Archive for October, 2006

Drug Experiment

Sunday, October 29th, 2006

For the past ten months, I’ve been taking part in a drug experiment. Along with 47 other people around the country, I’m taking a medication called Tolvaptan, which may or may not end up lessening the effects of polycystic kidney disease, also known as PKD. PKD is the most common genetic, life-threatening disease there is — more common than cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, Huntington’s disease, hemophilia, Down syndrome and sickle cell anemia combined.

I inherited PKD from my dad; a number of other close relatives have it, too. Each year our family takes part in the PKD Foundation’s Walk for the Cure, raising money that will help pay scientists to research this disease ever more deeply. Thanks to the PKD Foundation and its many benefactors, the research is going extremely well. But we’re not there yet.

Tolvaptan is a vasopressin receptor antagonist. Vasopressin is a hormone that causes your kidneys to conserve water. Hence, when you take Tolvaptan, fluid flows out of you like, well, water. You pee more, and more often, than other people do. Your body misses all that fluid, so you also get thirstier than you ever used to be. Most mornings when I wake up, I’m thirstier than I was when I hiked the Grand Canyon, some 15 years ago, on a very hot day. I no longer go to sleep without a big glass of water near the bed; when I wake up, I drain it.

A lot of people who care about PKD are curious about Tolvaptan — how it feels to be on it, how optimistic we are. Ever since the invention of dialysis and transplants, Tolvaptan is the first real hope we’ve had. So I’d like to start blogging about it. I may forget to do so, now and again. If you’d like me to say more, just let me know.

For now I’ll say this: I’ve gotten used to peeing more than most people do, and to being thirstier than I ever used to be. I am now constantly aware of where I can get water and juice in a hurry; when I go to a new place, that’s what I look for. When I went to Italy in August, a week or so after the British government disrupted the plot to use liquids to blow up planes in the sky, and the airlines decided that the rest of use could no longer bring liquids onto planes, I became very agitated. I worried much more about getting enough to drink on the plane than about terrorism. (In the end, I was fine. And Italy was even more beautiful than I’d been told it would be.)

There’s an unexpected benefit of Tolvaptan: The thirst, and the anticipation of that thirst, can distract you from other anxieties (exploding planes) you might otherwise develop. I don’t mind my airplane exploding, as long as I have access to liquids on the way down.

I live in New York City — Brooklyn, to be precise — and as the northern hemisphere once again tilts away from the sun, I remember noticing, last year, that I felt colder than I used to feel. Perhaps because of Tolvaptan, my body doesn’t run as warmly as it used to. All of my life, I have felt warm when others around me felt cold. Now I feel cold before they do. That’s a bummer.

But if Tolvaptan slows the growth of my cysts, I’ll take it.

Why Religion Is Better Than Science

Sunday, October 29th, 2006

Actually, most of them aren’t. But a number of religions do at least one thing better than any science I’ve ever seen: They motivate their followers to go out of their way to show kindness to people not related to them. People they’ve never met: total strangers.

That is not to say that the sciences urge cruelty. Those who study biology, chemistry and physics are no more likely than those who live by faith to deliberately harm strangers. Indeed, they are far less likely to do so than a religious fanatic is to harm an infidel. A ‘biology fanatic’ may devote his days to observing killer whales, but doing so does not make him a murderer. Indeed, naturalists have been the first and most consistent protectors of non-human life. And anthropologists often perform the same function for endangered tribes of people, urging the rest of us to appreciate rather than destroy.

Still, ‘helping’ is not the primary motivation for an anthropologist the way it is for, say, a nun who devotes her life to feeding, educating and clothing the poor. Religions can inspire us to look for God or the Buddha or Krishna or Jesus or a Hebrew Scripture Angel in a deeply flawed, smelly human being, and some people claim they really do see God or the Buddha, etc., in the eyes of that suffering person. And they spend time with that stranger, and look into his or her eyes, and get to know him or her, and emerge from the encounter having made both that person and themselves and, by extension, the rest of us, a little happier. That’s glorious.

People who are not religious at all do this too, of course. Many atheists I know care deeply for people unrelated to them, and do their best to help. We do not need religions to teach us to be ethical.

What I’m saying is neither that people need religions to remind them to show compassion, nor that the study of science removes such compassion (although there’s some evidence that the study of economics has this effect — a study of undergraduate economics students revealed them to be, on average, less altruistic at the course’s end than they’d been at the beginning). Only that some religions are really good at motivating it — at nagging people to look more closely at the stranger, to see the stranger as less strange.

And in this respect, when it does this one very important thing, religion is better, in that moment, than science.

To this, some people would add the hope many religions offer for a better life after this one — reuniting with loved ones, etc. To me, though, that hope is counterbalanced by the fear many of those same religions implant — the fear that you and/or your loved ones will end up in Hell, or at least with much more pain than you already have. I’d much rather believe that my deceased loved ones never regained consciousness than imagine them in Hell, and I feel the same way about my own fate. So I think that one’s a wash.