As I lay face down in a Dupont Circle clinic, I felt my hands start to shake. I was prepped for what was about to happen, but as soon as I felt the acupuncturist’s hands on my back, my body instinctively recoiled. I braced myself. I've never broken a bone in my body—bee stings, bruises, and shots were the closest I've come to real pain.
As I wondered if I would ever leave the building with my dignity intact, acupuncturist Andrei Stoica’s hands were no longer on my back—they had flitted down to my ankles. A near indecipherable pinch, and I felt his fingertips on my wrist. He then began to comb through my hair, lightly pricking the sides and top of my head. By the time he left me alone in the clean, quiet clinic, I realized that there were multiple needles sticking out of my body, and I had barely felt them break the skin at all.
Seconds later, I couldn’t feel a thing.
"You better dip yourself in sunblock from May until September," my dermatologist ordered a few years back after I showed him the mysterious red welts on my legs. They had appeared, stinging like fire ants, while I sat on my front stoop at high noon reading a paperback. It seemed, my doctor said, that as I was advancing in age, my skin was losing its subcutaneous fat and becoming thinner, more fragile, and, as evidenced by the mottled red legs, highly reactive to sunlight.
To someone who’d grown up with a pool in her back yard, spent decades baking on rooftops and in patio chairs, and proudly refused anything with the letters SPF on the label, the news held a cruel poetic justice. Like Ben and Jerry suddenly becoming lactose-intolerant.
The interesting thing about going deaf is you don’t realize it’s happening. It’s impossible to pinpoint when everyone began to mumble, when you ceased hearing your own footsteps clicking down a hall.
“Is it the accents?” my husband asked when I complained that the actors on Downton Abbey spoke too fast. We started watching with subtitles. At the theater, I focused on the beauty of the sets and costumes because—though I would have denied this—I couldn’t follow the dialogue. Meanwhile, car horns and sirens dimmed. Packages didn’t arrive, yet the UPS man insisted he’d rung the bell three times. “Impossible,” I shot back. “I was home.”
My lowest moment came last spring at a reading to promote my first novel. A woman rose and recounted what I later learned was a risqué tale about a CIA spy (the book was an espionage thriller), then asked a question that had the audience in stitches. I squirmed, laughed along, and responded with what was surely a non sequitur, as I’d caught barely a word of what she’d said. In the taxi home, I thought: Enough.
Still, none of this prepared me for sitting in an audiologist’s office at age 43, being told that I suffered severe hearing loss. How severe? In one test, he stood across the room, spoke a series of words in a normal voice, and asked me to repeat them.
“Void,” he said.
“Void,” I repeated.
“Ditch,” he said.
Out of 20, I got 16. “Not perfect,” I sniffed, “but hardly severe.”
He repeated the test, now holding a sheet of paper before his face.
“Mumble,” he said.
“Um . . . repeat that one?”
“Nope. Mumbledy mumble.”
This time, I got 6 out of 20. When I couldn’t see his lips move, I missed 70 percent of what he said.
“How are you even functioning?” he inquired, genuinely mystified.
As a reporter, I’ve spent time on aircraft carriers, in helicopters, in war zones. For two decades, I’ve edited stories on deadline through headphones cranked too loud. But the most likely explanation for my hearing loss? Genetics. My father is hard of hearing. So are his sisters and 96-year-old mother. I’ve long known what loomed in my future—I just hadn’t expected it so early.
My first day with hearing aids, I went about my routine with a sense of wonder. It was astonishing to rediscover that pop songs had words I could sing along to. “Have been bopping to an ’80s dance mix all morning,” I posted on Facebook. “I challenge anyone to deny Debbie Gibson was a genius ahead of her time.” (To which came the inevitable reply: “You need to get your hearing checked.”)
By day two, I was on sensory overload. Starbucks left me near tears—I’d had no idea frothing milk made such a racket. I jogged in Rock Creek Park and for the first time in years didn’t jump every time cyclists whizzed past, because I could hear them coming.
The doctors can’t say whether my hearing has stabilized or will worsen. And hearing aids are an imperfect solution. The experience is different from, say, getting glasses and instantly being able to see. It takes time for the brain to adjust, to relearn the pathways it once knew. You almost never recover all that has been lost.
