Happy New Year!

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Ryan, Joel, and myself on Las Vegas Boulevard last year bringing in 2006.

This year I am at home for New Year’s Eve, so I’ll do a quick retro entry for New Year’s 2006, because it was far more exciting.  Last year I was in Vegas.  I brought in 2006 drinking cheap wine out of a plastic container on Las Vegas Boulevard, along with hundreds of thousands of people who were in a party mood.  There were elements of both Time Square and Mardi Gras.  It was one of the most memorable New Years I’ve experienced.

What will 2007 bring?  I am loath to put my New Year’s resolutions on my blog, because then it will be so obvious when I break them.  I don’t want to be one of the throngs who mob the gyms in early January, only to abandan the attempt within a couple of weeks.  I do want to increase my fitness, but I don’t think I need to make a resolution to do that.  I’d also like to learn Spanish.  Oh, and find the woman of my dreams.  Bah, all New Year’s resolutions do is set us up for disappointment.

Happy New Year everyone.


2006: Year in Review

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Top: looking west from my balconey towards Queen’s park and the University of Toronto.
Bottom Left: It has just rained, so you see the sunlight reflecting off of pools of water on the roof of a school.
Bottom Right: If I lean out over the rail of my balconey and look south, I have a good view of the CN tower.

A lot happened in 2006.  I finished my Ph.D. (finally), moved from Vancouver to Toronto, and started medical school.  I even took up motorcycling and have made plans to travel the world on a motorbike.

Medical school has been more of a challenge than I imagined.  I find it hard to sustain my focus for weeks on end as a lot of my classmates seem quite happy to do.  I guess a lot of them have been studying non-stop ever since high school and feel like something is wrong if they’re not constantly on top of their studies.  I’m amazed at how many people in my class have photographic memories to go along with their prodigious work ethic. 

I work hard before exams, but most of the time I pursue other interests.  I read books that have nothing do to with medicine.  I surf the net. I go to the pub and hang out with friends.  I run.  I go mountain bike riding.  I ride my motorbike just for the fun of it.  Even during exams, I purposefully order food from places that are a nice ten minute motorbike ride away just so I can take a break from studying.
It is tough trying to explain to my family why I ride a motorbike.  My mom in particular thinks that it is suicidal.  But my Dad admitted to me that if he hadn’t had problems with his eyes since the age of 17, he would have been riding a motorcycle his entire life.  The thought of me riding a motorbike in Toronto scares my mom.  But the thought of me crossing Africa by motorbike scares her even more.  I remind her that when she was young she traveled the world with her girlfriend until they ran out of money and had to take jobs.  Still, mothers worry.  Why would I choose to put myself at risk?  If I disappeared, she’d never know what happened to me.  What if I was in an accident or shot by bandits?

When I reflect on all the major changes that have taken place in my life in 2006, I realize that I trace almost all of their origins back to the period in the spring of 2005 when I succumbed to a mysterious illness that left me unable to move and in the worst pain I’ve ever felt.  I was incapacitated for over a month.  The pain hit me suddenly – I was analyzing data in the lab when I was struck by the worst headache of my life.  It also felt like a pitch fork had been jammed into the back of my neck. 

I went home to get some rest.  I assumed that I would get better – I always had in the past.  But after two days and two sleepless nights of excruciating pain that was getting progressively worse instead of better, I went to the student health centre.  Normally it would have been an easy ten minute walk across campus.  But just getting there took a monumental effort.  Several times I had to stop and lie down in the ground. 

When I got to the health centre, I realized that I had taken my health for granted to the extent that I hadn’t even bothered to get a Care Card when I moved to BC.  I was without health coverage.  Still, I was in pain and the $50 seemed a small price to pay if I could get some relief or even some kind of an answer as to what was wrong.  I had blood work done, and was given Tylenol 3 and gravol.  The painkillers did nothing.  The lab results came back and the doctor ruled out an infection.  It wasn’t meningitis.  I suppose that was good news.  The doctor told me to come back if things did not improve in the next couple of days.  Getting back to St. John’s College from the student health centre took me over an hour.  At times I crawled because standing was so painful.  Even with the gravol, I vomited into some bushes and collapsed on the ground.  Several times I considered calling campus security just to get a ride home.  No!  I could make it goddammit.  It wasn’t far.

“Are you alright?  Do you need help?” A friendly stranger asked when I was lying face down on the grass on main mall. 

“I’m just resting, thanks” I lied.

