”

This happened a number of times.

Another young man, James, was selling newspapers for the homeless in Yorkville. He said he was living with his sick and jobless father. “Truthfully, I’m okay. I have a roof over my head.” He turned down a $75 card.

Mark , who appeared to be in his early 30s and wore his hair in dreads, worked people outside the St. Lawrence Market. He walked up and asked if I could spare change.

“No,” I said, as I reached into a pocket, “but I have . . . ”

“A million dollars?” he grinned.

Mark said he was hungry for a meal at a restaurant. I gave him a $50 card and he asked if I would come with him. No, I said, go get what you need. I said I was meeting a friend and would be at a nearby coffee shop. He could bring the card back there.

Ninety minutes later, there was no Mark.

A record of the card transactions shows that Mark spent $21.64 on a meal at The Corner Place restaurant at Jarvis and Front Streets. The next day, Mark spent $15.50 at the LCBO.

There was a hot sauce promotion underway outside Union Station. Commuters grabbed two free bottles at a time. The vast majority walked past the panhandlers without a word.

“I need pants,” said Joanne, who squatted at the entrance to the subway, her right arm in a sling. But, no, she wouldn’t have time to leave her post to buy them and get back to hand over the $75 card I offered. I left it with her and said I would come back another day. She thanked me and smiled.

Same deal with Al, who stood around the corner, holding a sign that read “Hungry and Homeless.” He said he needed jeans and shoes. “Thank you kindly,” he said, taking a $50 card. “I’ll be here.”

Despite a few visits, I didn’t see Al again.

At time of writing, it had not been used.

A few days later, Joanne was back at her spot, looking rougher. She had a cough. She was panhandling with an acquaintance, a man who had appeared with a can of beer and poured half into her paper cup.

Joanne appeared sober. She remembered me. She had doubts the card was legit. An ex-boyfriend, she said, stole it. She hadn’t seen a penny of it, which her friend confirmed. “I couldn’t fight him,” said Joanne, lifting her broken arm.

A history of transactions on that card shows it was used nine times over two consecutive days for purchases at McDonald’s and the LCBO.

Joanne Mitchell is her full name. She’s 60, has one daughter and seven grandchildren, who she seldom sees. She worked for Bell Canada as a service rep but got “fed up.” She’s been panhandling on and off for 10 years and lives in subsidized housing. She broke her arm June 25 while trying to hang a picture and has been losing weight ever since. She was down to about 115 pounds, she said.

Joanne owned two pairs of pants. The pair she was wearing, green capris, were dirty and damp. “We could have done a lot with the money,” said her acquaintance. “Could have also bought some groceries with that.”

I promised I would be back another day with another card, to spend as she wished.

“I’ve been looking for you,” said Laurie, smiling. I’d left her with a $75 card a few days earlier at her spot outside the south entrance to the Eaton Centre. She’s there most afternoons, in her motorized wheelchair.

“Here’s your card,” she said, pulling it from her wallet.

She bought groceries that would keep her diabetes under control. She put $15 on a pay-as-you-go cellphone. She confessed to buying cigarettes. She usually rolls her own but treated herself. She did all of her shopping at a gas station convenience store, spending all but 39 cents

I explained myself.

“I’ve been wondering when a reporter might find me,” she said, bright green eyes sparkling behind bifocal glasses.

Laurie, 44, is living on the streets in the west-end and couch surfing with friends, including her ex-husband. In addition to diabetes, she takes medication for manic depression and has been diagnosed as having fibromyalgia. She must use the chair to get around and takes about 30 pills a day. She’s on a list to get into a co-op.

She has two daughters in university. One hopes to be a doctor, the other something to do with math. On a good panhandling day, Laurie will spend money in an Internet café and Skype with her girls. On a “super-duper” good day, she’ll book herself into a cheap motel and watch TV.

Each morning, she works on her resume and sends it out to prospective employers. She has computer programming skills and can type “95 words a minute, at 98 per cent accuracy,” she said.

Her last job was about 10 years ago. Before she had to start using a chair to get around. She was a waitress at a greasy spoon in King Street. Since then, she has lived off benefits.

In March, she said, she slipped into a diabetic coma, and had it not been for her ex-husband who found her and called 911, she probably would be dead.

“I’m a very positive person and things can always be worse,” she said. And then she quoted a line from Joni Mitchell’s song, Big Yellow Taxi: “Don’t it always seem to go,” said Laurie, “you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.”
How the cards were used

Card 1: $50, handed to Jason. Spends $8.69 at McDonald’s. Returns card.

Card 2: $50, to Mark. Spends $21.64 at The Corner Place restaurant. Doesn’t return. Later spends $15.50 at the LCBO.

Card 3: $75, to Joanne. Card is stolen. Over two days, $24.95 spent at McDonald’s, $38.35 at the LCBO.

Card 4: $50, to Al. Card unreturned. Balance remains at $50

Card 5: $75. Laurie buys $74.61 worth of food, phone minutes and cigarettes at a gas station convenience store. Returns card.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Philippine Bus and Miss Universe
By Daniel Wagner

This week two noteworthy events involving the Philippines made headlines: the botched rescue of Chinese tourists taken hostage by a disgruntled former policeman, and a botched response to a question by Miss Philippines in the finals for the Miss Universe contest. You might ask, what do these two things have in common? Separately, not much, but taken together, they represent both the peril and promise of the Philippines today.

For many years pundits have commented that the Philippines appears to be heading backwards economically and politically, while many parts of Asia barrel toward middle income status and have maturing democracies. Yes, other countries have disputed elections, other countries' leaders do questionable things, and other developing countries struggle to achieve sustainable economic growth. And, yes, there are recent examples of fresh political turmoil and economic hardship not only in Asia, but throughout the world.

The difference here is, many of the countries experiencing political instability and economic dislocation don't have the things the Philippines has: agricultural self-sufficiency, a high literacy rate, and a largely homogeneous population. One Asian country that possesses these qualities - Indonesia - has managed to transcend monumental political turmoil, turn its situation around, get on the path to democracy, stay there, and become a darling of the international investment community. The Philippines had this in the 1960s. Why can't it have it now?

When I lived in the Philippines from 2003 to 2007, I was asked, what is the difference between the Philippines and Indonesia? My answer was, "In Indonesia, they have hope." I came to the conclusion that in spite of all the things the Philippines has going for it, its people didn't demand enough of themselves, or of their government. Political apathy and a willingness to accept a low common denominator of performance have taken their toll on the psyche of the Philippine people.