But you do learn to savor small triumphs. The other day, the UPS driver rang my doorbell and I heard him—and tipped big. I still can’t watch TV without subtitles. But at a play recently, the curtain rose and I slumped in sheer relief at being able to follow the words. Not every line, but enough. I’m holding onto that theater program, a memento of a pleasure once dimmed, now mine once more.
Mary Louise Kelly is a former NPR intelligence correspondent. Her latest novel, "The Bullet," was just published.
This article appears in our April 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
Celebrity fitness trainer Obi Obadike, who is also a cohost on Lifestyle Magazine's health show and contributes workout videos to OWNZONES, shares 5 tips to begin living a healthier lifestyle and lose weight in the process.
Get a physical.
Obadike recommends getting a full physical and blood work every year. “A lot of people are afraid of going to the doctor because they don’t want to hear bad news,” Obadike says. “You need to know where you’re starting at in order to make any improvements.” Checking your cholesterol, vitamin levels, and blood pressure are all important in order to figure out a fitness routine that will work for you.
“The recommended minimum amount of cardio is 25 minutes, three times a week,” Obadike says. “But start off slow.”
According to the American Heart Association, those 25 minutes of cardio need to be "vigorous." But if you’re not used to exercising regularly, walking is a good way to get started. From there, Obadike says you can build up to a walking-jogging combo, and then begin a running routine (30 minutes a day for three to five days). Eventually, you can work up to 45 minutes of cardio, three to five times a week, to see faster results.
If you're short on time, Obadike recommends doing other cardiovascular exercises that get your heart rate up, such as jumping jacks or jumping rope.
Begin strength training.
“All you really need for strength training is your body,” Obadike says. “There’s no need for machines or weights—there’s really no need to even leave your home.” Obadike recommends a mash-up of basic exercises to work all of your muscles: sit-ups, push-ups, planks, lunges, and squats, 20 of each, and repeat two to three times for two to three days a week.
Follow the 80/20 rule when it comes to your diet.
“Eat well 80 percent of the time, and then splurge 20 percent of the time,” Obadike says. “This will keep you from binge-eating unhealthy foods, because you’re treating yourself now and then.”
If you’re a smoker—quit.
“These fitness routines can be much more difficult if you’re smoking,” Obadike says, “so I ask my clients to cut back or quit smoking entirely.”
Quitting smoking can reduce the risk of lung diseases and respiratory complications within one to two years, according to the American Lung Association, and after two weeks, the lungs begin to repair themselves.
"A healthy heart and cardiovascular system will make exercising and following a routine much easier," Obadike says. "Exercise can help you get through the stress of quitting and help you make healthier choices."
5-Minute Home Workout
When Jill Bruno started her orthodontics residency at the Eastman Institute for Oral Health in Rochester, New York, in 1995, fewer than 20 women had gone through the then 39-year-old program. “There was one other female in my class, ” says the Chevy Chase orthodontist. “Now more and more women are going into dental school.”
Women currently make up nearly half of all dental students at colleges in the United States. By 2020, thanks to those graduates, some 30 percent of all dentists will be women. Think that’s low? Before 1970, just 3 percent were women.
The numbers reflect the overall rise of women in advanced education—they now earn the majority of graduate degrees. Yet the appeal seems to go beyond that.
“Dentistry is a wonderful caring profession, and women are caring by nature, ” says Bruno. “It’s great when I take a patient’s braces off and they hug me. I sometimes still get tears in my eyes.”
Some female dentists, including Bruno and Arlington’s Danine Fresch, say some patients seek them out partly because they’re women.
“Not to sound sexist, but I can tell you that a lot of my patients say we tend to listen better, ” says Fresch.
“I do feel that women spend more time discussing treatment plans, diagnosis, and symptoms in ways I think are beneficial to patients, ” says Mary Beth Aichelmann-Reidy, an associate professor of periodontics at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry and past president of the American Association of Women Dentists.
Or are women just better at managing their time? A big reason they’re drawn to dentistry is that it’s possible to work flexible hours while raising a family.
Aichelmann-Reidy, though, challenges a common sentiment she’s heard—that because women may cut back on their hours to rear children, fewer dentists will be available to the general public.
“Male colleagues have been stating this as a fact in presentations when this is not true, ” she says. “I actually had a colleague say to me, when I entered dental school in the early ’80s, ‘Oh, good—there are more women in your class so less competition for us because you won’t be working.’
