Life After Diagnosis

Question: What was your experience of living with your husband after his diagnosis?

Kay Redfield Jamison: I think that one of the many advantages of death accruing over a long period of time, in the case of my husband and with many people who have cancer or other chronic illnesses, is that you do have time to meet a lot of other people who are going through similar situations and one of the great delights of our life actually was sitting around in labs waiting for the results of tests and talking to other people who were waiting to find out whether their cancer numbers were going in the right direction or not.

I think it makes you very aware of just the acute pain and anxiety that people do go through. What I had not been aware of and what I was very interested in writing about was how extraordinary grief is. I mean people talk about grief as if it's kind of an unremittingly awful thing, and it is. It is painful, but it's a very, very interesting sort of thing to go through and it really helps you out. At the end of the day, it gets you through because you have to reform your relationship and you have to figure out a way of getting to the future. And grief does that. I was interested in the difference between that and depression because I had gone through depression and I thought that I might well get depressed again after Richard's death and I didn't. The similarities were interesting but the differences were to me far more interesting.

Question: Is it possible to live a full life after a fatal diagnosis?

Kay Redfield Jamison: Well I think first of all I think most people do in a funny sort of way. I think one of the things that you're not prepared for, I was not prepared for, was how exhausting it is to be the person -- I was the only person who took care of my husband and I loved being able to spend time with him and so forth. But it was tiring and I'm like a high voltage, high energy person and it was exhausting. I think that that's a really unfortunate side of that, but we counted ourselves blessed to have the time together actually. When you look at people who lose someone through a heart attack or suicide or an accident and they haven't the time to spend, we were very blessed in that respect and I don't think either of us ever took that for granted. And also we both were really busy, Richard in particular was well-known scientist and was always going off to meetings and giving papers and so forth. We both were zipping around like crazed weasels. At some point we just couldn't and didn't and wouldn't do that anymore and as a result we had just a lot of time to sit around and read together and talk and go out to movies and be with friends. It's not like he was sick all the time; just gradually make incremental changes in how he was able to get around.

But it was, it was for the most part delightful. We actually had fun. You don't lose the person; that's not true for people who have dementing illnesses or people who progressively really get so weak. But in our case, we were lucky he was able to enjoy life actually until very near the end.

Question: What was the last day with your husband like?

Kay Redfield Jamison: I think we both knew that it wasn't going to be very long before he died; that was clear from all the scans and his general deteriorating health, but we didn't have a sense that it was going to be that soon. We did. We had a wonderful last day; we had a room where we just sat and read. I used to -- he was very dyslexic and so I used to read to him. We just did. We talked and we had very meaningful talk about -- he was a scientist and he was concerned about how he would never understand the science of the disease schizophrenia that he had studied all of his life. He would never know what caused it, he would never know the treatments that came out, he'd never know the genetics of it. And this was for a scientist who's very curious, very painful for him and it was as close to seeing him very upset about things as I'd seen him, and yet after talking about it and so forth and talking about the nature of science and medicine.

And somehow it came back to being his usual actually quiet, optimistic self and it was a wonderful time we had. Yeah. I wouldn't trade that for anything in the world.

Question: Were you able to say goodbye?

Kay Redfield Jamison: Not really. Not anything other than a sort of in a symbolic sense because he got very sick, very fast and was in the ICU and unconscious, so there was no way of saying good-bye to him. I said certainly said good night to him the last night that he was in the hospital, but I didn't think he was going to die and he didn't think he was going to die. So there was no kind of final thing. When he did die and when I had the—all of life support removed from him, yeah, those kind of incredible private moments that you don't know about until you go through them of saying that kind of final farewell to someone you've been with for 20 years. It's—but I think again—and it was awful, it was painful and sad, but it was also the sort of thing—there is an intimacy to dying that he and I used to talk about. That you just don't know until you're with somebody. You have this incredible closeness and vulnerability and sense of whether or not there are going to be arguments or discussions here that are fought, we are going to take care of one another.

Recorded On: September 30, 2009

Kay Redfield Jamison discusses how she and her late husband found profound delight in his final years as well as the commanding power of the grieving process.

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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.