Filipinos should not therefore be surprised that the Philippine police tried to negotiate with the hijacker of the Chinese tourist bus well after a reasonable period of time had passed, negotiations had failed, and the lives of the tourists were clearly in jeopardy. Police from a variety of other nations would have simply killed him at the first opportunity, regardless of the fact that he was a former colleague. This SWAT team knew how to get the results that were required, but they failed to do so. Why? Their priorities were misaligned. The safety of the hostages should have been paramount - not the fanciful notion that a man who is desperate enough to take hostages would somehow come to his senses at the height of the crisis.

The result of actions like this are unfortunately consistent with the expectations many people have of performance in other areas. Politically, the Philippines has descended into an ongoing competition between political dynasties: Marcos, Arroyo, and yes, Aquino. What I don't understand is, why do Filipinos continue to vote them in, election after election? Is it because of a lack of viable alternatives? No. Is it because of political apathy? Possibly. Or is it because they have no expectations that anything will change, regardless of who is in power? Definitely. What does this say about the country's future? Nothing good.

Which brings me to the Miss Universe contest. Miss Philippines, Maria Venus Raj, is by anyone's definition fantastically beautiful, poised, and graceful. Many believe she should have won the competition, and she deserves a lot of credit for being the first Filipina since 1999 to make it to the finals. But her flubbed response to the question of what mistake she had made in her life and what would she have done differently apparently cost her the crown. How could this 22-year-old woman, who so diligently prepared herself for that moment -- at great personal sacrifice her whole life - not have come up with a better response?

She was nervous, she said. Well, who among the finalists wasn't? Other Filipinos have said English wasn't her first language so she had difficulty coming up with the right words. Really? How come no other Philippine contestant in the Miss Universe pageant ever had an interpreter? In preparation for this event it never occurred to her or anyone around her that such a question might be asked? Had she come up with a better response, it is likely the crown would have been hers, and the Philippines would be basking in her glow. Instead, it's just another instance of a missed opportunity, and Filipinos are making excuses.

If the Philippines wants to get its act together and live up to its potential, it needs to demand more of itself. It can achieve this by stopping making excuses for its failures and ending its acceptance of the lowest common denominator. President Aquino promised to put an end to nepotism and corruption in government. The people should make sure he does this. When the police screw up a hostage rescue, the people responsible should be fired. And when a beauty queen blows an attempt to become the glory of the Philippine people, it should be recognized as such.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Wrong targets for our understandable anger
South China Morning Post

There is understandable anger in Hong Kong towards the police tactical response team in Manila. Its efforts to end the hostage-taking appeared farcical, a matter addressed with palpable hostility by tens of thousands of people on internet social networking sites such as Facebook. Displeasure has also been directed towards the Philippine government, which was seen as doing a poor job at being available when it was needed most.

But what is not comprehensible is why people have vented their frustrations on Filipinos. They've done nothing wrong, after all. The actions of a unit of police commandos was not their doing. Tarring them with the same brush of incompetence isn't right.

Such behaviour towards them smacks of racism. A tinge of that is on show in the government's response to the tragedy. It has issued its highest travel alert for those thinking of going to the Philippines. Based on a single isolated incident, it has determined that a severe threat exists and that all travel should be avoided. The only other countries on the alert list - Indonesia, Iran, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia and Thailand - are ranked two levels lower, with travellers being advised to "exercise caution".

The response is knee-jerk, but punishes Filipinos as a race for an incident that they had nothing to do with. Travel bans are for safety, not political retribution. Similarly, anger at Philippine president Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino may be understandable, but he doesn't deserve the abuse being hurled at him in blog postings or on placards like one carried at a protest outside the Philippine Consulate General yesterday reading, "Cold-blooded Aquino - Go to hell." Statements like this are not rational or reasonable. All they do is stir needless hatred.

Passions are running high, and that is to be expected. Questions abound and we want answers. But the 150,000 Filipinos who live among us in Hong Kong and the untold millions in the Philippines who rely on our business and tourism dollars cannot provide what we want to know. They are as much innocent bystanders to the tragedy as we are and deserve to be treated as such.

For the sake of your own people and ours, explain
South China Morning Post

Harry's View

Hong Kong continues to mourn the eight people killed apparently needlessly in the bloody Manila hostage crisis on Monday. Family and friends directly affected by the tragedy may never recover from the loss. One woman watched her husband die before her eyes, before being told that two of her children had also been killed and the third seriously injured. For these victims, a public apology or inquiry may bring closure, but can never be enough to ease their pain. Anger has been directed at both the Philippine government and its police force for what appears to have been a botched attempt to rescue the hostages. On the face of it, millions of viewers around the world could be forgiven for blaming the police for their handling of the situation and levelling accusations of incompetence.

Much of this blame arises from the benefit of hindsight and may well be based on unconfirmed or inaccurate reports of the hostage situation. Negotiations during the day, which involved the release of nine hostages, appeared to develop peacefully. Still, before the Philippine government hits back at its critics it should dispel any myths about why the situation deteriorated so violently - by explaining why the police failed to prevent so many lives being lost. The administration of President Benigno Aquino will not be able to absolve itself from blame unless it can answer these questions.

But for the fact that they happened, the events of Monday would have been dismissed as too fantastical to be true. A discharged police officer, Rolando Mendoza, wanders freely around the centre of the Philippine capital dressed in full uniform and carrying an M-16 assault rifle, boards a bus and holds the 25 passengers hostage. The police cordon is breached by a drunken man wanting to help, and an unknowing cyclist. Mendoza's brother, a serving police officer, turns up carrying a firearm but is ignored despite his offer to help and wanders up to the bus himself, only to be wrestled to the ground and arrested. All of a sudden, shots are fired and the police move in, but are obviously hampered by their not being able to see into the bus. Meanwhile, Mendoza is able to see the movements of the police thanks to a live television broadcast he watches on the television in the bus. It doesn't take a security expert to point out that if police are going to attempt an entry, it must be immediate, decisive and successful or lives will be at risk. Yet viewers saw policemen clumsily smashing at windows for over an hour, failing to pull open the doors and, once they had, being repelled immediately by a spray of bullets.

One cannot underestimate the difficulties in handling a hostage crisis, and there may be legitimate reasons why the operation was conducted in such a way. If so, those reasons must be disclosed in a full report, and the relevant officials must take responsibility for any failings, otherwise it will be difficult to understand the logic behind many of the actions. One of the survivors noted that Mendoza was obviously antagonised by seeing his brother arrested. The decision to allow spectators and the media to remain within range of his rifle, resulting in several injuries, is also inexplicable.