“The data that’s published on female and male grads do not substantiate that claim. Female dentists want to work full-time, just as the male dentist does.”
While male dentists may challenge the notions that they don’t listen as well as their female colleagues and that women dentists work just as many hours, women have one clear advantage.
“Female dentists have smaller hands, ” says Pamela Marzban, a general dentist in Burke, “and that makes it a more comfortable experience for patients.”
This article appears in our March 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
You don’t need toothpaste.
“Toothpaste tastes good, it feels good. But the physical action of the bristle against the tooth is what does most of the cleaning, not the chemicals, ” says Stuart Ross, a general dentist in DC. “But none of us want to brush our teeth without toothpaste. Yuck. It’s like kissing someone through a paper bag.” We’re not saying toothpaste has no merit—your teeth get a dose of fluoride, for example. The takeaway: If you run out of paste, you don’t have to skip brushing.
Floss prior to brushing, not after.
“Flossing beforehand allows food debris to be removed, allowing fluoride from the toothpaste to penetrate between the teeth, ” says Chevy Chase endodontist Reza Farshey.
Position the brush at a 45-degree angle so the bristles are half on the teeth, half on the gums.
“In this position, using a soft-bristle brush and with a horizontal scrubbing motion followed by a roll toward the crown of the tooth, the entire tooth as well as the gum line can be cleaned, ” says Falls Church periodontist A. Garrett Gouldin. “Even if a person has an electric brush, it will not be effective unless they position the bristles this way.”
Don’t brush more than three times a day.
Brush more often, or brush too hard, and you could wear down enamel and gums. “The key is a small, gentle motion, ” says Chevy Chase orthodontist Jill Bruno. What’s also key: brushing for a full two minutes. If the bristles of your toothbrush flare out before three months of use—it’s recommended you change your brush every two to three months—that may be a sign you’re brushing too hard.
Bleeding gums can be an indication you need to brush more, not less.
If you notice bleeding when brushing or flossing, Gouldin says, it’s likely because plaque at the gum line is causing inflammation.“Many people back off in their brushing when they see bleeding—when in fact, as long is there is no cut or trauma, bleeding is a sign that a person should double down their cleaning.” If the bleeding continues more than a few days, though, you may want to see a dentist.
This article appears in our March 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
What’s the best excuse you’ve heard from a patient who hadn’t been to the dentist in a while?
“A patient said he had been meaning to come see us for years but could never find our building. He was a fireman.”
—Dr. Paul W. Callahan, Sterling
“My best were ‘I was busy planning my wedding but then got divorced and now want to get back on the market’ and ‘I opened a beer bottle with my teeth and broke one, but I knew you’d be upset.’ ”
—Dr. Brian Gray, Tenleytown
What’s the strangest method You’ve Seen for putting a patient at ease?
“I have a patient who has two personalities—one completely dental-phobic and the other cool as a cucumber in the chair. The only difference between these two people is the Neil Diamond music playing softly in the background. We cue it up every time she sets foot in our office.”
—Dr. Kristen Donohue, Burke
“One woman brought with her a male friend who massaged her feet while she had the work done. Then they disappeared into the bathroom for 30 minutes together.”
—Dr. Danine Fresch, Arlington
Have you ever taken extraordinary measures to put a patient at ease?
“A patient desperately needed periodontal care but was too phobic to even enter the office because when he did go to the dentist, he passed out. I spoke to him on the phone and we agreed that, because it was spring and the weather was so beautiful, we would meet in the courtyard of my building to do the initial examination. My assistant and I and the patient laughed as we did a full exam outside, with people walking by. For the next visit, when we needed to move into his treatment phase, we again met him outside, then walked him—one of us holding each arm—directly into the office and to the dental chair, reclined him, and started his IV sedation.”
—Dr. A. Garrett Gouldin, Falls Church
This article appears in our March 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
Lights flashed, hands were all over me, and I was hoisted onto a stretcher. The last thing I remembered—as “memory” itself haltingly reformed—was leaving work, walking my bike across L Street, and turning onto the bicycle lane. But that’s all that’s come back to this day, a year later.
Most people assume it was a collision. It could have been: Bicyclists whiz by without calling out, “On your left!” Rush-hour car traffic around 19th and L is aggressive—and inches away. But there was no police report, no evidence any vehicle was involved.
