Archive for the ‘Creativity’ Category


One of the interesting things about being in medicine is that friends and family consult you with all kinds of medical questions at any time. The questions span speciality (I was asked about a brain tumor, cramping and a bad cough in the same week!) Honestly, I enjoy it: it’s like an unplanned case of the day, and it’s a chance to be helpful. In many cases, I can simply put someone at ease. The movie “Dead Poet’s Socity” spoke about two kinds of professions, the “life sustaining” ones like medicine and engineering and the “life enriching” ones like literature, music and the fine arts. My reward in Acting was to (ideally) give my audiences a meaningful emotional experience by the end of the play through the life of my character, that is enrichment. In medicine, my reward is to use medical knowledge and skills to help patients feel better, sustainment. So, I appreciate the inquiring phone calls and texts and I would like to take you back to one in particular . . .

Last week, my sister texted me, concerned that her daughter (my ridiculously cute niece:) had a high fever and a cough. As I gathered the history and started working through the mental algorithms for what could be wrong, I happened to catch my niece’s voice in the background. She simply asked “What is that?” I think I have may have gotten more information from that audio signal than almost anything else in her story. Why? People who feel very sick are not curious. One of the things we learned in evaluating pediatric fever is that the exact tempertature is not as important as how the child appears. That takes observation, attention. I appreciate that because it feels clinical. A computer can work through algorithms but a only a clinician can be a medical Sherlock Holmes and notice personal, intangible atrributes that crack the “case.”

Paying attention matters not only in diagnosis but treatment. While on a neurosurgery service last year, I encountered a patient who required an operation to remove a brain tumor. Due to the tumor size and location, the patient had a devastating choice, to either lose the ability to read or to hear on that side, depending on which surgical approach was taken. Losing hearing or reading is more than a medical choice, it is a human one. One must ask the difficult question of which option would reduce one’s sense of self more profoundly. This question is approached by a patient who pays real attention to who she is, as well as family members and yes, doctors, who have done the same. No matter our profession, we will learn the same algorithms: law students learn the law, pharmacy students learn the drug mechanisms, but effective decision making in the grey areas seems to reward those who pay close attention to the nuances that no curriculum can adequately capture. Even in the enrichment professions, the actor who not only knows the lines but pays attention to the demands of the performance moment will respond with that spontaneous artistic choice that we recognize as brilliance . . .

By the way, I think we made the right call on my niece. She is doing well . . .



Toys R Us GallowayCole Galloway with a rehabilitation patient and her recently modified car.

A couple of blog posts ago, I introduced the Maker Movement, a growing community centered on the idea that we can build physical solutions ourselves. Today, I want to introduce you to one of the best examples of Making in action, and that is Cole Galloway and his Go Baby Go campaign.

Galloway works in physical therapy to get children with physical disabilities mobile. The problem? Motorized vehicles for rehabilitating children’s mobility can cost as much as $20,000 and often involve long waiting periods. Galloway got inspired through trips to “Toy R Us” to try something different. He now modifies toy cars such as those you can pick up at a toy store to become vehicles for these children. The cost: $89 and most modifications can be done in an hour with his team. Children who could barely get around can now do what children naturally want to do, move!

Galloway’s case illustrates some important principles of making: First, that the best solutions are often conceived by those on the front lines, who know best the contours of the problem. Second, making is impatient in a healthy way. Making challenges the assumption that meaningful solutions must be expensive and take a great deal of time. Third, and perhaps most important, the solution is carried out in a community, patient centered way. The modifications to the cars are carried out by clinicians but also by parents and community members.

So if making is so wonderful why don’t we see more of it? Why aren’t all of us creating great physical solutions like this everyday? I think we are conditioned by the notion of expertise, the idea that we can only be good at one thing and must be consumers of everything else.There is also a certain inertia that must be overcome to create, but those who overcome this inertia are always struck by the possibilities. And word is getting around . . .