Answers to all these questions should be given not only for the purpose of appeasing the Hong Kong public, but for the integrity of the new Philippine government and for its own people. After all, it is the people of the Philippines who must rely on its government and police for effective law enforcement on a daily basis. Tourism figures, diplomatic relations and stock market fluctuations pale in significance compared to the most basic responsibility of any government: protecting its citizens and its guests.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Call frontman Michael Been dies
Bassist and singer also worked as soundman for his son's band Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

The Call frontman Michael Been has died aged 60.

The bassist, singer and songwriter passed away after suffering a heart attack on August 19 – he was at Belgium's Pukkelpop festival working as soundman for his son Robert Levon Been's band Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.

Been, born in Oklahoma, formed The Call in California in 1980. The group went on to have a number of hits, including 'When The Walls Came Down', 'Everywhere I Go', 'I Still Believe (Great Design)' and 'Let The Day Begin' – the latter was used by Al Gore during his 2000 US presidential campaign.

His solo album, 'On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown', was released in 1994. The band appeared to go on hiatus around the turn of the millennium, and Been concentrated on working with his son's group.

He also appeared in a number of films, including Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation Of Christ, where he played the Apostle John.

A statement on The Call's website read: "We have his son and family in our prayers. The Call's music will always live on."

Tree that cheered Anne Frank falls over
By Toby Sterling
The Associated Press
10 hours ago

In this April 7, 2008 file photo cranes carrying workers stretch over towards a chestnut tree in a courtyard behind The Anne Frank House museum as work to prop up the tree that once comforted Anne Frank began in Amsterdam, Netherlands. The monumental chestnut tree has fallen over on Monday, Aug. 23, 2010, a spokeswoman for the Anne Frank Museum says. The 27-ton tree was encased in a steel tripod as a precaution of the danger it might fall. The tree's trunk snapped close to the ground and it toppled into neighboring gardens, damaging several sheds. No one was hurt. (AP Photo/Evert Elzinga, File)

AMSTERDAM — The monumental chestnut tree that cheered Anne Frank while she was in hiding from the Nazis was toppled by wind and heavy rain on Monday.

The once mighty tree, now diseased and rotted through the trunk, snapped about 3 feet (1 meter) above ground and crashed across several gardens. It damaged several sheds, but nearby buildings — including the Anne Frank House museum — escaped unscathed. No one was injured, a museum spokeswoman said.

"Someone yelled, 'It's falling. The tree is falling,' and then you heard it go down," said museum spokeswoman Maatje Mostart. "Luckily no one was hurt."

A global campaign to save the chestnut, widely known as The Anne Frank Tree, was launched in 2007 after city officials deemed it a safety hazard and ordered it felled. The tree was granted a last-minute reprieve after a battle in court.

The 150-year-old tree suffered from fungus and moths that had caused more than half its trunk to rot.

Two years ago city workmen encased the trunk in a steel support system to prevent it from falling, but that failed under windy weather Monday.

Many clones of the tree have been taken, including 11 planted at sites around the United States and 150 at a park in Amsterdam. It is not clear whether a new tree will replace the original one on the same spot, since it rests on property belonging to a neighbor.

The Jewish teenager made several references to the tree in the diary that she kept during the 25 months she remained indoors until her family was arrested in August 1944.

"Nearly every morning I go to the attic to blow the stuffy air out of my lungs," she wrote on Feb. 23, 1944. "From my favorite spot on the floor I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree, on whose branches little raindrops shine, appearing like silver, and at the seagulls and other birds as they glide on the wind."

She also wrote: "As long as this exists, ... and I may live to see it, this sunshine, the cloudless skies — while this lasts I cannot be unhappy."

Anne Frank died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in March 1945. Her diary was recovered and published after her death. It has become the most widely read document to emerge from the Holocaust.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Study Says Brain Trauma Can Mimic A.L.S.
By Alan Schwarz

The Virginian-Pilot
The Yankees’ Lou Gehrig was helped off the field after being struck in the head by a fastball from pitcher Ray White of the Norfolk Tars in a June 1934 exhibition game. The ball caught Gehrig above the right eye, knocking him unconscious.

In the 71 years since the Yankees slugger Lou Gehrig declared himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” despite dying from a disease that would soon bear his name, he has stood as America’s leading icon of athletic valor struck down by random, inexplicable fate.

A peer-reviewed paper to be published Wednesday in a leading journal of neuropathology, however, suggests that the demise of athletes like Gehrig and soldiers given a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, might have been catalyzed by injuries only now becoming understood: concussions and other brain trauma.

Although the paper does not discuss Gehrig specifically, its authors in interviews acknowledged the clear implication: Lou Gehrig might not have had Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Doctors at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Bedford, Mass., and the Boston University School of Medicine, the primary researchers of brain damage among deceased National Football League players, said that markings in the spinal cords of two players and one boxer who also received a diagnosis of A.L.S. indicated that those men did not have A.L.S. at all. They had a different fatal disease, doctors said, caused by concussionlike trauma, that erodes the central nervous system in similar ways.

The finding could prompt a redirection in the study of motor degeneration in athletes and military veterans being given diagnoses of A.L.S. at rates considerably higher than normal, said several experts in A.L.S. who had seen early versions of the paper. Patients with significant histories of brain trauma could be considered for different types of treatment in the future, perhaps leading toward new pathways for a cure.

“Most A.L.S. patients don’t go to autopsy — there’s no need to look at your brain and spinal cord,” said Dr. Brian Crum, an assistant professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “But a disease can look like A.L.S., it can look like Alzheimer’s, and it’s not when you look at the actual tissue. This is something that needs to be paid attention to.”

The finding’s relevance to Gehrig is less clear. But the Yankees legend had a well-documented history of significant concussions on the baseball field, and perhaps others sustained as a battering-ram football halfback in high school and at Columbia University. Given that, it’s possible that Gehrig’s renowned commitment to playing through injuries like concussions, which resulted in his legendary streak of playing in 2,130 consecutive games over 14 years, could have led to his condition.

“Here he is, the face of his disease, and he may have had a different disease as a result of his athletic experience,” said Dr. Ann McKee, the director of the neuropathology laboratory for the New England Veterans Administration Medical Centers and the lead neuropathologist on the study.

Gehrig’s name does not appear in the paper; his case was discussed in interviews merely as an illustration of the new uncertainty surrounding cases resembling his, said Dr. Robert Stern, who serves with Dr. McKee as co-director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. The cause of his disease will most likely never be determined because his remains were cremated, and now lie in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, N.Y.

More significantly, both doctors said, the finding solidifies a long-suspected connection between A.L.S.-like motor disease and head trauma experienced in collision sports and combat.

“People are being misdiagnosed clinically while they’re alive as having A.L.S. when in fact they have a different motor-neuron disease,” Dr. Stern said. He added, “Scientists will be able to get at a faster understanding of the disease in general, and therefore effective treatments, by knowing more about who’s at risk and who’s not.”