Friends kept asking if I’d found out what caused the accident—which, because I was wearing a helmet, only broke my elbow, knocked out two teeth, cut up my face, and detached a retina. My standard reply became “No, and I’m not sure I need to. What I imagine might have happened is bad enough.” Privately, I decided that a cyclist sped past, close enough to knock me off balance. But the questions haunted me.
I’d been told GW hospital’s records office could provide emergency-services and doctors’ reports from that February night. I wasn’t convinced that seeing the trauma described in black and white would do me good, even if it solved a puzzle, so I procrastinated. But several weeks later, my sister-in-law was driving me back from the doctor and encouraged me to seek out answers, if only to help me move on.
So we swung by the hospital, and a short time later I was reading the EMS account: “Patient fell off his bicycle, striking his face on the ground. Does not remember falling and states he does not even ride a bicycle. . . .” And the physician record: “Patient presents with major trauma and bicycle accident. . . . Fell off, hit his head with facial injuries, amnesia of events.”
Fell off. That was all.
I found out I could request the 911 calls. As soon as an e-mail arrived containing two audio files, I realized I couldn’t listen: Strangers describing me bloody and motionless? No, thanks. But my partner did. He told me one call was from a hotel clerk saying pedestrians were reporting someone had fallen from his bike out front. Another was from a driver who saw me on the ground.
As I related this non-news to my brother—who’d been the first to arrive at the ER—he reminded me that when he retrieved the bike, the chain was jammed between the frame and the gear teeth. When he’d mentioned this months before, I’d assumed it had come off track as a result of the crash. Now my brother, a biker himself, said the chain was stuck so tight that it probably came loose first and I pedaled it into its jam—and went down with it.
So, a mechanical failure? A likely scenario anyway.
Still, I’m spooked by the amnesia. Would I rather remember the tumble of flesh, bone, and metal on pavement? No—my protective lapse is a blessing in that regard. The truth is I feel compassion for the guy lying tangled on the ground, and my memory blank gives me the strange sensation of having abandoned him that night.
A year later, after two surgeries, months of physical therapy, and dozens of doctors’ appointments, my elbow and face have healed, I have new teeth, and my eyesight is almost what it was. I no longer bicycle to work—illogically or not, it feels like tempting fate—but last summer I took a rental bike for miles-long rides on an open trail. I was surprised by the outcome: It was a kind of balm. On those sun-warmed days, my body finally began to shoulder the mystery, to balance the weights of what I’ll never know and what I can’t forget.
William O'Sullivan is the senior managing editor of Washingtonian. This article appears in the February 2015 issue.
Millions of Americans take over-the-counter medications for acid reflux. The problem is many don’t have acid reflux.
According to Caren Palese, a gastroenterologist in DC, more than half of the patients who are referred to her with acid-reflux symptoms that haven’t improved with proton-pump inhibitors such as Prilosec and Nexium—which reduce acid production—don’t have the condition at all.
Acid reflux occurs when stomach contents flow back into the esophagus, causing heartburn, coughing, trouble swallowing, chest and throat pain, and the feeling of a lump in your throat, says Dr. Palese, director of the Center for Gastrointestinal Motility and Heartburn at MedStar Georgetown.
According to the National Institutes of Health, 20 percent of adult Americans experience reflux symptoms weekly. Persistent reflux, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, can lead to inflammation, ulceration, and cellular changes in the esophagus, increasing the risk of esophageal cancer.
People who don’t have acid reflux but share many of the symptoms of those with GERD may actually have non-acid reflux. Determining which type a patient suffers from can require tests, such as esophageal pH monitoring. Knowing the kind of reflux someone has is key to coming up with an effective treatment, ranging from medication to surgery.
When symptoms persist, doctors look for an underlying cause, such as a weak lower esophageal sphincter (a ring of muscle that acts as the gatekeeper between the stomach and esophagus) or a hiatal hernia.
In rare cases, when anatomical abnormalities are present and medication and lifestyle changes—such as eating smaller meals and not lying down within two to three hours of eating—fail, surgery may be an option. One surgery, fundoplication, involves wrapping the top of the stomach around the esophagus. The procedure is usually effective and can be performed with minimally invasive surgery, says gastroenterologist Marie Borum, a professor at George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences. The downside is that fundoplication may have to be repeated as tissue shifts with time, weakening the lower esophageal sphincter.
