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Senior Correspondent

Robert Schrag, a regular contributor to Senior Correspondent, documents the process of undergoing a stem cell transplant in response to multiple myeloma.

Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2012

As I mentioned in a previous post, once you are "inside" the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit you are really "inside." Minimizing contact with germs from the outside becomes the primary objective. Think repelling undesirables: Chinese emperors and the Great Wall; Arizona; the Taliban and the internet. There is something bad "out there" (germs) from which those of us "in here" (patients) must be protected.

I'm all for that. Yet there is this interesting dialectical tension that evolves between inside and outside. I have both read and written about the unique dynamic that arises when you can constantly see that which you may not have. One entire wall of my room is glass. I am on the 4th floor. Looking down I can see parking lots and people bustling around. If I look to the horizon I can see forests surrounding dorms and other medical buildings. If I look up I occasionally see "life flight" helicopters landing and departing from the roof of the building next door.

This side of the glass is no less technology intensive. The room comes with six screens for all things monitoring and medical. I brought three more with me, phone, laptop and tablet. Christine adds her tablet and phone to the mix. And then when we walk the halls, dozens of little Clara Barton droids and Dr. Doctor droids line the hallways whirring and beeping, chirping comfortingly.

Every one of those digital "do-good-ers" carries around its own little success story. They allow medical data manipulation and interpretation on a level that seems almost mystical. But at the same time they are aliens. Oh, I don't mean creepy hominid “I, Robot” aliens, quite the contrary. They are helpful little aliens, they are cute, in a non-Furby kind of way.

But as winsome as my little medico-techno contacts were, my interactions with actual real live human beings seem to be in something of a tailspin. For example, the way we use phones in the 21st century seems slightly akimbo when we move them "inside" the BMT Unit. Outside the unit telephones are tools for texting, swapping images, or short voice messages to set up another mediated interaction or occasionally a face-to-face confab. Inside the unit the power of the phone is more complicated. For example, both tablets and phones give us the chance to Skype or video chat with loved ones. These wildly popular apps actually let friends and family peak into our room and see how great we look after a couple of weeks or so in the hospital, bereft of any of the products, privacy and places that, when living "outside," allow us to "freshen the brand." I believe that subjecting my friends, and especially small children, to that image is needlessly cruel.

What has occurred to me is that while I am immersed in a wonderfully technologically, medically enhanced environment, my options for meaningful human face-to-face interactions have on the whole, regressed. Yes, I do realize, and occasionally even believe, that my digital tools can overcome my feeling of isolation, and they are certainly better than the POTS (Plain Old Telephone Services) we depended on the in the "pre-digitilarian epoch." And they can create a rich "inside-outside" dialogue. But the tools can only meet those objectives if I can retain the energy necessary to produce the messages. I brought the laptop to do final grades, to work on a couple of pictures, and keep up with the blogs. The iPad was for music and books, and the phone because … well, because this is America and every true American carries a cellphone.

And how did that all work out? I did the grades. You can judge the blogs. Photoshop sat silently, meditating, no doubt, on the thousands of words she could replace, would I but launch the application. I read a lot of e-books, did the "why I won't change your grade" emails on the iPad, and listened to music constantly.

My honest self-evaluation? Workmanlike. Did what needed to be done. Competent. See where I'm going? My "communicative output" was just flat somehow. Not my A game. It is an energy issue, an "I don't feel good issue." It is that same lack of energy that has lead me to discourage visitors. I mean how much fun can it be for them to sit around and watch me doze, or occasionally attempt to string together a couple of mediocre thoughts? It bad enough when I put my students through that … but my friends?

And that is when the idea of the Higgs-like human boson field hit me. See, you thought I was going to let you off easy. OK. Here's the idea. The Higgs field is — briefly and with apologies to all physicists alive and dead — this "mass making mush" that permeates the universe and through which all particles must pass in order to acquire "mass." Having mass allows said particles to have measurable impacts on the world. Super symmetry, the the great enabler, allows (because it is a TOE — theory of everything) any legitimately demonstrated scientific process or relationship to serve as, at least a hypothetical model, for some other symmetrical process. So, if you squint at ebbing human energy and the Higgs field through the lens of super symmetry, it seems to me that one ought to be able to detect a Higgs-like field that imbues human effort with energy —  something beyond caffeine, chocolate or sex, and maybe even a field shared by caffeine, chocolate and sex! Maybe a variety of fields that impart differing characteristics to differing intentions. Meditation fields, exercise fields, taste and sensation field. Fields which if brought to focus more precisely on particular endeavors could increase the energy available for that endeavor and enhance the chances of a favorable result.

Anyhow, what I'm getting at is the idea that one or more of those fields have been AWOL here "inside" for the last few days. Nothing major appears to have changed, but I could not summon up the energy necessary to employ my technology to reach out to a world that seem increasing remote and disconnected from the "reality here inside." It has given me a new appreciation for the whole concept of institutionalization, when the world on the other side of the glass becomes increasingly hazy, while "truth and clarity" shrink to a size held easily within your hand, perhaps the size of a cell phone or a tablet?

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