Zoe Keating TedMed17 (1200 x 900)

Presenting at TedMed is a BIG deal. You don’t just stand up and blab. The talks are carefully planned out and practiced, often with speech coaches, so the delivery will be dynamic and captivating. That is why they are always so good.

This year, I had a chance to watch many of the presentations via livestream so that I could share stories about them with you. Here are a few of my favorites from the opening day.


Chimpanzee politics

One of the funniest and most entertaining talks was about the role of alpha males in chimpanzee society. It was delivered by Frans de Waal, a chimpanzee expert, and Professor of Primate Behavior in the Psychology Department at Emory University. He is also the author of two books on primate behavior: “Chimpanzee Politics” and “Our Inner Ape“.

De Waal punctuated his talk with pictures and video clips that demonstrated alpha male behavior in both chimps and sometimes also in U.S. politicians. He pointed out that although the alpha male is the highest-ranking male in a chimpanzee group, he doesn’t have to be the biggest or strongest ape. That is because alpha males form coalitions with other males, who are often older and sometimes are even more influential than he is himself. Coalition members display their unity by their behaviors, such as walking in synch together that make it clear to the group that they are working together.

When males campaign to take over as the alpha, their behaviors change. In addition to demonstrating their strength and vigor, they also become extremely generous and share food with everyone. They are even known to tickle babies, something they don’t do when they aren’t politicking. (The human politician equivalent kissing or holding babies up in the air.)

Just as in human society, there are many advantages to becoming the alpha. The biggest privilege is having sex with females (I don’t have to tell you there is definitely a male equivalent of this behavior—just read the news). It is, de Waal said, even more important than getting food. This makes sense from an evolutionary point of view because sex leads to reproduction and this is, of course, the key to the perpetuation of the species.

There are also some costs to becoming the alpha, though. First of all, you have to keep the old males in your coalition happy—that means letting them have access to the females. Secondly, when you are alpha, everyone wants your position. So alphas have to spend a lot of time showing that they are strong as well as disrupting potential competitor’s coalitions. As you can imagine, an alpha’s life is very stressful, something that has been corroborated by the finding of very high cortisol levels in alpha males feces.

Alpha males also have obligations. They have to keep peace in the group and they must show empathy for others; they are, so to speak, the consoler-in-chief. De Waal points out that this is an important function for almost all leaders in the human world as well—think of all the times we see Presidents, Popes, and Royalty going to places that have been devastated by natural disasters, such as to hurricanes and earthquakes where they are photographed hugging their people to try to make them feel better.

De Waal notes that these behaviors help to reinforce the alpha male’s position in the group. He also said it is important to differentiate between an alpha male and a bully. Being big and strong and intimidating others makes you a bully, but not necessarily an alpha male. Alpha males also have leadership skills and are loved and respected in their group.

There is a lot to chew on in this presentation.


The Ebola aftermath

Soka Moses TEDMED17 (150 x 150)Soka Moses was a newly minted general practice physician in June of 2014 when he helped to take care of a critically ill nurse, a patient in Redemption Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia. She turned out to be one of the early cases of Ebola at the beginning of what became a devastating epidemic that ended up infecting 29,000 and killing 11,000 West Africans before it ended 23 months later.

Healthcare workers and patients fled the hospital in a panic, but Soka decided to stay and help take care of Ebola patients. This was an extraordinarily brave decision because, eventually, more than 400 health professionals became infected with the deadly disease and many of them died.

By August, he was charged with helping to set up an Ebola Treatment Unit at JFK Hospital in Monrovia. The unit was rapidly overwhelmed with patients. There were more people than there were hospital beds. Patients were vomiting and bleeding and having diarrhea on the floor—all of these body fluids were loaded with Ebola virus that could spread the infection to anyone coming in direct contact with them. Three days after the unit was opened, it was full and there were many more people waiting outside the gate to get in.

Soka said you can’t imagine what it feels like to be constantly exposed to this frightening disease. He started measuring his body temperature frequently (fever is an early sign of the disease) and he used bleach to wash his body and his clothes. But he survived as did many thousands of others in Liberia.

Sadly, the end of the epidemic was not the end of the tragedy for survivors. Many were stigmatized because of the pervasive fear of recurrence of Ebola by people in the community. In addition, many suffered joint and body pain and some were blinded or had neurologic problems as a residual of the disease. Others suffered from PTSD. Children were orphans and families were torn apart after it was discovered that the virus could persist in semen.

Most people in the U.S. have forgotten about the terror this disease invoked in our country. We had a few cases, but no widespread domestic transmission. For the people in Liberia, particularly the survivors, Ebola has changed their lives forever. And, this should not be forgotten.


Creating music after heartbreak

Zoe Keating TEDMED 2017 (150 x 150)Zoe Keating told the heartbreaking story of Jeff, her young, non-smoking vegetarian husband, and father of her four-year-old son. After developing body pains and becoming increasingly short of breath, he was eventually diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. He was told that he had 6 to 8 weeks to live. He fought hard and initially had what looked like a complete remission only to have the disease come back with a vengeance, infiltrating his brain and causing a seizure. He died in Zoe’s arms.

Prior to her husband’s illness, Zoe was a successful cellist, but she put her music aside to care for Jeff. She is now back to making music. She played an original piece composed for TedMed. It was beautiful, haunting, and, of course, very sad. The audience, including me, was mesmerized.

TedMed 2017 is off to a great start.


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