Later, I remember lying in my bed in my room at St. John’s College.  I hadn’t eaten in three days because when I stood up, the pain and nausea were so bad that I thought I’d pass out.  I couldn’t even make my way down to the dinning hall to eat.  Even if I could, I could not keep food down.  Yet I knew I had to eat.  I ordered delivery from Swiss Chalet.  But the effort of going down to meet the delivery guy in the foyer took all my energy and made me too nauseous to eat anything. 

I did not want to ask my friends for help.  I’m not entirely sure why.  Maybe I didn’t want anyone to see me in such a weakened state.  Maybe I didn’t want to burden them with bringing me food.  What was next?  Would I need help getting to the bathroom?  I certainly would never want to involve my friends with something like that.  I did not know what was wrong or how much worse I would get. 

I was grateful for the help I’d already received from my friends.  Earlier, Frank had driven me to Vancouver General Hospital.  He called his wife, a Neurologist, and she came to the waiting room to give me a neurological exam.  I had no neurological signs.  I guess that was good news.  Dr. Cayabyab discussed my case with the resident on duty, and I felt I was in good hands. 

Mark Ozog had called me earlier and found out I was on my way to the hospital.  He immediately dropped his plans (which included a female friend’s birthday party I believe) and came to VGH to hang out with me.  It was nice to have someone to joke around with.  I was worried about what could be wrong with me.  Was it the start of a neurodegenerative disease like multiple sclerosis or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis?  Had I suffered a stroke?  Did I have a tumour?  Why wasn’t I getting better?

I was hooked up to an IV line, and the neurology resident pushed one migraine drug after another.  There was no effect whatsoever.  I was exhausted after having been in emergency for over 8 hours, and finally decided to go home.  Mark drove me.

I could do nothing but lie in bed, flat on my back, for days.  I could not even watch TV because it made me nauseous.  At some point my parents called.  They knew something wasn’t right.  When the story came out, my Dad decided to fly out to Vancouver to help me.  He slept in a cot in my room, fed me, and took me to VGH for a second (and final time) where we would spend thirteen hours.  CT scans of my head with contrast were initially a concern to the Neurologist, who sent me back for more scans of my neck.  It turns out that what initially looked like a cause for concern is actually normal in 5% of the population.  As a medical student, I’d like to look at these scans someday so that I can understand what the concern was and what it is about my cerebral vasculature that makes me different from 95% of the population.

For the next several weeks, I was confined to my bed.  I lost 25 pounds.  I am glad that my mom did not see me in such a state.  The complete inactivity I endured was a sharp juxtaposition to my normal active lifestyle.  I missed golfi
ng, snowboarding, running, cycling, playing street hockey, and hanging out with friends.  My newfound solitude, although extremely frustrating, gave me an opportunity to think about my life in a way that had hitherto eluded me.  Unable to read or even watch TV, I was trapped in my body alone with my thoughts.   

I thought about a lot of things.  What did I want to do with my life?  After days of constant pain with no sign of improvement, my thoughts turned dark.  Was I going to recover?  If I did not recover, could I ever enjoy life again?  If I were to leave this planet, would I be satisfied?  I thought of all the things that I still wanted to do.  I wasn’t ready to leave.  I decided I wanted to become a medical doctor.

Slowly I started to improve.  I remember going for my first walk in weeks, and feeling so elated.  Now I am completely recovered.  I may never know what happened to me.  One possibility is that I had a dural tear that resulted from a snowboarding injury.  My cerebrospinal fluid would leak out and this would result in severe pain, pain that could be somewhat diminished by lying down flat.  Indeed, other patients that have been diagnosed with a tear in their duras have reported similar symptoms as those I experienced.  But although a torn dura is a reasonable explanation, this is just a guess to satisfy the need for an answer.  One thing I’ve learned as a scientist is to accept uncertainty because there is often no clear answer.

What I do know is that life is precious and way too short.  You might think that after having experienced what it’s like to be immobilized, I would avoid activities that could put at risk of returning to such a state.  Why would I ride a snowboard or a motorcycle after such a lesson?  The reality is that my experience has had the opposite effect.  I know what it is like to lie in bed, completely incapacitated, and think of all the things I haven’t done.  We are all going to die, but how many of us truly live?  When you contemplate the end, it’s not the things that you did in your life that you regret; it’s the things you didn’t.

My biggest fear is not death.  What do I fear?  I fear being trapped inside my body in constant pain with no end in sight.  But my biggest fear of all is opportunity lost.  I want to experience as much as I can in this life.