Another operation, recently approved but not yet widely used, involves placing a ring of magnetic titanium beads around the lower esophageal sphincter. The beads’ magnetic force is strong enough to keep the sphincter closed and reflux at bay but is weak enough to allow the sphincter to open when a patient eats. Like fundoplication, the device can be implanted using minimally invasive surgery.
“I don’t want to tell people to run out and get surgery if we can get good medication control, because there can be complications,” says Dr. Borum. “But there are now surgeries that can be done laparoscopically, which have helped people who may have been reluctant to undergo open surgery.”
Robin Tricoles (firstname.lastname@example.org) currently writes about science for the National Institutes of Health.
This article appears in the January 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
For the past two years, I’ve been inviting whispering women into my bed. Velvet-voiced, trance-inducing ladies of the night. My wife thought it peculiar at first. But when I showed her what they were up to, she succumbed, too. On occasion, we’ve all slept together. Literally slept. That’s it. It’s not weird. Well, it’s kind of weird. But it’s a weird world out there. Especially when you submerge yourself in digital media, as most of us now do for some five hours a day. Have you seen the internet lately? Beheadings, cat videos, leaked photos of naked celebutantes—it’s only a matter of time before we witness a naked celebutante beheading her cat.
All this sensory overload makes it difficult to wind down. Which is where my sleep whisperers come in. A night owl by disposition, I find it harder than ever to calm the mind and get to sleep. I’ve tried traditional remedies—melatonin, Diphenhydramine, heavy drinking. Then by accident I found something that reliably works without punishing my liver: ASMR videos on YouTube.
ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response—a faux-scientific name bestowed by enthusiasts to classify that tingling, soothing, neurotransmitter-discharging sensation some get when, say, hearing a pleasing voice talking softly, or watching someone slowly and methodically run her fingers through her hair, or listening to Bob Ross scrape his “happy little trees” across a canvas (the late, Afro’d landscape painter is considered the Ahura Mazda of the ASMR movement).
There are now tens of thousands of ASMR “trigger” videos, which are not sexual in nature but which, like porn, cater to every taste. ASMRtists (some are men, but most are youngish women) will stroke the camera lens with a makeup brush or crinkle wrapping paper or whisper softly or trace figures in shaving cream or role-play a doctor giving an imaginary patient a cranial-nerve exam (an ASMR staple). The list of activities is long. All of this in an attempt to hit your hypnotic sweet spot, to immerse you in a warm bath of the mind as you’re carried off to the Land of Nod.
Because there’s next to no published research on the subject, many journalistic treatments of ASMR center around one inquiry: Is this sensation verifiable scientifically? To which I say: Who cares? Science has yet to convincingly explain placebo effects, dark matter, or why people pay money to hear Ariana Grande sing. Yet these realities exist. Science can’t even illuminate why we yawn, yet yawning is precisely what I do every time someone tries to seek scientific validation of ASMR.
Why question what works? And ASMR clearly works, as demonstrated by the sheer number of ASMRtists populating the web and the tens of thousands of views these video-making amateurs with names like “softsoundwhispers” (a British-accented woman who is in my regular viewing rotation) often rack up.
I don’t want to go so far as to say ASMR is better than sex, even though ASMR devotees often refer to the drowsy euphoria the videos provide as a “braingasm.” But the average orgasm lasts 5 to 20 seconds. Whereas, if you find an ASMR video that pulls your trigger, it often runs 30 minutes to an hour. You do the math of which ’gasm provides more pleasure, even if you often won’t make it to the end of said video. I’ve never seen the end of many of my favorites, due to being rendered comatose before they conclude.
When I’ve admitted to friends that I’ve spent an ungodly amount of time watching women brush their hair, or gently ramble about their day, or softly read the poetry of John Donne (as one of my very favorites, a Tennessee ASMRtist named Christen Noel, does), there’s a bit of sheepishness on my end. Confessing to such a habit can earn you the uneasy stares that I imagine people get when coming out as a paint huffer or a Twilight fan-fiction writer.
So laugh, if you must, that I’ve drifted off countless times to ASMRtist “chelseamorganwhispers” role-playing a shoe-boutique employee trying to sell me nude peep-toes with a five-inch heel as she taps on them with her long, graceful fingers (even though I’m more of a closed-toe-flats guy). I won’t be chastened by your ridicule. In fact, I won’t even hear it. I’ll be too busy sleeping through the shame, snug in the arms of Morpheus.