According to the A.L.S. Association, up to 30,000 people in the United States currently have A.L.S., an incurably fatal disease among primarily 40- to 70-year-old men that results in the swift and steady atrophy of all voluntary muscle control. Gehrig was its first prominent victim, dying two years after his 1939 diagnosis; some others, like the British physicist Stephen Hawking, now 68, can live for decades with fully functioning brains inside bodies that have wasted away.

The new finding could be double-edged for organizations fighting A.L.S.: it sheds some light on possible causes and research avenues, but also suggests that Gehrig might not have had it.

“It’s extremely interesting — it builds a more interesting picture, but what this all exactly means about how the disease plays out requires further investigation,” said Dr. Lucie Bruijn, the chief scientist for the A.L.S. Association. Dr. Bruijn described Gehrig as “an important fund-raising tool,” similar to the actor Michael J. Fox having Parkinson’s disease.

“It’s a name and a face that get people to understand what kind of a disease this really is,” she said. “It makes it more personal.”

A.L.S. in the N.F.L.

A link between professional football and A.L.S. follows recent discoveries of on-field brain trauma leading to dementia and other cognitive decline in some N.F.L. veterans. Dr. McKee and her group identified 14 former N.F.L. players since 1960 as having been given diagnoses of A.L.S., a total about eight times higher than what would be expected among men in the United States of similar ages.

However, the doctors cautioned, the existence of the increased number of A.L.S.-like cases should not create the same level of public alarm as the cognitive effects of brain trauma, which affect hundreds of former professionals and perhaps thousands of boys and girls across many youth sports.

Recent epidemiological studies have suggested that brain trauma in sports can be a risk factor for A.L.S.; for example, a 2005 paper found that Italian professional soccer players had developed the disease at rates about six times higher than normal. Studies have also linked service in the United States military to higher risk for A.L.S., possibly because of battlefield collisions and blast injuries.

The study to be published Wednesday, on the Web site of the Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology, represents the first firm pathological indications that brain trauma results in motor-neuron degeneration, and that the resulting disease (at least in the three men studied) is actually not A.L.S. It is a different disorder with different markings, specifically a pattern of two proteins in the spinal cord that compromise nerve function.

Dr. McKee had already found 12 deceased N.F.L. veterans to have had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive disease in brain tissue that results in cognitive impairment and eventually dementia. Two of those men — Wally Hilgenberg, a longtime linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings in the 1970s, and Eric Scoggins, who played only three games at linebacker for the 1982 San Francisco 49ers — also had A.L.S. diagnosed by their physicians.

When Dr. McKee examined the spinal-cord tissue of those men, as well as a former boxer who had A.L.S.-like symptoms, she found dramatically high levels of tau and TDP-43, two proteins known to cause motor-neuron degeneration. She said that they would appear in the cord as a result of blows to the brain, with the proteins probably traveling down the spinal cord, rather than direct injury to the spinal cord itself.

Dr. McKee said that because she has never seen that protein pattern in A.L.S. victims without significant histories of brain trauma, she and her team were confident the three athletes did not have A.L.S., but a disorder that erodes its victims’ nervous system in similar ways. McKee added that finding the distinctive pattern in all three men with A.L.S. symptoms was more than enough pathological evidence to make her conclusion.

“If we can create this in laboratory mice, which are easily genetically altered and breed quickly, we can learn about the pathogenesis of this disorder, and then provide treatment,” Dr. McKee said. The consensus among experts is that brain trauma is almost certainly not solely responsible for diseases like this.

Those afflicted probably have genetic factors leading to susceptibility, with concussions serving as catalyst. In that regard, some doctors said, years from now athletes could be tested for the gene that leaves them vulnerable, not unlike how some today check for sickle-cell trait.

The Gehrig Mystery

More than any other American athlete, perhaps even the player who eventually broke his consecutive games streak, Cal Ripken Jr., Lou Gehrig has come to symbolize a commitment to playing every day, especially through injuries. That renown partly derives from well-documented incidents in which he sustained significant concussions but continued to play in ways now known to be dangerous.

The most notable came in June 1934, when, in an exhibition game, Gehrig was hit with a pitch just above the right eye and was knocked unconscious for what was described in news reports as five minutes. (He was not wearing a batting helmet; such protection was not meaningfully introduced in the major leagues until the 1940s or required until 1958.) He was removed from the game.

Despite a headache, a doctor’s recommendation that he sit out and a bump on his head so large that he had to wear one of Babe Ruth’s larger caps, Gehrig played the next day against the Washington Senators to continue his streak at 1,415 games. “A little thing like that can’t stop us Dutchmen,” Gehrig told a reporter, according to Jonathan Eig’s definitive biography of Gehrig, “Luckiest Man.”

In 1924, during a postgame brawl with the Detroit Tigers, Gehrig swung at Ty Cobb and fell, hit his head on concrete, and was briefly knocked out. While playing first base against the Tigers in September 1930, Gehrig was hit in the face and knocked unconscious by a ground ball. He was knocked out again by an oncoming runner in 1935.

Those are the four incidents in which Gehrig’s being knocked unconscious was notable enough to be reported in newspapers. He most likely sustained other concussions that were never noticed or considered meaningful — for example, when he was hit in the head with a pitch during a 1933 game against Washington but continued playing — either in baseball or while serving as a halfback for Commerce High School in New York and later Columbia University.

“Obviously he played in the days before helmets, and he led with his head and with his shoulders, certainly on the football field,” said Mr. Eig, adding that he found no record of brain injuries in news reports of Gehrig’s football career. “On the baseball field he got knocked around a bit because he could be klutzy. Given the barnstorming he did in the off-season and his football career and style, there’s no telling how many additional shots to the head he took.”

Gehrig’s handling of injuries inspired reverence among fans and the news media. Concussions then almost resembled cigarette smoking, in that what is now known to be harmful was in Gehrig’s time considered benign, even charming. An advertisement for Camel cigarettes that filled the back page of Life magazine included various testimonials to “Larruping Lou’s” playing through injuries, including the 1934 incident.

“Another time, he was knocked out by a ‘bean ball,’ yet next day walloped 3 triples in 5 innings,” the ad reads. “Gehrig’s ‘Iron-Man’ record is proof of his splendid physical condition. As Lou says: ‘All the years I’ve been playing, I’ve been careful about my physical condition. Smoke? I smoke and enjoy it. My cigarette is Camel.’”

