Dealing With The Aftermath

Sunday, 16 December 2012, 20:41 | Category : Life
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In one of my many past lives, I worked during college at a local hospital. I was classified “Evening Secretary”, a very misleading title. What I was, was the assistant to the night nursing supervisor. I had several administrative duties – getting patient counts from the units, typing birth certificates, etc. – but mostly I was an extra pair of hands, and typically one of the few males on duty who wasn’t security or a med tech, so I ended up getting called to most anywhere in the hospital: ICU, emergency room, surgery – wherever someone needed an extra pair of hands. And I was responsible for “the book”. When a patient died, it was my job to talk with the family about which funeral home to contact, and start making the arrangements and processing the paperwork. And deal with the body – take it from the room and down to the morgue (they called me the “head nurse of the morgue”), and then release it to the funeral home. Deaths are never good – families were always reeling, even when it was expected. But deaths of children were the worst. During my two years in that job, I had to deal with several teenagers killed in car wrecks, and a few younger children who died from other causes. Those were unbelievably bad – parents in such a state of shock that communication with them was almost impossible. And having to remove the body and take it down to the basement was rough on me. I still have vivid memories of one particular boy, about 10, who was brought into the emergency room, under circumstances that just weren’t right. I won’t go into more detail. But what I learned during those days is that, no matter how much the doctors and nurses have seen, they’re still affected. They suffer, but they work incredibly hard to keep you from knowing. They have to – they simply won’t last long in their job otherwise.

So as the shock of Friday’s events lessened, I began to think about the police officers, and firefighters, and medical and coroner’s staff who had to go into that school and deal with what they found. The parents of those children are descending into a hell that is unimaginable to most of us. But the first responders also have their valley of the shadow to go through. They’re the professionals we turn to to make things right, to prevent the very things that happened Friday. And they have to live with the images of what they saw. In a very real sense, they’re also victims. But we expect them to be right back out there, doing their jobs, protecting us, making the world safe for the rest of us. It’s a burden that some of them are probably questioning right now, yet most, of not all, will pull themselves up and go right back to work, and hope desperately that they’ll never see anything like that again. So when you send your prayers or thoughts or whatever towards heaven, remember to say some for those who had to walk into that school knowing their lives would never be the same again.

Somewhere Out There

Wednesday, 5 December 2012, 15:44 | Category : Science, Stargazing
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Constellation Opiuchus

Walk outside some clear evening next summer, and look to the south (assuming you’re in the Northern hemisphere!). You’ll see a bright red star – Antares – and if you’re familiar with the night sky, you’ll recognize the constellation Scorpius. Look above Scorpius, into a fairly dark area without many bright stars. This is the constellation of Opiuchus (a bit of trivia here: Opiuchus is actually the 13th Zodiacal constellation, but having only 12 makes things simpler – sort of like how the Big Ten Conference continues to call itself the Big Ten even though it has somewhere between 12 and 16 teams, depending on which reports and rumors you believe). While you’re looking at Opiuchus, think about the mantra of some on the Right, that government can’t do anything right. And then think about this: somewhere in the patch of sky containing Opiuchus, a spaceship called Voyager 1 is continuing the journey begun on September 5, 1977; Voyager 2, actually launched 16 days earlier, and Voyager 1 had a combined cost of about $250 million (not including support in the ensuing years, which has raised the entire mission cost to somewhere around $900 million). Both spaceships have continued to perform important scientific missions as they hurtle in roughly opposite directions towards stars they won’t reach for 40,000 years. Their nuclear power plants will stop long before that – another 15 years or so – but as long as they have power they will continue to send data back to Earth. And we’re still learning. Data from Voyager 1 has just revealed that the structure of the solar system isn’t quite what we thought. There’s a layer at the edge that wasn’t suspected. Is this important? Well, we don’t know, and won’t for a long time. Did 15th century Europe know that the islands they had discovered in the western ocean were one day going to be of vital importance to western civilization? Here’s what we do know: science matters, even if you try to deny the sometimes uncomfortable truth. And science at the level of the Voyager missions is only done at the national level. No private research lab is ever going to do science at this scale. Government does, and often does it very well even at the bleeding edge, and in these times of budget cuts and debt reduction, we would be wise to remember that.