TEDMED Day #1, Light on Medicine, High on Inspiration

April 11, 2012
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EXCLUSIVE POST – I’m attending TEDMED this week at the Kennedy Center in Washington as the guest of our sponsor, Siemens, and it is my first.  These posts aren’t intended to provide an Aristotlean whole view, but a running diary of the events, the people and the proceedings

EXCLUSIVE POST – I’m attending TEDMED this week at the Kennedy Center in Washington as the guest of our sponsor, Siemens, and it is my first.  These posts aren’t intended to provide an Aristotlean whole view, but a running diary of the events, the people and the proceedings

 Day 1 started at 5 pm, with an entertaining (the “E” in TED stands for “entertainment”) performance by Urban Acrobats from the Montreal-based troupe, 7 Fingers.  Literally a stretching exercise to behold, and in keeping with the TED tradition, we were introduced to each of the performers by a rule of three: three words to describe each person, like flirtatious, romantic, passionate, etc.  I couldn’t help thinking of the ancient Jewish king, Saul, the tormented ruler whose broodings were soothed by David’s lyre.  Would many of the assembled leaders, who spend their days pondering the scourge of cancer or infectious disease or poverty, welcome the opportunity for a bit of levity?

 Bryan Stevenson, the leading public advocacy lawyer from the Equal Justice Initiative who has defended many of his incarcerated clients to the Supreme Court, made a stirring speech invoking the “eyes on the prize” social justice movement, which is no less relevant today for all that the goals have changed.  With 35% of black men disenfranchised in Alabama because of felony convictions, with hundreds of under-age young people being incarcerated for life, our country, according to Stevenson, is still facing the judgment of history for its treatment of those who are marginalized.  Using the rhetoric of the church and applying it to the TED brand, Stevenson declared, “We will not be judged by our technology, we will not be judged by our entertainment, we will not be judged by our design, we will be judged by the things around the shadows.”  His call to action was more Biblical than scientific, but such is the breadth of the TED approach.

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 The most innovative “talk” came from Rebecca Onie, founder of Health Leads, which marshals college student volunteers to help poor people access the services that are essential to health, like food, home heating and safety, in the form of a “prescription.”  Administered by the doctors themselves, these prescriptions are then “filled” by the volunteers who connect the patients with available services, navigate bureacracies and help with paperwork .  A simple, well-conceived case of using available resources (college students with extra time on their hands) matched to under-served need (sick people whose cures involve more than drugs), Health Leads has about 1,000 volunteers and presumably has some significant room to grow – a kind of healthcare Teach for America.

(For you parents out there who are sorry that your college student is either insufficiently mature or committed, Onie has an answer: “March Madness.”  Any college student that can commit 39 hours a week to basketball can be a model for a student to contribute a couple of hours a week to helping the poor who are their college neighbors.)

 More to come….