Monday, April 30, 2012

Medical Mondays: Some Like It Hot

After a recent trip to New Orleans, I've been thinking about peppers a lot. Like the stuff in this bottle. I think it invented the word "awesomesauce."

(I'm kind of pissed. I wasted decades of my gustatory life on the wrong hot sauce. Bye-bye Tabasco! Live, learn, and keep eating, I say.)

Peppers have been used for thousands of years to flavor, heal, and even as a weapon. I can think of a lot of ways pepper can end up in a fiction manuscript, so here we go!

I'm going to concentrate on the compound capsaicin, which naturally found in chili peppers and is the key component to the hotness factor.

Capsaicin is naturally found in the fruit of the genus Capsicum (chili peppers, cayenne, scotch bonnets, habanero, jalapeno). It's mostly found in the pithy part that holds the seeds. It causes varying degrees of burning and irritation. If ingested in large doses, capsaicin can kill humans (but this is virtually impossible by "accidentally" eating too many chili peppers.)

Why are some peppers so hot? The irritant nature may be a mechanism for protection and seed dispersion. Mammals (including us) might have chomped the fruits and destroyed the seeds during our chomping. Thus, the capsaicin may have warded off hungry mammals. However, birds are not affected by the capsaicin, and tend to swallow the seeds whole, pooping them out for the dispersal needed for future chili pepper generations.

How hot is hot? The Schoville scale is used to show how potent the hotness of different peppers or compounds can be.

Let's talk about Pepper Spray. Pepper in offensive/defensive methods have been used for a long time. 400 B.C. the Chinese would fling bags of pepper and spices at their opponents. (click here for reference; here's another good history on pepper spray.). Today, capsaicin or synthetic capsaicin are used in pepper sprays against humans and animals as a supposedly non-lethal method. Its use is very limited depending on which state you live in, as well as which country.

I am so glad I'm not that guy on the left. (Source: Wikipedia)
 Effects of Pepper Spray: Because of the severely irritating nature of capsaicin, a person sprayed in the face will immediately close their eyes, cough, and experience trouble breathing. The eyes can feel like they are "boiling" under the closed lids. Some amount of ingestion often happens, which adds to the discomfort. The overall effects can last anywhere from 30 minutes to hours. Though considered non-lethal, death can occur if a person has a history of asthma or lung problems, or can't breathe well enough due to being physically restrained. For more details on the effects, see this great summary in Wikipedia. 

My personal experience with pepper spray. After college while I was living in NYC, my roommate got her hands on some pepper spray. I can't remember why, maybe to have in her purse for protection. We were hanging out with some friends, and she decided she'd spray one little squirt inside the apartment, just to see how strong it was. Not a lot, and not directed at anyone--just one little toot in the air.

Well, within seconds, I was coughing and hacking. My airways felt like I'd poured needles down them. My eyes were tearing like crazy. We ran to the opposite end of the apartment, but it was still so strong. We spend the next hour with the windows open, coughing and gagging with our heads lolling outside. After one, teensy little spray! That stuff was really scary.

Medical Therapy: Traditionally, peppers have been used externally as a means of increasing circulation, warming the skin, and as a pain reliever. Internally, it's been used to improve digestion, as a tonic, and to counter infections. Today, caspaicin is being explored as a use in treatment of diabetes and cancer. Its most common use is in creams and patches to treat pain from sore muscles and joints, as well as neuropathic pain (pain arising due to nerve dysfunction). Medications ranging from 0.025% to 8% concentration are applied (with gloves) to help ease pain over a period of time.

How does it work? It's thought to work in two ways. Capsaicin is irritating and warming, so there is a theory of "counterirritation" that the treatment distracts from the original pain. However, it's also thought to deplete Substance P (responsible for pain signalling in nerves), thus decreasing pain.

Who knew peppers were so versatile?

On that hot and spicy note, have a good Monday everyone!

If you've got a fictional medical question, let me know! Post below or email me at
  All I ask is that you become a follower and post a link on your blog when I post your answer. This is for fictional scenarios, only. Please check out the boring but necessary disclaimer on my sidebar ---> Also, don't forget to stop by Laura Diamond's Mental Health Mondays and Sarah Fine's The Strangest Situation for great psychiatric and psychological viewpoints on all things literary. :)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Things I learned in Nola

Last week I went to New Orleans for a medical conference. I learned some things so I thought I would share! Hold on to your hats.

1. New Orleans is kindly called "Nola" by the locals. 
I found this confusing at first, thinking it was a direction-related abbreviation, like Nolita in New York, or Soho. "How can New Orleans be north of Louisiana?" I asked my hubby. After his blank stare, I was like, "OHHHH."