The End, and Legacy

Gehrig showed the first signs of degenerative motor disease in 1938, when his hands began to ache and his legs and shoulders gradually weakened. Gehrig’s rickety spring training in 1939 indicated to even casual observers that something was quite wrong; after a poor April, on May 2, Gehrig told Yankees Manager Joe McCarthy that he would not play that day against Detroit, ending his streak at 2,130 games, dating back 14 seasons. He rested for a month before seeking some answers at the Mayo Clinic in June.

The diagnosis was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, then a virtually unknown disease that doctors explained to the public as a form of “infantile paralysis” resembling polio. It had no known cause, and was not described as fatal. Gehrig’s baseball career was immediately over, and two weeks later, on July 4, he was honored at Yankee Stadium in an on-field ceremony between games of a doubleheader.

Speaking through microphones to more than 60,000 hushed fans , Gehrig took the scene and called himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth” — a remark that quickly symbolized his humility and, of course, just how unlucky the slugger truly was. Gehrig’s once muscular frame, so seemingly perfect that only a few years before he had auditioned to play Tarzan in the movies, quickly deteriorated.

By the time Gehrig died two years later, A.L.S. was already commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a disorder known as much for the player as for the seemingly arbitrary way in which he was chosen to die from it.

The Mayo Clinic retains Gehrig’s medical records but has never disclosed them per institutional policy, a spokesman said. A neurologist who was allowed to inspect them years ago, Dr. Jay Van Gerpen of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., was not permitted by the clinic to be interviewed for this article.

In considering how Gehrig’s disease could be pinpointed, Dr. McKee of the Boston University group said that if Gehrig had been embalmed, rather than cremated, she theoretically could examine remaining tissue. He might have had A.L.S., like the more than hundreds of thousands of Americans who have had it since, and who have perhaps taken some solace in how such a famous and admirable man as Gehrig had it, too. Or, given his history of brain injuries, Gehrig might have been like Wally Hilgenberg and the growing number of athletes who, as science evolves, stand with increasing company as testimony to concussions’ shocking cost.

“Lou Gehrig wanted to know everything possible about his own illness — he got to know his doctors, talked with scientists with obscure approaches, and volunteered himself as a guinea pig to find any way to combat the disease,” Mr. Eig said. “He wouldn’t stick his head in the sand and not want to hear about this. If he were around today, he would continue to have that same curiosity, and that burning desire, to help his situation, or to help others.”

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

John Lennon's letter to British singer arrives 34 years late

John Lennon's circa early 1970s handwritten letter to Bhaskar Menon, then Chairman of Capitol Records is displayed at Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Annex NYC in 2009 in New York City. A British folk singer who expressed fears that success and wealth could ruin his songwriting revealed Monday how Lennon sent him a letter of reassurance -- but it did not reach him for 34 years.
(AFP/Getty Images/File/Astrid Stawiarz)

LONDON (AFP) – A British folk singer who expressed fears that success and wealth could ruin his songwriting revealed Monday how John Lennon sent him a letter of reassurance -- but it did not reach him for 34 years.

Steve Tilston was just 21 in 1971 when the megastar read an interview he had done with a magazine called ZigZag.

Lennon penned a hand-written letter to the aspiring singer just months after the Beatles split up in 1970, telling him not to worry about becoming wealthy because it would not change what he felt inside.

The correspondence was signed by Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono.

He sent the letter to Tilston and the reporter who interviewed him at the magazine's offices, but for some reason it never reached the musician.

The first time he saw it was in 2005 when an American collector contacted him to verify whether the letter -- estimated to be worth 7,000 pounds (11,000 dollars, 8,500 euros) -- was genuine.

It was 25 years after Lennon had been shot dead.

"It was so frustrating because Lennon even included his home phone number on the top of the letter," said the 60-year-old. "I know it's silly but I wanted to ring him up across the ages."

Tilston added he "felt rather angry to start with to think that someone had just sold the letter rather than passing it on to me, but you have to let these things go."

Lennon wrote to Tilston: "Being rich doesn't change your experience in the way you think.

"The only difference, basically, is that you don't have to worry about money -- food -- roof etc.

"But all other experiences -- emotions -- relationships -- are the same as anybodies, I know, I've been rich and poor, so has Yoko (rich -- poor -- rich) so whadya think of that.

"Love John and Yoko."

Despite not receiving Lennon's reassuring words, Tilston still went on to record more than 20 albums and will mark his 40-year career with a special concert next month.

Real-life Quasimodo uncovered in Tate archives
With his hunched back and deformed face, Quasimodo, the tragic hero of Victor Hugo's novel The Hunch Back of Notre Dame, has always been considered a mythical creation drawn from the depths of the author's imagination.
By Roya Nikkhah,
Arts Correspondent

A portrait of French writer Victor Hugo dated of the 1880 Photo: EPA

But a new discovery appears to reveal the real-life inspiration behind the character from Hugo's seminal novel, which tells the story of the deaf bell-ringer of Notre Dame and his unrequited love for the gipsy girl Esmeralda.

Clues suggesting that Quasimodo is based on a historical figure have been uncovered in the memoirs of Henry Sibson, a 19th-century British sculptor who was employed at the cathedral at around the time the book was written and who describes a hunched back stonemason also working there.

The documents were acquired by the Tate Archive in 1999 after they were discovered in the attic of a house in Penzance, Cornwall, as the owner prepared to move out.

However, the references to a "hunchback sculptor" working at Notre Dame have only just been discovered, as the memoirs are catalogued ahead of the archive's 40th anniversary this year.

The seven-volume memoirs document Sibson's time in Paris during the 1820s, when he was employed by contractors to work on repairs to Notre Dame Cathedral.

In one entry, he writes: "the [French] government had given orders for the repairing of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and it was now in progress ... I applied at the Government studios, where they were executing the large figures [for Notre Dame] and here I met with a Mons. Trajan, a most worthy, fatherly and amiable man as ever existed – he was the carver under the Government sculptor whose name I forget as I had no intercourse with him, all that I know is that he was humpbacked and he did not like to mix with carvers."

In a later entry, Sibson writes about working with the same group of sculptors on another project outside Paris, where he again mentions the reclusive government sculptor, this time recalling his name as "Mon. Le Bossu". Le Bossu is French for "the hunchback".

He writes: "Mon Le Bossu (the Hunchback) a nickname given to him and I scarcely ever heard any other ... the Chief of the gang for there were a number of us, M. Le Bossu was pleased to tell Mon Trajan that he must be sure to take the little Englishman."

Adrian Glew, the Tate archivist, who made the discovery, said: "When I saw the references to the humpbacked sculptor at Notre Dame, and saw that the dates matched the time of Hugo's interest in the Cathedral, the hairs on the back of my neck rose and I thought I should look into it."

