Bitter Pill

A pill that lowers your empathy for others – not real, right? Strictly science fiction, right?

Wrong. It’s very real. And chances are, you already have it in your medicine cabinet at home.

In a crazier-than-Hollywood finding, researchers at Ohio State University have announced that acetaminophen – that’s the active ingredient in Tylenol – doesn’t just dampen your own feelings of pain. It actually seems to reduce your empathy for the pain that other people are feeling.

That applies to both pain in the physical sense, as in, “Boy, that stubbed toe sure smarts!”, as well as emotional suffering, as in, “Boy, I sure could use a hug!”

In their experiment, the researchers gave acetaminophen to half the participants, while the other half got a placebo. After waiting for the drugs (or pretend drugs) to kick in, the two groups listened to different scenarios in which a person experienced some kind of pain: a cringeworthy knife cut, for instance, or the loss of a parent. The participants were asked to rate how much pain they thought the person was feeling.

Weirdly, the group on acetaminophen seemed rather numb to the suffering of others. On average, compared to the group on placebo, they tended to rate the pain lower on a scale of 1 to 10.

The researchers describe it as a decrease in empathy.

“Empathy is important,” the study’s senior author points out in a news release. “If you are having an argument with your spouse and you just took acetaminophen, this research suggests you might be less understanding of what you did to hurt your spouse’s feelings.”

He went on to say that if we want our loved ones to care about us, we should keep all their medications hidden away.

Okay, I’m not serious about that last part. But it’s certainly a thought-provoking experiment. Now, if they could just discover a pill that has the opposite effect…

Pills

Imagine a pill that makes you sweeter… for me, it would be gourmet jelly beans. (Photo by Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Disaster Relief

If you hadn’t heard much about Fort McMurray before, you know it well now. This region of western Canada has been under siege from spreading, uncontrolled forest fires – and it’s been in news all over the world. The stats are shocking. More than 80,000 people have been displaced from their homes, some initially to oilsands work camps up north because they had nowhere else to go. Many folks drove out of the city using sidewalks or wrong-way lanes just to put a bit more distance between their vehicles and the flying sparks of fire. Tragically, two people were killed in a road accident while trying to leave the city. About 1,600 buildings – mostly people’s houses – burned to the ground. Insurers say they’ve never seen a level of damage like this before – over 9 billion dollars’ worth, by one estimate. The narrative changes daily. As of Sunday, fire covered 161,000 hectares. That’s almost half the size of Long Island, New York.

Evacuees are telling stories that will make you cry: Pets lost to the fires. Family heirlooms and precious photos, gone forever. An iPhone security video of a living room becoming destroyed by flames and smoke. The homeowner watched it happen, live, soon after escaping with his wife.

But, of course, there are stories of compassion as well. So many touching accounts of people reaching out to those in need.

Like the group of Syrian refugees who leapt into rescue mode, collecting donations despite having almost nothing themselves, and telling media: “It’s not easy to lose everything… We can understand them more than anyone in Canada.”

Or the volunteer who retrieved dozens of stranded pets from abandoned houses – including a family’s cherished puppy and pet rabbit mere moments before their home caught fire. (He would have located the house much faster, had the street signs not melted.)

Or the sweet video created by caring students at Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation School, in Loon Lake, Saskatchewan, who wanted to send messages of support so the disaster victims would know they’re not alone.

And, of course, we’ve seen the rise of countless fundraising campaigns all over the country, giving every one of us an opportunity to help.

My heart goes out to all those who are displaced or struggling with devastating losses right now. But my heart is also gladdened to know how much it matters to everyone else.

forest-fire

FreeImages.com/Odan Jaeger

Here’s to the Doorbuilders

Do you ever have one of those moments when you’re utterly humbled by the unselfish acts of others?

Yeah, me too.

Last Friday, I gave up part of my afternoon to collect information on wheelchair access and legislation. This was unpaid work. I’m helping an administrator to comply with the law. Full disclosure: My husband, a wheelchair user, stands to benefit from increased accessibility at this venue.

Here in Ontario, we’re in a years-long process of phasing in legislation that will strengthen the rights protection of people with disabilities. It’s a funny sort of situation, because these rights are already protected – have been for decades, in fact, under the Ontario Human Rights Code.

It’s just that no one seems to know about it.