Las Vegas Boulevard

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Notice anything out of the ordinary about these pictures?  I took them through the windshield while sitting in traffic on Las Vegas Boulevard.

A Newfie goes to Vegas

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I think the pictures speak for themselves.  Besides, the comedic value would go down if I had to explain it.

Viva Las Vegas

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I just got back from a week in Las Vegas.  I gorged myself on all-you-can-eat buffets, played a lot of poker as well as some craps (which proved a mistake), and even caught Cirque de Soleil’s “O” – one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.  The stage production uses water and height to great advantage.  Acrobats would dive from insane heights into water where just moments before there had been a solid stage.

I took a break from the poker tables long enough to get out into the desert for some dirt bike training.  My first attempt to go riding (Teusday Dec 19) was thwarted by snow (I can’t believe it actually snowed in Las Vegas).  It was warmer in Toronto than Las Vegas.  Luckily the weather improved and I was able to go the next day (Wednesday Dec 20).  It was hard to get up as I had been playing cards until the early hours of the morning, but my anticipation and excitement prevailed and I was able to get moving.  The instructor, Don, picked me up outside the Aladdin at 9:30 am in his shiny new Toyota Tacoma (with two Hondas in the back), and we headed out into the desert.  Don proved to be a friendly knowledgeable instructor, and I would highly recommend his course http://www.dayinthedesert.com/.

Don taught me basic maneouvers like counterweighting, steering by pressing on the foot pegs (as opposed to pressing on the handlebars as you would with a street bike), leaning the bike, standing up on the bike, shifting while standing up (actually a bit challenging), doing weaves around pylons, turning in tight circles while standing, going over obstacles (the picture above shows me going over a wooden beam), doing U-turns on a hill, and traversing a slope (the bike goes between you and the hill).  In general, it was all about learning how to make the bike do your bidding, and learning how to use it as a tool beneath you.  

It was a lot of fun, but what surprised me the most was how physically demanding riding a dirt bike was.  By the end of the regular part of the course, my legs were almost useless and my heart was pounding.  I simply could not physically do any more tight circles while standing up.  I was beat.  

Despite my pain, when Don offered to take me on a trail ride through the desert, how could I refuse?  We went on a great ride where we had to stand up almost the entire way because of the undulations and deep sand.  The bike was sliding around beneath me, and it took a lot of effort to show it who was boss.  I was grinning behind my Helmet the whole ride.  At times there would be craters in the track as deep as the bike, but the bike would just plunge in and I’d gun it up the other sided.  It was amazing what the bike could do.  On the way back to Dan’s Tacoma, we rode across the dry lake bed pictured above, and I got the bike going nice and fast (faster than Dan was willing to go).  It reminded me of the time I went horseback riding and galloped the last few kilometers, well ahead of the guide.

When I got back to the truck, I didn’t want to stop, but my legs were rubber.  To ride for any length of time would require way more fitness than I currently have.  It’s been three days since I rode the bike and my quads still hurt.  Walking up and down stairs is particularly bad.  After I do some strength training, with a focus on my legs in particular, hopefully I’ll be ready to ride for more than a few hours.

Toronto Motorcycle Show

I was excited like a kid before Christmas yesterday as I sat though lecture after lecture because I knew that as soon as classes were done I was going to the Toronto Motorcycle Show (TMS).  Not only would I be able look at (and sit on!) the various bikes Tom and I have been considering for our Round the World (RTW) trip, but I would also get to see Charlie Boorman, of “Long Way Round” fame, in person.  This is a man who has lived my dream.

Tom and I have yet to decide on what bikes we are going to take for the trip.  Charlie Boorman and Ewan MacGregor went RTW on modified BMW 1150GS Adventures.  The bikes took one hell of a beating and still survived the trip (as did their riders, which is always good).  There are a couple of problems.  One, the BMW Adventure is a heavy bike that gets bogged down easily in well, bogs and soft ground like sand.  According to the KTM representative at the TMS, the Adventure is a nightmare in sand because the engine digs the bike deeper and deeper into the sand as you gun it to try and get out.  The second problem is that Tom is vertically challenged.  His feet would barely touch the ground.  This problem is not limited to the BMW Adventure, however.  In fact, as I would discover shortly, the BMW Adventure has a lower seat height than the KTM 640 by far.  As you can see in the picture below, even I was on my tippy toes on the 640, and I’m 6’2”.  (The centre stand is up, but the back tire was still firmly on the ground.  Without the centre stand, the bike would lower with the weight of a rider on it, but you’d still have to mount the bike at that height.  Tom would need to stand on a box.)  The KTM 990 Adventure, on the other hand, has a much lower seat height (as you can see, my feet were planted firmly on the ground).  The KTM representative, who was only 5’9″, said he has ridden both the 640 and the 990, although he admitted to being b it intimidated the first time he rode the 640.  Apparently he was doing a promo in Nevada and they gave him the bike for a desert ride.  He had no choice but to hop on.  He’s still alive, so it can’t have been that bad.
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I asked the KTM representative, who has ridden on sand in the Nevada desert, which bike he would prefer if he were inclined to, say, ride across the Sahara.  He looked at me like I was crazy.  He said he would probably go with KTM’s custom Rally, which is a modified 640.  It is $32,000, and almost impossible to find even if you did have that kind of cash.