Hugo began writing The Hunch Back of Notre Dame in 1828 and the book was published three years later. He had a strong interest in the restoration of the cathedral, with architecture featuring as a major theme in the book.

Hugo publicly opposed the original neoclassical scheme for Notre Dame's restoration led by the architect Etienne-Hippolyte Godde – the same scheme which Sibson describes Le Bossu and Trajan working on – favouring a more Gothic style for the cathedral.

The publication of The Hunch Back of Notre Dame in 1831, which made Hugo one of France's most acclaimed authors, is widely credited with prompting the Gothic restoration of the cathedral in 1844, designed by the architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, which Hugo had championed.

His close links with the cathedral make it likely that he would have known Le Bossu and Trajan, and further research undertaken by Mr Glew in the national archives of France has uncovered additional links between Hugo and the characters described by Sibson.

The Almanach de Paris from 1833 – which gives a list of all professionals working in the city – names a sculptor "Trajin" as living in Saint Germain-des-Pres, where Hugo also lived at the time.

An early draft of Les Misérables, another of Hugo's acclaimed novels, holds another clue indicating that Hugo drew on the Government sculptors described by Sibson for inspiration.

The lead character in an early version of the novel is named as "Jean Trejean" which Hugo later changed to "Jean Valjean".

Professor Sean Hand, the head of the Department of French Studies at the University of Warwick, and an expert on Hugo, said: "It is a fascinating discovery. Many scholars have tried to link Quasimodo's deformities with certain medical conditions, but I have never seen any reference to a historical character that he may have been based upon.

"It sounds entirely plausible, and if Hugo was indeed inspired by this deformed stonemason at Notre Dame, it further renews our appreciation of his amazing imaginative powers to take details from real life and weave them into magical literature."

Gerry Croydon, a distant relative of Sibson's, said: "Henry's diaries are fascinating, as he travelled the length and breadth of Europe and came across some amazing characters. The discovery that his diary may reveal the inspiration behind one of literature's great characters, is quite amazing."

Sibson's memoirs will be on display outside the Hyman Kreitman Reading Room at Tate Britain until the end of August.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Doctor finds plant growing inside man's lung

BREWSTER, Mass. -- There was a problem sprouting in a local man's lung. Doctors originally thought the new growth was a tumor, but when they looked closer, they got a big surprise.

“I was told I had a pea seed in my lung that had split and had sprouted,” said Ron Sveden.

It was not the diagnosis Ron Sveden was expecting. He had prepared himself to hear the words cancer and tumor, but a plant growing in his lung?

“Probably about a half-an-inch, which is a pretty big thing of course,” said Sveden.

Ron had been sick for months. He was already fighting emphysema when his health took a turn for the worse.

“I was not doing too well, a lot of coughing, I was very listless,” said Sveden.

On Memorial Day Sveden’s wife called 911, and he was rushed to the hospital where doctors took x-rays and found his left lung collapsed.

For two weeks they ran tests but they all came back negative for cancer, until one doctor found the plant growing in his lung.

“Whether this would have gone full-term and I’d be working for the jolly green giant, I don’t know. I think the thing that finally dawned on me is that it wasn’t the cancer,” said Sveden.

Ron said he never felt anything growing in his chest, just a lot of coughing.

Doctors suspect he had eaten a pea at some point in the last couple of months and it went down the wrong way, and then began to grow.

“One of the first meals I had in the hospital after the surgery had peas for the vegetable. I laughed to myself and ate them,” said Sveden.

His wife Nancy was beyond happy with this strange twist of fate.

“God has such a sense of humor. It could have been just nothing, but it had to be a pea, and it had to be sprouting,” said Nancy Sveden, Ron’s wife.

Sveden continues to recover at home. In fact, friends and neighbors have had fun with this; they sent him pea seeds and canned peas all in good fun.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Diabetes Diagnosis for Jerry Douthett: Dog Ate Toe
Dog Was Attracted to the Sweet Smell of Elevated Blood Sugar, Experts Say
By Courtney Hutchinson,
ABC News Medical Unit

A Michigan man was alerted to his Type 2 diabetes when his dog bit off a toe that had become infected due to his undiagnosed illness. The dog, Kiko, seen here, is currently being watched for signs of rabies, but otherwise the owner, Jerry Douthett of Rockford is thankful for his pet's actions.
(ABC News)

Most pet owners would be irate if their dog bit off one of their toes, but Jerry Douthett, of Rockford, Mich., is nothing but grateful: this canine feat may have saved his life.

Douthett was alerted to the seriousness of a bone infection in his foot, resulting from previously undiagnosed Type II diabetes, when his terrier Kiko bit off his big toe while he was passed out drunk, according to The Grand Rapids Press.

"Jerry had had all these Margaritas, so I just let him sleep," his wife, Rosee, a registered nurse told the Michigan paper. "But then I heard these screams coming from the bedroom, and he was yelling, 'My toe's gone, my toe's gone!'"

He suspected for months something was wrong with his foot, but the 48-year-old musician had only recently scheduled an appointment to see a doctor.

Douthett was rushed to the hospital by Rosie where doctors amputated the rest of his toe and diagnosed him with Type II diabetes.

Though Kiko is being hailed as a hero, he is also being watched by authorizes to ensure that he doesn't have rabies.

The Dog That Smelled Diabetes

But a dog wouldn't need to rabid to act in the way Kiko did, according to Brian Adams, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals-Angell.

When flesh begins to die, as would have happened with Douthett's infection in his toe, it lets off a particular odor that any dog can be attracted to.

"Dogs are known to be attracted to licking wounds. It wouldn't be a bridge too far to suppose that the toe would have given off an odor that attracted the dog, and that may have progressed to biting or gnawing on the toe," he says.

"If the owner didn't wake up, there'd be no deterrent to stop."

The fact that Kiko's owner most likely had elevated blood sugar due to his diabetes would have made the appeal all the stronger, says Dr. Marty Becker, veterinarian at the North Idaho Animal Hospital and author of "The Healing Power of Pets."

"Dogs like to lick open wounds because it has blood sugar in it. Here's a case where the high blood sugar could have been a sweet, ambrosial smell to the dog," Becker says.

"It's not bad for the dog. People get freaked out because dogs are very much drawn to the smell of decaying flesh, but dogs are scavengers by nature," he adds.

Diabetes Warning Signs to Not Miss

Though it took Douthett a decaying toe and a trip to the emergency room to find out he had Type II diabetes, there are usually other warning signs that can clue a patient in to their illness.

"Many people do find out that they have Type II diabetes for the first time because they have a catastrophe that lands them in the hospital," says Dr. Gerald Bernstein, co-director of the Diabetes Management Program at Friedman's Diabetes Institute in New York.

