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Mental health matters, doctor’s advice, negative note, and more.

Something in the Environment?

Do not students attend universities, especially leading Ivy League universities, for the opportunities to learn and explore new subjects, the opportunity to understand the life they have before them in the light of the ages and sages, the opportunities for advancements in the arts and sciences that an undergraduate preparation offers? Is not college an enticing opportunity that excites, pleases, and satisfies?

I reread Dave Zeitlin’s “Wellness Warriors” [Jan|Feb 2021] for quotes from students concerning how the intellectual resources at college were failing them and causes of discouragement to their aspirations. Sadly for me I saw no such expectations that had been thwarted. Problems expressed by students were making relationships with other students, lack of fun, behavioral expectations for one at Penn, dealing with frequent suicides, feeling stigmatized, and so forth.

When a behavior or symptom or disease reaches a high prevalence in an environment, a first premise of medicine is that something in the environment could be causal. Has the Ivy League turned from offering an education to some other task, desired by the public but toxic for students? Must that cause be addressed so that vulnerable students or those with intellectual interests incompatible with the society’s priorities will be able to avoid demoralization, depressions, and suicides?

Robert E. Becker GM’63, Park City, UT

Kudos on Article, and to Students

I am writing to you to tell you how important I think the article “Wellness Warriors” is for students, faculty, and parents. I’m a speech and language pathologist married to a Penn graduate (Dennis Kaffel C’67). I enjoy your magazine and often peruse it, reading articles that interest me.

Last year I took a college drawing course at a university near my New Jersey home. I was struck by how little the students spoke to each other or made comments about the work we were doing. The instructor told me that they just do not know how to talk to each other. That is not the only time I have heard that from colleagues and friends involved in higher education.

In my field, I work on pragmatic skills with language-impaired students. What is sad is that so many young people with normal language skills lack the necessary ability, self-awareness, and self-permission to express themselves. There are so many stigmas, still, to break down.  

It’s great that Penn is doing so much for the student body. Hopefully, students and staff who need support will take advantage of what is available.

I was struck by the cover photo … such an upfront image, as well as the photos in the story. The students looked so present. Good for them to be photographed!

Kudos for the article.

Joyce Kaffel, spouse, Short Hills, NJ

Cherish Each Moment

Little did I know when I was a graduate student in Dr. Ian McHarg’s Land Use and Environmental Planning Department (1981) that I would one day be living on a farm raising sheep and organic produce just west of Chicago. So many events have happened in the past 40 years. I was recruited out of Penn to work on oil spill cleanup and hazardous waste management for ARCO in Long Beach, California. After being married and starting a family, I worked on a consulting basis. We were transferred to Chicagoland in 1993 for my husband’s job

Then everything started to change. He could not keep up with his corporate position, was very depressed and irritable. We moved to the farm after he lost his job. Fast forward 20 years. I became the voice for the small farmer at the Farm Bureau and worked on farmland protection policies. Scott still wasn’t able to hold down a job and was misdiagnosed with sleep apnea and midlife crisis.

Finally the correct diagnosis was achieved: early-onset Alzheimer’s. He was only in his mid-50s. My life would now focus on caregiving for his needs. 

Scott used to love to read the Pennsylvania Gazette from cover to cover when it would arrive in the mail. Now he is bedbound and no longer can speak, but I continue to read it to him. This past issue had an excellent article, “Wellness Warriors,” about “a new road for student mental health.” Suicide and depression in the younger generation is so sad, and I was glad to hear about the support groups on campus.

Since so many alumni read the magazine, I would urge you to consider an awareness article on early-onset Alzheimer’s. I do not wish that anyone has to go through those years of misdiagnosis and confusion. It takes a toll on the entire family.

People don’t want to see that the “golden years of retirement” may never happen. I am thankful that we “front-loaded life” and didn’t wait to travel and do the things we enjoy! I leave you with that pearl of wisdom … plus cherish each precious moment we have with each other. Thank you.

