I Choose to Be an Optimist

By Ed Maier, Former Andersen Partner

For several years now, my wife has been dealing with a neuromuscular condition called cervical dystonia. This is not a life-threatening condition, but it is one that has progressively limited her lifestyle. After following the necessary protocols, pharmaceutical and therapeutic treatments to attempt to relieve or reduce the condition, we agreed with her doctors that the next steps required a series of surgical procedures.

Before I go any further, this article is not about the detail of the surgery or any subsequent treatment she may have to follow. It is simply about an observation that struck me while visiting with her neurological team and the hospital in which her treatments are being carried out.

I have been somewhat fortunate in my life as I have not had to spend too much time inside a hospital as a patient. Recently, as I sat in her room while she was beginning her recovery from her second surgery, I was taken by the degree of sophistication of the equipment and the design of the room in which her care was being given. Many, many years ago, when I had my first hospital experience, I was about five years old and I had my tonsils removed. It is one of the events in my life for which I can regularly recall vivid memories. Time-wise, this would have been around 1950-1951. I remember the doctors and nurses all dressed in starchy white uniforms. I remember the halls being painted a neutral beige-white color. The room was empty of everything except a bed, a chair or two, a painting or two on the wall and a table/chest of drawers for supplies – linens, dressings, etc. I also remember my family doctor who took care of me at the time—along with one, or perhaps two, nurses. And the doctor was my regular go-to-see-when-I-was-sick doctor and the same doctor who performed my surgery.

Fast forward to 2018 and the change is incredible. The amount of technology that exists in my wife’s hospital room today is probably equal to all of the technology that existed in the entire hospital I was in for my tonsillectomy. Also, where I had one doctor and 1-2 nurse assistants, Carol told me that there were at least eight medical professionals in her operating room. Oh, by the way, she watched the entire procedure on a monitor. And this all has taken place in only one short lifetime.

The change in available medical technology, equipment and skills has certainly been dramatic. But as I spoke with her neurosurgeon, I asked many questions about how the procedure that they were going to perform was discovered. Interestingly, as so many other types of discoveries, it came about while doctors and researchers were searching for a possible solution to a different problem. As recently as the early 1950’s, people who were diagnosed with conditions like hers were not able to do much else other than to live with them as best as they could. The procedure, deep brain stimulation, was devised around 1950 for dealing with a different medical condition.

Another area of medicine that has changed as dramatically in a similar time frame deals with prosthetics. While I was in the hospital in 1950, it is safe to assume that in the Veterans’ Administration hospital in Chicago at that time, there were numerous young men and women who were casualties of World War II. Many of these American heroes had to deal with the very difficult lifestyle-altering changes arising from the loss or severe damage of limbs. Fast forward to today. While weapons technology has increased the many ways in which our service personnel can suffer bodily harm, the medical profession and related technology, manufacturing and research organizations have significantly increased the ability of young men and women who are severely wounded to cope with their injuries and lead a full life.

Switch to the field of space exploration. When I was young, I was a big fan of Flash Gordon – in comic books and on television. I can still see those funny shaped spaceships with their weird sounds wobbling across interstellar TV space. I knew they weren’t real, but then in a short number of years, I watched John Glenn launched into orbit and Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. I wondered if our scientists would ever figure out how to return rockets from space and later observed space shuttle launches and return landings. And more recently, I watched the video of Elon Musk and his SpaceX company return rocket boosters to landing pads for subsequent re-use.

As I continued to reflect on this, my mind was flooded with thoughts about the degree of change in a variety of areas in my short lifetime. I had another simple reminder yesterday. I ran an errand in our rental car. I placed a package I purchased on the rear seat behind the driver seat. When I parked back at the hotel and was exiting the car, a signal came on the dashboard screen that said “Look in Rear Seat”. Some quick Google research informed me that this is a new feature in certain GMC car models. Since “…heatstroke was the leading cause of non-crash vehicle related fatalities for children under the age of 14…” GMC designers created this simple feature to remind people to look in the back seat before leaving the car. I did not have passengers of any age, but it was certainly helpful as I did not leave fresh food in the back seat to spoil in the Florida heat. This is just one more example of a technological innovation designed for one purpose, but that also serves others.

It seems a day does not go by that we do not read, see or hear of some dark, tragic, potentially-apocalyptic event that has occurred or may occur. Sometimes it feels like we are being fed a constant diet of negative information by so many pundits, pollsters, bloggers and information-mongers. Yet with all of that going on around us, let’s not forget that there are thousands, if not millions, of people around the world who are engaged in activities that result in our improved personal safety, health or convenience. Not a day goes by that you cannot find news items that report a breakthrough in some field as these hard-working people apply their studies, their research, their talent and their knowledge to solve a major medical, technological, manufacturing or service problem.

I have two young grandchildren. I am excited about the world that they are growing into. Given the positive change that I have seen in my lifetime, I believe the things they will see and learn in the next 50-100 years will be even more positive, more dramatic, more astounding. I choose to be an optimist. I am optimistic for them. I am optimistic for all of us. I believe that mankind, with whatever our flaws and shortcomings, will continue to make progress where and when it counts.

After all, the Cubs did win the World Series in 2016. And I know I wasn’t dreaming that!

As always, I am interested in your thoughts. With respect to more details about this subject, if you are interested, I have a couple of newsletters that you might consider. Feel free to write me at ed@thinkstraighttalkstraight.com.