By being attuned to the warning signs of diabetes or pre-diabetic conditions such as glucose intolerance, however, patients can help identify their condition and start treatment earlier -- a key step in avoiding life threatening, or appendage-threatening consequences, he says.

"If a patient has high enough blood sugar, they are going to experience the classic symptoms of fatigue, dry mouth, and constant thirst," Bernstein says, noting that in younger patients, it can be easier to tolerate and make excuses for these symptoms and therefore overlook the underlying disease.

When glucose levels are elevated for long periods of time, the earliest tissues to be affected are the nerves, especially those that are farthest from the trunk of the body, the feet and toes. Patients may have numbness, and lack of pain sensation that they may not notice.

With good medical care, Bernstein says that amputations due to diabetes are much less frequent than in the past, but when people don't pay attention to changes in the look or the sensation in their feet, after a point, the appendages cannot be saved.

In addition to symptom awareness, regular screening of blood glucose levels is also key, he adds.

Given the fact that over 40 percent of the U.S. population over 20 has Type 2 diabetes or a pre-diabetic condition, Bernstein says, "people would do well to have their blood sugar screened on a regular basis."

Superman Comic Saves Family Home From Foreclosure
Unexpected Find of Action Comics No. 1 Could Fetch Upwards of a Quarter of a Million Dollars at Auction
By Ray Sanchez

(Courtesy Metropolis Collectibles, Inc.)

A struggling family facing foreclosure has stumbled upon what is considered to be the Holy Grail of comic books in their basement – a fortuitous find that could fetch upwards of a quarter million dollars at auction.

A copy of Action Comics No. 1, the first in which Superman ever appeared, was discovered as they went about the painful task of packing up a home that had been in the family since at least the 1950s. The couple, who live in the South with their children, asked to remain anonymous.

"The bank was about ready to foreclose," said Vincent Zurzolo, co-owner of and Metropolis Comics and Collectibles in New York. "Literally, this family was in tears. The family home was going to be lost and they're devastated. They can't figure out a way out of this. They start packing things up. They go into the basement and start sifting through boxes – trying to find packing boxes – and they stumble on eight or nine comic books."

Most of the comic books in the box were worth between $10 and $30 but one – dated June 1938 and depicting the Man of Steel lifting a car above his head – was extremely rare. That issue, which originally sold for 10 cents, is considered to have ushered in the age of the superhero.

"It's a tremendous piece of American pop culture history," Zurzolo said. The couple learned online that had brokered the record-breaking sales of Action No. 1 copies for $1 million in February and then $1.5 million one month later. They immediately texted a cell phone picture to the firm's co-owner, Stephen Fishler.

"You couldn't have asked for a happier ending," Zurzolo said. "Superman saved the day."

Most Americans aren't so lucky. Nationwide, more than 1.6 million properties were in some stage of foreclosure in the first half of the year, according to RealtyTrac, up about 8 percent from a year ago but down 5 percent from the final six months of 2009. The couple had recently taken out a second mortgage on their home to start a new business, which failed in the uncertain economy. Mortgage payments were missed and the bank soon came after their home, which became theirs after the death of the wife's father. Fishler had to get on the phone to convince the bank to back off.

"My partner basically had to explain to the bank, 'You'll have your money soon,'" Zurzolo said. "We sent them information about our previous sales and what this could realize."

First Superman Comic Saves Family's Home
A struggling family cleaning out the basement of their home stumbled upon what is known as the Holy Grail of comic books ? a fortuitous find expected to save their house from foreclosure.

In a statement released through ComicConnect, the owner of the prized comic book said the family was still "a little shell shocked" after the unexpected find. "I was so nervous when I realized what it was worth," the owner said. "I know I am very fortunate but I will be greatly relieved when this book finds a new home."

Last Thursday, the couple's copy received a 5.0 VG(Very Good)/Fine rating on a scale of 1 to 10. It could fetch upwards of $250,000 when it goes up for auction on from Aug. 27 through Sept. 17.

In a statement released through ComicConnect, the owner of the prized comic book said the family was still "a little shell shocked" after the unexpected find. "I was so nervous when I realized what it was worth," the owner said. "I know I am very fortunate but I will be greatly relieved when this book finds a new home."

"That was at the worst part of the recession," Zurzolo said. "All the publicity we got on that was incredible…From all this publicity people started looking around and they started finding things." There are about 100 copies of Action Comics No. 1 believed to be in existence, with only a handful in good condition. In the last year and a half, about 7 copies have turned up. "You never know," Zurzolo said. "You might have a hidden treasure in your home which can change your life."

Zurzolo said more and more investors are calling ComicConnect looking for ways to make their money grow. One recent caller wanted to invest half a million dollars that he said were sitting in a bank account. "This happens to be the best year we've ever had," he said.

The copies of Action Comic No. 1 that sold for $1 million and $1.5 million earlier this year had been purchased for about $140,000 each more than a decade ago.

"When you tell people they might have more than a million bucks somewhere, it makes people move around and check places," he said. "In terms of the prices we've been able to realize, I do think that ties directly to the economy. You're dealing with a time in history when people are very uncertain about the stock market. They are extremely wary of the real estate market. They're making absolutely no money in their bank accounts."

After discovering their small treasures, many people want to remain anonymous – like many lottery winners. "People don't want people knowing how much money they have," Zurzolo said. "Some people are very paranoid."

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Military dog comes home from Iraq traumatized
German shepherd did door-to-door searches for bombs
By Dan Elliott
The Associated Press

Ed Andrieski / AP
Gina, a highly trained bomb-sniffing dog with the U.S. military, joins Staff Sgt. Chris Kench on a sofa at the kennel at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. After she came home to Peterson Air Force Base in June 2009, a military veterinarian diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder.

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colorado — Gina was a playful 2-year-old German shepherd when she went to Iraq as a highly trained bomb-sniffing dog with the military, conducting door-to-door searches and witnessing all sorts of noisy explosions.

She returned home to Colorado cowering and fearful. When her handlers tried to take her into a building, she would stiffen her legs and resist. Once inside, she would tuck her tail beneath her body and slink along the floor. She would hide under furniture or in a corner to avoid people.

A military veterinarian diagnosed with her post-traumatic stress disorder — a condition that experts say can afflict dogs just like it does humans.

"She showed all the symptoms and she had all the signs," said Master Sgt. Eric Haynes, the kennel master at Peterson Air Force Base. "She was terrified of everybody and it was obviously a condition that led her down that road."

A year later, Gina is on the mend. Frequent walks among friendly people and a gradual reintroduction to the noises of military life have begun to overcome her fears, Haynes said.

Haynes describes her progress as "outstanding."