Donna Zarutskie Lehrer GRP’81, Big Rock, IL

Coincidentally, we have a related story in this issue. See “The Humanist Is In,” by Julia M. Klein, on Penn Memory Center codirector Jason Karlawish and his new book on the history of Alzheimer’s disease.—Ed.

Choose a Life Beyond Medicine

I would like to comment on the thoughts of Mayer L. Horensten regarding Nov|Dec 2020’s “The Museum Prescription” [“Letters,” Jan|Feb 2021]. I have been in orthopedic surgery practice for almost 30 years and can “feel his pain.” However, despite the ever-present tug of war between current documentation requirements and the desire to bond with our patients, doctors can do both, and have a life outside of medicine. One of the best things I have done in recent years to accomplish this is to hire a medical scribe. I can focus all my attention on my patients, and spend the time I need with them, while the scribe enters the entire encounter in the “dreaded” electronic health record (EHR). I now have the choice of actually treating more patients than I used to, prior to the scribe, or seeing the same number of patients and finishing my day earlier.

Our lives and careers are still under our control. I choose to have a life beyond medicine, and therefore do have the time to go to art museums, create art, play sports, and enjoy friends and family. I know that I do not make as much money as I could, and I do not come from wealth. I also admit that medicine is not as enjoyable to practice as it used to be. However, I have chosen this route, and, therefore, I am not “burned out.” As some very wise people have noted, “We should work to live, not live to work.”

By the way, I do enjoy the Rx Museum Initiative each Monday.

Steve Meadows C’82, Delray Beach, FL

Disappointing Decline

I was so disappointed to see that the editors of the Pennsylvania Gazette chose to debase a once-venerable publication with overtly political messages in the Class of 2004 “Alumni Notes” [Jan|Feb 2021].

I do not recall any rapturous class notes about the results of the 2016 presidential election—nor should there have been any. The real problem, then, is the infantile decision to publish a politically motivated class update in the first place. It shows that, much like the personalities who spend their time in the Twitter fever swamps or watching hopelessly polarized cable news channels, the editors of the Gazette have no real interest in promoting common bonds amongst Penn alumni, but rather, they seek to highlight divisions and create rancor.

Alumni of good will and mutual respect will mourn the needless decline of this once enjoyable magazine section into yet another shrill political forum.

Aaron Yunis C’02 W’02, Englewood, NJ

Fitting Support

What a pleasure it was to read about Penn’s financial support of the Philadelphia public schools [“Gazetteer,” Jan|Feb 2021]. As most of the University and Health System’s $10 billion in annual business and their real estate holdings are untaxed, it is fitting that the University would and should give financial support to the cash-strapped public schools. Another example of the good Penn can do for the city is Philadelphia’s Jobs with Justice executive director Devan Spear C’17, a recent Penn grad who has spent the last five years, along with faculty and alumni, lobbying Penn’s administration, trustees, and alumni to support the public schools. It looks like she was successful.

Hanley Bodek C’77, Philadelphia

Design Disapproval

A caricature on paper can be a humorous, expressive depiction of a person or a landscape. However, I was shocked to discover a three-dimensional architectural caricature in “Vagelos Laboratory to Rise on Walnut Street” [“Gazetteer,” Jan|Feb 2021]. There are two hovering, rectangular blocks, above their captor base, that seem to be desperately trying to escape their capture, on a site along Walnut Street. Can these poor blocks, and their street side constrainer, have really been approved by Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, the home of Louis I. Kahn?

David H. Karp Ar’59, San Mateo, CA

Not Perfect, But No Failure

In the essay “Eleven Hours,” Chonnipha Piriyalertsak compares the response by Thailand to the COVID-19 pandemic to that of the US and claims that Thailand managed the pandemic a lot better while the “all-powerful United States has failed so miserably” [“Notes From the Undergrad,” Nov|Dec 2020].

The response by the Trump administration to the pandemic may not have been perfect, but it did result in the industrial scale manufacturing of surgical masks, PPE equipment, ventilators and the development of three COVID vaccines in less than 10 months when the development of new vaccines usually takes five to 10 years.

Gerardo Reyes C’82 M’86, Burr Ridge, IL

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