Making can in fact become a way of life. This occurred to me through an unusual path, an online karaoke app! Going back to my musical theatre days, I love to sing and discovering this app has been a revelation. The goal of this application is to promote online musical collaboration across the world. You can sing one part of a song with full accompaniment and leave the other part to be filled in by anyone else on the app, anywhere in world. One night, I recorded half a duet and woke up to find 10 new complete duets from singers who joined in from China, England and Mexico. Aside from the variety, I have never encountered such a unique blend of talent. Music made for mass media consumption must, I think, make certain stylistic concessions to be broadly palatable. But this music can be as creative, raw, spontaneous and yet high quality as it aspires to be. I don’t know if I can call this Making, because it is not strictly speaking tactile and may not be solving a pressing physical need, but the philosophy of making seems to be at work. Recording music is democratized, lack of proximity is eliminated as a limiting factor, and there is a genuine sense of community. Something beautiful can be created every day.

Where else could this go? Well, I’d like to leave you with some resources as you consider ways  you can discover your own potential for making:

  1. Parents may want to check out which describes itself this way:

    “We are one of the first and only makerspaces for kids in the world.We run programs and camps on topics like Minecraft, 3D Printing, Videogame Programming with Scratch, Robotics Inventions using Arduino, Electronics and Remote Control Robotics.”

    2. The organization Maker Faire holds maker events across North America. One of the best ways to start getting into making is simply to get inspired, to see what people are doing to trigger your own ideas. For more information on maker events and ideas, you can check out, which includes event information, a magazine and further resources.

    I think one of the most important questions that Making asks is “What are you waiting for?” And it doesn’t ask this question in a sensationalized, infomercial kind of way but as a question with real tension, that makes us challenge assumptions about perceived obstacles. How do we justify NOT doing anything? The big three reasons are:  I don’t have enough time. I don’t have enough money. I don’t have enough expertise. Making proposes that all three of our grandest excuses are, in fact, hackable.




Photo Credit:

I have never considered myself a DIY, use my hands to fix stuff sort of guy. I have always assumed that inclination was part of a different personality type. I am more naturally drawn to ideas, language, music, abstract science concepts and other things you can’t hammer a nail into. But in coming home this week from an interesting event called #wemakehealth I was forced to challenge some of my assumptions. #wemakehealth is an example of the “maker movement” a growing group of people from professions as diverse as medicine, business, design, and technology united by a common purpose, to make everyone into a maker.

So, what is a maker?

I understand it to be anyone who decides that she will not wait for a solution to handed down, but will get her hands dirty and build one now. And that is physically build it.  One speaker referred to it as “democratizing engineering”; an example would be the people who helped develop a warming blanket (known as Embrace) for premature babies in developing countries; this simple device is saving multiple lives where incubators are not available. The idea for this blanket emerged from a graduate school class assignment . . .

So what assumptions does this movement challenge?

That most of us can only be consumers of something someone else has made.

That if you’re not naturally “crafty”, building things is not really for you.

That you need tremendous background in design and engineering to build something from scratch with your hands.

I think we can agree that most things are more interesting to do than to watch. Yet, we somehow accept that other people who are more talented, educated etc must do all our building for us. This doesn’t mean that we suddenly have to try building complex computers. In fact, many incredibly useful objects are quite simple in their design (that warming blanket). I feel like the perfect messenger for this message precisely because I didn’t grow up trying to fix things and build stuff. And yet, in medicine, I was strongly drawn to surgery. There is something undeniably fulfilling about physically fixing a problem and being able to look upon your work. When I was given the chance to close incisions on the babies we were operating on in Kenya, I would look over my work the next day on rounds and if the wound was “clean, dry and intact” it was a tremendous source of pride. I often side with those who argue that we are born creative but have creativity educated out of us, and conclude falsely that it is the reserve of a select few. Now, I also wonder whether if there is something fundamentally human about building, making physical creations. The creation may be a meal, a painting, a creative blood pressure monitor, but it’s something. Perhaps, we were not made only to consume or roam the halls of the abstract, however enticing. Making is also key to progress in healthcare where so many structures, devices, procedures and processes remain opaque. Can we make something better ourselves? Can we stop waiting? Incidentally, #wearenotwaiting is the hashtag for the NightScout project, comprising a group of parents who came up with a creative way to remotely monitor their diabetic childrens’ blood glucose levels on cellphones . . .