"Pretty fabulous, actually," added Staff Sgt. Melinda Miller, who's been Gina's handler since May. "She makes me look pretty good."

PTSD is well-documented among American servicemen and women returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but its existence in animals is less clear-cut. Some veterinarians say animals do experience it, or a version of it.

"There is a condition in dogs which is almost precisely the same, if not precisely the same, as PTSD in humans," said Nicholas Dodman, head of the animal behavior program at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

Reluctant to use term of PTSD for animals
But some veterinarians dislike applying the diagnosis to animals, thinking it demeans servicemen and women, Dodman said. He added that he means no offense to military personnel when he uses the term.

The military defines PTSD as a condition that develops after a life-threatening trauma. Victims suffer three types of experiences long afterward, even in a safe environment. They repeatedly re-experience the trauma in nightmares or vivid memories. They avoid situations or feelings that remind them of the event, and they feel keyed up all the time.

When Gina returned to Peterson last year after her six-month deployment in Iraq, she was no longer the "great little pup" Haynes remembered.

She had been assigned to an Army unit, and her job was to search for explosives after soldiers entered a house. The troops sometimes used noisy, blinding "flash-bang" grenades and kicked down doors, Haynes said, and Gina was once in a convoy when another vehicle was hit by an improvised bomb.

Back home at Peterson, Gina wanted nothing to do with people.

"She'd withdrawn from society as a whole," Haynes said.

Haynes, who has worked with more than 100 dogs in 12 years as a handler and kennel master, said he has seen other dogs rattled by trauma, but none as badly as Gina.

Haynes and other handlers coaxed Gina on walks, sending someone ahead to pass out treats for bystanders to give her. They got her over her fear of walking through doors by stationing someone she knew on the other side to reward her with pats and play. They eased her farther into buildings with the same technique.

"She started learning that everyone wasn't trying to get her," Haynes said. "She began acting more social again."

On a sunny afternoon last week, Gina dashed across her training yard, jumping over obstacles on command and deftly pushing a ball with her forelegs and chest. On a visit to a store on base, she trotted calmly down the aisles and sat quietly when a woman bent to pet her.

"She's such a lovable dog," Miller said, describing how the 61-pound Gina will lie in her lap. "I could literally hold this dog like a baby."

But Haynes said they're careful not to let their affection interfere with good training. Treating Gina like a human — for example, comforting her when she's frightened — can leave her thinking that her handler is pleased when she's afraid.

"She's just gorgeous and I love her, but you also have to balance it with — you have to do what's right," he said.

Gina has resumed some of her duties, searching cars for explosives at Peterson or other nearby military facilities. Eventually, she may be able to return to the kind of hazardous duty she did in Iraq, but that's at least a year away, Haynes said.

"We're not planning on doing it anytime in the near future because obviously, we don't want to mess up everything we've already fixed," he said.

Vet doubts dog can completely recover
Dodman said he doubts Gina can recover completely.

"It's a fact that fears once learned are never unlearned," Dodman said. "The best thing you can do is apply new learning, which is what (Gina's handlers are) doing," he said.

Haynes acknowledged that's a concern, and although he hopes Gina recovers 100 percent he doesn't know if she will.

"Anytime someone has that much fear about anything, then obviously it will be hard just to get it fixed," he said.

"But, I mean, we don't really have many other options," Haynes said. "You can't really give up on them. They're your partner."

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Brazilian men swapped at birth work, live together
By Stan Lehman,
Associated Press Writer

AP – In this photo taken May 17, 2009, Dimas Jose Aliprandi, left, and Elton Plaster meet as they pose for pictures in Santa Maria de Jetiba, Espirito Santo state, Brazil. Aliprandi and Plaster, who had been switched at birth more than 20 years ago, are now living and working together with their families growing vegetables and coffee on a small farm in southeastern Brazil.

SAO PAULO – Two years back, Dimas Aliprandi and Elton Plaster didn't know of each other's existence. Then they learned they had been accidentally switched at birth more than 20 years ago.

The discovery didn't bring bitterness or recrimination. Rather, it led to the creation of a bigger family.

Today, the two 25-year-olds are living and working together with both sets of parents growing vegetables and coffee on a small farm in southeastern Brazil.

The chain of events started with Aliprandi, who was always intrigued that he did not resemble the four sisters he grew up with.

"There was something different," he told The Associated Press by phone. "I had blonde hair and blue eyes and my sisters had dark hair and eyes.

"I had the typical features of a descendent of German immigrants, while my sisters and parents were of Italian stock. Something did not add up"

Aliprandi said he was 14 when his suspicions intensified after watching a TV news report on babies getting switched at birth because of mistakes at hospitals.

"I told my father of my doubts and that I wanted to do a DNA test. But it was too expensive" for the family, he said.


A decade later, Aliprandi did it on his own.

"In December 2008, when I was 24, I decided I needed an answer to my doubts and paid 300 reals ($166) for a DNA test that confirmed my suspicions that I was not the birth son of the man and woman who had raised me," he said.

It was a big shock for his parents, Zilda and Antonio Aliprandi. They at first refused to believe the results, but eventually decided to help him look for his biological parents.

The search began at the Madre Regina Protmann Hospital, where he was born.

"I showed the hospital the results of the DNA test and told them that they proved that I had been switched at birth," Aliprandi said.

But hospital officials were skeptical, he said, and asked him to have another DNA test, which he did three months later.

Repeated calls to the hospital for comment went unanswered.

The DNA results were the same as the first — Aliprandi had been given to the wrong mother as an infant.

He said the hospital then searched its records and found Elton Plaster was born there on the same day.

The records led Aliprandi to the 35-acre (14-hectare) farm where Plaster lived with his parents, Nilza and Adelson, in the town of Santa Maria de Jetiba, about 30 miles (45 kilometers) from the Aliprandi home in Joao Neiva.

The Plasters agreed to do DNA tests.

"They discovered that Elton was the biological son of the man and woman that I had been calling Mom and Dad for 24 years," Aliprandi said. "Meanwhile, Elton discovered that the couple he had always regarded as his biological parents were mine."

The discovery did not cause any upset, he said.

"Instead it sparked a desire to join our families," Aliprandi said. "Elton and I wanted to remain with those who raised us and with our birth parents. We wanted to expand our families."

So about a year ago, Aliprandi and the parents who raised him accepted an offer from the Plasters to move to their farm, where they built a home.

"This is the way it should be," Adelson Plaster recently told Globo TV. "We are all together and I now have two sons living and working here."

Aliprandi and Plaster both feel blessed by their new circumstances.

"It's not everyone who can say he has two fathers and two mothers living together with him," Aliprandi said.