2. There are slow cookers in plain sight within the cemeteries.
It's true. The above-ground tombs of the famous Nola cemeteries exist because corpses can't be buried due to the high water table. Instead, they're kept above ground in stone tombs/mausoleums after death. Inside, a body in a wooden casket will disintegrate in only a few months to a year. In the summer, the tombs get so hot inside that they basically bake the corpses and vastly speed up decomposition. Our tour guide told us (in a rather perky fashion) that "The New Orleans dead don't go to Hell. They get slow cookered!"

3. Fecal transplants can be funny.
Seriously. This one gastroenterologist gave a talk and an auditorium full of hundreds of internists were nearly peeing in their seats.
 (Do you really want to know what a fecal transplant is? No, you don't. You really, REALLY don't.
Trust me on this. However. If I get an overwhelming response in the comments about it, then I'll do a Medical Mondays on it and gross you all out to the fullest extent of my abilities.)

On that pleasant, scatological note, I'll leave you with a few choice photos from my trip. 

Lafayette Cemetery, New Orleans
House in Garden District with jasmine vines. I'm so proud of this one. That jasmine is Pinterest-worthy!

Sandra Bullock's house in the Garden District (and my big fat thumb in the lower right. No, not a New Orleans ghost!)
Cafe du Monde perfection: cafe au laits with beignets
Happy Wednesday, everyone!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Visiting Scallionland

 Some family members brought me this package of Taiwanese spice used for some of my favorite restaurant dishes. I couldn't stop reading the directions over and over. I swear the person who translated the directions is a cooped-up poet in a spice factory.

Here are some choice excerpts, directly from the package. The punctuation usage is also unadulterated genius.

Spice for Spiced Food

Made of
noble and natural cinnamon.

For spicing chicken
and duch wings

Apply this spice powder to a mixture
of condiment such as

A suitable part of boiled water
to be aded.
The spiced food
if in dark brown
indicates that 
it is
well spiced.

I absolutely adore this translation. Duch wings? I'd love some of that. I'd feel rather royal, even with my greasy fingers.

Petittoes must be the footed version of fingerling potatoes. Or maybe they're just little toes. Tasty.

Where can I buy a bottle of essence condiment? I wants it.

And finally I'd love to visit Scallionland too, so long as it doesn't leave too much lingering onion breath.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Medical Mondays: Me and My Poisonous Baubles

Hello bloggites and writerly creatures.

This week's Medical Mondays is both personal and random, so here we go.

A few weeks ago, I went to visit Slam Dunk's blog (such an interesting blog!) and read about these beads that, in fact, are actually quite toxic. Here's the post.

I think my insides might have actually flipped. Because only weeks before that post, I'd worn those very beads. 

Last year on a trip to a medical conference in Toronto, I found this beautiful necklace. The beads were real seeds with a vibrant red-orange hue, a prominent black dot, combined with tiny coconut beads. It was gorgeous. That's a picture of me wearing them at the wedding in March.

So of course I freaked out. And then, I researched. 

Well, the inside part of the beads (the shell is thick and nontoxic) contains a compound called abrin, a highly toxic compound even more dangerous than ricin, the toxin found in castor beans and well known for its potential and past use as a poison and biological chemical offensive.

How toxic is abrin? The median lethal dose is 3 micrograms. (One microgram is one millionth of a gram). It's particularly dangerous for the laborers who drill the beads to make into decorative jewelry. A single prick of the finger from a contaminated needle can kill.

What's the name of the seeds/plant? It has so many names. Precatory bean, jequirity seed, love bean, rosary pea (commonly made into rosaries), Buddhist rosary bead, John Crow Bead, Indian Licorice, Akar Saga, Giddee Giddee, Jumbie Bead, crab's eye, Gunga, Ratti, bead vine, black-eyed Susan, prayer beads, weather plant, lucky bean, amongst many others.

The formal name for the plant is Abrus precatorus. 

Where does it come from? It's native to Indonesia and is sometimes considered a weed.

What are the symptoms of poisoning? If inhaled in a large enough dose, the person would suffer coughing, shortness of breath, fluid in the lungs, followed by death within 8 hours of exposure.

If ingested, the person would suffer vomiting, diarrhea, hallucinations, seizures, followed by multiple organ failure and death within a few days.

The good news is that if the person doesn't die after 3-5 days, they usually recover. Yay.

Are there antidotes? No. When someone is affected, they must be supported until they recover.

And this is a Big But. (har har). I did more research. The seed of Abrus precatorus has the hilum (where the seed attaches to the plant) located in the black-colored area. The beads on my necklace have the hilum on the red part. And, I think my beads are bigger than the Abrus species. So after all this fact-finding, it turns out that my beads are not in fact from Abrus precatorus, but instead the Ormosia species (either Monosperma or Nobilis), which is a plant that grows in the Caribbean and tropical Americas.