When people with disabilities go shopping, eat at restaurants, go to the theatre, their rights are routinely violated. They can’t browse in a store, say, because a huge promotional display for maxipads is blocking the aisle. Only people who can stand up can squeeze past. Or they’re told they can’t have a table inside a café, even though there are empty tables available, because their wheelchair would be in the way. Or they’re told they can’t sit anywhere but in the very back row of the theatre. Think this never happens in the 21st century? In fact, all these things have happened to our family in recent memory.

Most of the time, it’s unintentional. And by that I mean that the shopkeepers or eatery owners who don’t treat all their patrons equally are completely clueless that they’re breaking the law.

That’s where the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) comes in. While human rights legislation gives a sort of general guideline – “hey, it’s uncool to discriminate and stuff” – the AODA explains exactly how one must go about providing fair and equitable service to people with disabilities.

This was all very useful in my research last Friday. If I’ve done the job right, the next time my husband patronizes this facility, he will (fingers crossed) be treated fairly. But hopefully this work  will also benefit the many others who come after him. And that’s the critical part. Why should these future customers have to experience the humiliation we did, just because they happen to have a disability?

This wasn’t a brief exercise by any means. I got a bit antsy. The other work I’d hoped to complete that day went on hold. Plus I had friends coming over in a few hours, and there was still vacuuming to be done, laundry to be folded, dinner to be started.

In fact, by the time I hit the Send button and looked at the clock, I admit I was mildly resentful of the time I’d devoted to this.

But then I did a reality check. And I was instantly humbled.

How can I complain about giving up an hour or two of my time to look up some laws? The only reason we have rights legislation and landmark court decisions in the first place is because other people, much more tenacious and persistent than me, have devoted hours, days, even years of their time. Not to mention sweat and tears. Possibly even blood. I can’t rule that out.

So, shut my mouth.

Every time we refer to legislation to prove our right to participate in Canadian society, it’s because steadfast advocates have dedicated themselves to fighting for these laws. They’ve fought for enforcement, too, and for awareness.

They’ve done it not just for themselves, but for all those who come after.

We owe them immense gratitude. And the least I can do is blog about it. So for all the David Lepofskys and the Barbara Turnbulls, and all the others who have made sacrifices to make a difference, we’re indebted to you.

And as for all those who don’t consider themselves longtime accessibility advocates… you know what? If you’ve ever made an effort to make a person with a disability feel welcome at your place of business, your restaurant or your theatre, then that matters a whole lot, too.

Milton Berle said: “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.” I’m grateful to everyone who makes that first cut into the wall.

WelcomeMat

Photo by John Kawasa / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Taken Under His Wing

Typically, when Canadians think of penguins, we imagine the cold-weather birds waddling across snowy glaciers and sliding on the ice in their tuxedos. We don’t picture them lounging on a sunny seaside beach. But that’s what Dindim does, eight months of the year, on an island near Rio de Janeiro.

Dindim is a Magellanic penguin, a South American species. Actually, Dindim almost became an ex-penguin in 2011 when a coating of oil prevented him from eating properly. Luckily, he was discovered by Joao Pereira de Souza, a retired Brazilian bricklayer, who brought him home to his beachside shanty in Proveta and cleaned and fed him (and named him). And kind of fell hard for the feathery little fellow.

When Dindim had recovered his strength, Joao was prepared to release him back into the ocean. But Dindim refused to go, preferring to hang around for a while longer. It was almost a year later when the penguin finally left – only to come back a few months later. And every year since then, Dindim has been returning to catch up with his old pal Joao – who, as far as Dindim is concerned, is just a large, suntanned Magellanic penguin with most of his feathers inexplicably missing.

Joao tells reporters he loves Dindim like a son. He likes to feed him sardines as the bird cuddles in Joao’s lap. No other human can get close to the penguin. “I have never seen anything like this before,” a Brazilian biologist says in an Independent article. “When he sees him he wags his tail like a dog and honks with delight.”

If it weren’t for Joao’s care, Dindim surely wouldn’t have survived. I don’t speak penguin, but I think Dindim’s delighted honks roughly translate as an avian “thank you.”

penguin-swimming

I don’t think this is a Magellanic penguin, but it’s definitely an Adorable-ic penguin. (Photo by Marc Roche)

Good Will Driving

It was a Friday afternoon, I was headed downtown for an event, and I was standing at the bus stop silently cursing myself for leaving the house at 3:00 p.m. instead of 2:55.