Next I checked out the beamers.  The new BMW R1200GS Adventure is a monstrosity of a bike.  It is absolutely huge.  The Dakar 650GS, on the other hand, is much more manageable, although I think my knees might be too flexed for riding long distances in comfort. 

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I had an interesting conversation with one of the BMW reps.  He was encouraging of my “crazy” plans to ride across Africa.  He suggested local places to go for off-road training, and suggested I check out www.advrider.com for more info on adventure motorcycling.  I imagine the BMWs are portrayed in a favourable light on that site. 

He was honest and told me that a lot of things can go wrong.  In fact, that very day one of his clients had driven his Dakar into a river in Peru and now the bike wouldn’t run.  The BMW rep said he had faxed wiring diagrams, but admitted to me candidly that the guy was “fucked”.  The nearest BMW dealership was in Santiago, some 2400 kms away.  He would have to arrange to transport the bike there.  The nearest village to where the guy was stranded didn’t even have motorized vehicles, other than a few scooters.

Next I went to see Charlie Boorman, who has just finished a new DVD about his experience racing from Paris to Dakar (the Dakar Rally).  I was looking for inspiration, but instead I got a dose of realism.  Charlie told fascinating stories about his adventures.  But what stuck in my mind is how often he hurt himself; how many bones has broken.  He told the story about how he sailed off a dune near Dubai and fell 70 feet, the bike landing on top of him.  Unable to ride because of a broken collar bone, he had to hang on to the back of another rider for hours (there were no foot pegs for passengers), in excruciating pain the entire way, to get back to civilization.

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Charlie Boorman tells war stories from Dakar.

The injury that finally took him out of the Dakar rally was a seemingly mild accident – but he ended up breaking both his hands.  There were 230 racers in the Dakar Rally, and 50 doctors and nurses traveling with them.  That seems like a high ratio of medics to riders.  How many injuries were there?  I wouldn’t be surprised if those medics, despite their numbers, were kept incredibly busy.  After having watched some of the footage of the DVD, I was shocked at the number of spectacular wipeouts.  Riders were constantly falling off their bikes, and their bodies looked like they were taking one hell of a beating.  What am I getting into?

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Left: Is this my next street bike?  I really like the Honda CBR 1000 RR.
Right: Quite possibly the nicest piece of tail I’ve ever seen.  But I would expect nothing less of Ducati.

Why men are rarely published in Dear Abby

I don’t have time for a proper entry, but that’s alright because there is not much to tell.  I’m in study mode trying to avoid (or at least minimize) the amount of remediation I will have to do over the Christmas holidays if I bomb my upcoming December exam.  Instead I’ll share a joke a friend sent me today:

Dear Abby,

I’ve never written to you before, but I really need your advice on what could be a crucial decision. I’ve suspected for some time now that my wife has been cheating on me.

The usual signs… phone rings but if I answer, the caller hangs up. My wife has been going out with the girls a lot recently although when I ask their names she always says, “Just some friends from work, you don’t know them.”

I always stay awake to look out for her taxi coming home, but she always walks down the drive. Although I can hear a car driving off, as if she has gotten out of the car round the corner. Why? Maybe she wasn’t in a Taxi? I once picked her cell phone up just to see what time it was and she went berserk and screamed that I should never touch her phone again and why was I am checking up on her.

Anyway, I have never approached the subject with my wife. I think deep down I just didn’t want to know the truth, but last night she went out again and I decided to really check on her.

I decided I was going to park my Harley Davidson motorcycle next to the garage and then hide behind it so I could get a good view of the whole street when she came home. It was at that moment, crouching behind my Harley, that I noticed that the valve covers on my engine seemed to be leaking a little oil.

Is this something I can fix myself or should I take it back to the dealer?