Hooray ! My necklace wasn't so bad after all! Or so I thought. My happiness lasted all of two seconds, because it turns out that Ormosia seeds are toxic too. 


The bad news is, I can't find out details on the nature of the Ormosia toxin. I'm certainly never going to wear this necklace again.

The good news? I hope this experience was possible fodder for the upcoming poisonings in your future novels!

If you've got a fictional medical question, let me know! Post below or email me at
  All I ask is that you become a follower and post a link on your blog when I post your answer. This is for fictional scenarios, only. Please check out the boring but necessary disclaimer on my sidebar ---> Also, don't forget to stop by Laura Diamond's Mental Health Mondays and Sarah Fine's The Strangest Situation for great psychiatric and psychological viewpoints on all things literary. :)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What? Me, blog???

This month's Sisterhood of the Traveling Blog question comes from me:

Outside of your writing friends, do other people (work, family, friends) know you blog? What do they think of it? Have you ever been hit with a "Hey! I read your blog today!" from someone you never thought would read it?

So this question came from this oozy, uncomfortable place in my life I've been navigating since I started writing fiction and poetry.

One the one hand, I'm a doctor. Serious. Careful. Professional. White-coat clad, stethoscope-wielding. It pays the bills. I get to help people, which is beyond amazing. I get to use my scientific mind. Let's metaphorize this and call my day job BREAD.

Then there's the poetry and writing. It's pretty wow. I love having eyes to another entire world, by way of imagination. So let's call this part of my life, the EYES.

Then there is the blogging. Oh, the fun! The journey! Interacting with people across the globe! Being silly, funny, drawing doodles. Discussing querying, and writing, the joys of loving children's literature and the insanity of trying to get published. Oh my! It's like the YELLOW BRICK ROAD.

What happens when you combine them? Well. You get this:

Or this:

Yeah, they don't seem to go together that well.

Most of my blogging life, I kept these compartments separate. Even much of my writing life was separate from my blogging (until my book deal, I never disclosed the plot lines of my books). But lately, they've been bumping together a lot. My patients have remarked on my book deal. A recent student said they'd read my blog, and wasn't I funny! A colleague told me she lurks on my blog but doesn't comment.

At first, all of this made me SO uncomfortable. I thought I was being judged. And who knows? Maybe I am being judged, the details of which I prefer not to know. But I realized I can't keep hiding pieces of myself from the world. It's not about the separation of facets.

It's about me, just being me.

Nowadays, I'm okay with having facets. I'm not embarrassed about it anymore.

How did it happen? 

I never stopped writing, I never stopped practicing medicine, and I never stopped blogging. I knew the collision was going to happen. It was inevitable. My acceptance came from rather passive-aggressive act of letting the collision happen, instead of avoiding it.

And so, here I am. In one peace. Oops, I meant piece. ;)

How about you? Has your blogging life collided with your non-blogging life?
Please take a moment to visit Laura's blog for last week's answer, and stay tuned for Sarah Fine's and Deb Salisbury's answers in the upcoming weeks!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Sweat 'till you can't sweat no more

I was doing Bikram yoga the other day. It's a kind of yoga where you hold these poses in an 105˚F room with 40% humidity.

It was hot. I was soaked.
I mean, my shins were sweating. And I am not the kind of girl who gets shweddy shins.

Anyway, as I contorted and cursed, this is what went through my rapidly shriveling mind.

No. Just--no.
So somewhere between the Triangle pose and the No pose, I had a blogging revelation. 

I didn't have enough bodily fluids left to think clearly. But more importantly, I didn't have enough bodily fluids left to blog. 

I've felt horribly guilty about not keeping to my blog schedule recently. I've tweeted about it; I've stayed up late worrying about it. My stress level has been though the roof for multiple reasons (hence my attempts at finding Zen via body-wringing Bikram).

I've been blogging for nearly two years. Back then, I decided that I'd commit to a thrice weekly blogging schedule, and I stuck to it almost every week. But my own rules have come to bite me in the butt, because they've caused lost sleep and ignoring things that have been important to me.

And so--this hurts for me to say, because I'm a stick-to-my-obligations kind of person--you may see me blog a bit less in the coming months. *deep breath*

I promise I won't disappear. 

But I will promise that when I blog, it's because I'm doing it with joy, and not as a dry obligation.

You guys deserve that.  And so do I.


What about you? Have ever had to cut back on blogging, or had a major shift in your blogging goals?


Please drop by Laura Diamond's blog where she answers my question this month for the Sisterhood of the Traveling Blog: Outside of your writing friends, do other people (work, family, friends) know you blog? What do they think of it? I'm up next week!