See, in my neighbourhood, those five little minutes make a very big difference. At 2:55, you can count on a bus to stop for you. You can trust you’ll be accommodated fairly comfortably while riding said bus.

At 3:00, however, you enter the twilight zone. Instantly, you’re competing for bus real estate with hordes of students freshly dismissed from four area schools. At this point, there’s no guarantee that any of the passing buses will stop or have room for you. If a sympathetic driver does let you squeeze on, you’re resigned to standing as thinly as possible amid a crush of loudly gossiping adolescents, each one wearing a school backpack the approximate size and weight of a Toyota Corolla.

The truth is, I like teenagers. I happen to have one and I used to be one. I enjoy their enthusiasm, and I admire their energy. One can only hope that the driver who is forced to transport a busload of tightly packed teens feels the same way, instead of dreading the portion of her route that takes her past hundreds of waiting students, and resenting the part of her job that compels her to pick them up. One can only hope she sees their charm.

On this day, though, it was the driver who was charming. As the bus ride came to an end she got on the loudspeaker and made this unexpected but endearing announcement: “Okay, folks, we’re just pulling into the subway station. You’ve been a great bunch. So enjoy your day, and have great weekend.”

How did the kids respond? These are enthusiastic people, don’t forget. Naturally, they rewarded the driver with a round of applause.

Positivity all around. I love those kinds of rides.

BusCrowded

By comparison, this bus is practically deserted.

Prejudice, Pooh

I have something to confess. I’m a poopist. Yes, I am guilty of discrimination against poops.

Doggy poops, that is. Specifically, I am prejudiced when it comes to choosing when and where I pick them up.

It goes without saying that I pick up after my own dog. But, you know, not everyone picks up after theirs. And therein lies the opportunity to do a good deed, as I’ve written in previous blog posts.

Because I’m a poopist, and also kind of squeamish, I don’t collect every neglected steamer that I see. I take a lot of walks, and trust me, I see plenty. Especially since I got my prescription glasses updated.

But I’m selective. When the dog droppings are far from my house, when they’re on the properties of people I’ve never met, when they’re not close to garbage bins (hence extending the length of time I’ll be required to hold onto the malodorous collection bag), most of the time the über-ick factor seems to outweigh any urge to do good.

But when I notice a poop pile near my house, when I personally know the neighbour who lives there (and let’s face it, we also know which neighbour is the one who’s not picking up), I don’t hesitate. I clean that nasty stuff off my friend’s front lawn faster than you can say, “Sit, Ubu, sit!”

I feel guilty for disregarding so much of life’s waste. But we all have our limits. And we probably shouldn’t be measuring our self-worth in terms of what we aren’t doing, but by what we are doing. I’m sometimes picking up neighbourhood poops. I’m sometimes doing people favours. I’m sometimes donating to charity. And sometimes I’m absorbed instead by a good book, a great glass of wine and my favourite spot on the couch.

Can you relate?

DogGuilty

I didn’t do it…”  (Photo by Photostock/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

The Real Lifesaver is Sweeter

Shanna Williams is only six years old, but even if she lives to be a hundred, I doubt she’ll ever forget what her big brother did for her last month.

Shanna and her 10-year-old brother Garrett were on their way home from school in their grandparents’ car when a Lifesaver suddenly got stuck in Shanna’s airway. Alarmingly, the little girl was choking, her lips turning blue. Grandpa pulled over, lifted Shanna out of the car and frantically began pushing on her chest, trying to get her air. But it wasn’t working.

Garrett quickly realized that chest compressions weren’t going to save his sister. The boy knows from first aid. He took a St. John Ambulance course geared to children when he was eight years old. “I thought, ‘I don’t think he’s going to be able to do it. I’ll have to go out and do it,’” Garrett told CTV News.

Miraculously, Garrett remembered what to do and held it together long enough to do it. He jumped out of the car, positioned himself behind his sister and performed the Heimlich manoeuvre – perfectly. The culprit candy flew out of Shanna’s mouth. Thankfully, the girl started breathing again.

At the school where the first-aid course was taught, an educational assistant told a reporter: “My body is just covered with goose bumps again, every time I hear the story.” The children’s mom, Carla Williams, fully endorses the St. John Ambulance program. “If something like this saves one kid’s life, it’s worth it.”

But they have a new house rule, Carla adds: no Lifesavers. Not ever again.

Unless they’re called Garrett, of course.

lifesavers

(FreeImages.com/Craig Hauger)