So, to explore these ideas further, I am starting a brief blog series on making. I’ll bring in voices from the maker movement as well as practical ways to explore your own potential as a maker. If can I do this, trust me, anyone can!

Guitar Brain Surgery

Photo Credit: Today Show

Many years ago, when I was engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the ferocious winters of Montreal, I was introduced (virtually) to a speaker who shared these thought-provoking words “What makes you angry? It is a clue to something you were purposed to address.” The words have echoed in my mind since then, especially when I see something upsetting. And that happened this week.

I was watching a run of the mill news story featuring German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, holding a town hall meeting in which a young immigrant girl, living in Germany, expressed her desire to continue her studies in Germany. The problem? She was a refugee from Lebanon, now facing deportation. As she spoke of how painful it was to watch her friends go on to study when she could not, she cried. Merkel’s response:

When you stand in front of me and you are a very nice person, but you know . . . there are thousands and thousands [of people] and if we say you can all come and you can all come from Africa… We can’t manage that.”

Immigration is a loaded topic and there are reasonable arguments both for being lenient and selective in policy. What got to me is that the simple desire of this girl to study where she lived was being held hostage to a policy and to the limitations of her home country. It reminded me of my experience at a Kenyan hospital earlier this year when a mother presented her child with a spinal birth defect at 9 months instead of the recommended 48 hours which caused lower limb paralysis and incontinence. Why not earlier? Cost. The mother could not afford it. It is frustrating when people do not have access to basic education and health. But what is more upsetting is when we settle for sensible answers and say things like “There are not enough resources to go around.” or “We can’t take everybody.” Where is the creativity? Where is the resolve that says this is unacceptable and sensible answers are not enough?

It was not sensible to suggest fighting malaria with a fence that shoots out lasers to kill mosquitoes . . . a “Phototonic Fence” is almost ready for market.

It was not sensible to have a patient play guitar during brain surgery, but that’s how a neurosurgeon recently conducted an operation to ensure the patient’s brain function was not being compromised.

It was not sensible to suggest that the nation with the highest percentage of its population engaged in mobile banking would emerge from sub-saharan Africa . . . today, that nation is Kenya.

It was not sensible to suggest that internet service can be provided to a rural community without electricity. The creative thinkers at Mawingu Networks are doing just that using solar energy and “television white space,” unused television frequencies.

No one is saying these problems are easy, but we won’t solve them by conventional thinking. This could be reduced to another “thinking outside the box” message but this imperative goes deeper. I think we all harbor real doubts about whether some problems can ever be solved, but if we see something isn’t right, it should drive us to do something about it regardless.  The creative knowledge is there and our access to each others’ thoughts is unprecedented.

You’d be amazed what you can find.

Consider a silly experiment that I carried out this week. First, let me say that I am always astounded when I look up something on Google at how many people have asked the question before, even when it’s quite obscure. So I decided to make up a highly ridiculous search request, just to see if the question had been asked.

I typed in the question “Do onions make good pillows?” I did not find a hit with that exact question, but someone did ask whether he should sleep with an onion in his armpit. Why??? Apparently, in some regions of South Asia, it’s a trick to cause a fever for kids to get out of school. I have no idea if this works and have no (immediate) plans to test it. But if it is true, how was that discovered?? Minds are churning every day and we have access to these minds.

It bothers me when we settle and use words like “reasonable”, “realistic” and yes, “sensible”. This is not arguing for rebellion for rebellion’s sake, or self-indulgent attention seeking. And, of course, there is a place for planning and counting the cost. But, there are real heart wrenching issues we face today that are costing lives and hope that can only be confronted successfully if we’ll take the risk. Spectacular success begins with the willingness to fail, spectacularly.

Let’s stop being sensible.