Vaishu Jawahar

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Healthcare summit highlights opioid epidemic

In front of a crowd of over 300 of North Carolina’s top healthcare executives, former congressman Patrick Kennedy, son of late Sen. Ted Kennedy, opened up about his struggles with a disease facing over 21.5 million Americans today: substance abuse disorder.

He recalled growing up in a household with alcoholic parents where mental health issues were swept under the rug.

“Even in the most liberal households,” Kennedy said, “stigma can be very real.”

He called for an end to the stigma and denial not only in families and communities but in the healthcare system.

“The denial that this is a disease in families and communities translates into denial by insurance companies in the form of denial of reimbursement claims for treatment of those disorders,” he said.

Kennedy expressed outrage at Congress, stating that 24 billion was spent researching HIV/AIDs, but only 500 million was spent researching addiction when addiction affects 40,000 more people each year.

“If Congress cared, they wouldn’t allowed our jails to jam packed with people with addiction and psychological disorders,” he said.

Kennedy believes investments in mental health will pay off across the board.

“Early interventions and social interventions can reduce the costs of your jail systems and prison systems,” he said. “Just ask the Republicans of Miami Dade County, by supporting community housing, they haven’t had to fund a new prison in Miami Dade. Spending on mental health is a value add that leads to overall savings.”

Kennedy related the issue back to education, saying, “What is more fundamental to the education of our young people than the ability to manage stress? That ought to be taught in schools.”

Medical Director of Atrium Health, psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Wyatt, echoed Kennedy’s concerns about the stigma surrounding the disorder and took time to address misinformation in the public.

“We have to change the paradigm,” he said. “We have to understand this is a chronic illness. Treatment works, we just have to be able to recognize it is a brain disease.”

Kennedy expressed hope after speaking with Dr. Rahul Rajkumar, chief medical officer of Blue Cross Blue Shield North Carolina. Rajkumar was one of many VIP panelists gathered for the event by the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce. In a panel on healthcare innovation, Rajkumar touted Blue Cross Blue Shield North Carolina’s new direction as “the most aggressive move towards value based care” and stressed the need to “move away from a system that rewards volume to one that rewards efficiency.”

Rajkumar stated the goal as “trying to design a payment system that rewards the highest ideals of medicine.” He believes that accountable care organizations are the future, explaining that in such a model “[Payers and providers] both have skin in the game. We’re both sharing costs and benefits. We’re both sharing data both ways.”

Mayor Vi Lyles was also in attendance, moderating a panel on “Transformational Leadership” seeking the insights of Novant Health CEO Carl Armato, Atrium Health CEO Gene Woods and Premier Inc. CEO Susan DeVore.

When asked what comes to mind when she thought of transformational leadership, UNC Charlotte alumna DeVore said, “You have to be ready at any moment to change what you are for what you might become.”

The panel was also asked about what change in the healthcare system they would most like to see. Armato responded, “I believe it is in empowering physician leaders, nurse leaders, administrative leaders…it’s not about micromanaging, it’s about turning them loose.” DeVore stated, “I don’t think the government can fix this. I don’t think insurance companies can fix this. I think the only way it can be fixed is from inside the system itself.” Woods expressed excitement at the advancements in technology propelling telemedicine: “Today, [Atrium] will have 14,000 visits happening virtually.”

Lyles concluded the panel by asking the panelists for the words of advice they have to offer “future transformational leaders.” The panelists kept their responses concise. “Courage,” said Carl Armato. “Be Brave,” stated DeVore. “Do the right thing,” capped Woods.

Yazidi Survivors of ISIS’ Sinjar Massacre share their stories

Jamal Ibrahim and Salema Merza, two members of an ancient Middle Eastern ethnoreligious minority, the Yazidis, were among few to immigrate to the U.S. and escape their hometown of Sinjar before attacks by ISIS.

They visited UNC Charlotte last week to share their experiences. Merza is the deputy director of women’s affairs for the global organizations Yazda. She travels on behalf of the organization to help survivors share their stories and raise money for the organization which funds aid to refugee settlements in the Middle East and abroad. Before the 2014 attacks, Merza taught science at local schools and Ibrahim ran food distribution centers that worked with the U.S. government.

After the 2014 attacks, their homes, businesses and former lives ceased to exist. Sinjar was a community in mountains of northern Iraq bordering Syria that has been home to the Yazidis for centuries. Though Yazidis have been no strangers to persecution, the atrocities that occurred after ISIS invaded Sinjar on August 3, 2014 caught them by surprise.

“Before this, Christians, Muslims and Yazidis were co-existing in Sinjar,” she said. “After the fighting, locals supported ISIS.”

The level of crimes committed against the Yazidis can be considered genocide, but were largely ignored by the international community until they were brought into the limelight by international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney.

Merza and Ibrahim spoke firsthand of men being systematically killed and women and children taken for sex slavery. “7000 people were killed within the first hour,” said Merza, “Suicide bombers were sent into the community. ISIS attacked the Yazidis with the intent to exterminate them.”

Those who made it to safety from the attacks became homeless. “Approximately half a million fled their homes and were stranded on Mount Sinjar without food or water,” said Merza. “170 children and elderly died of heat exhaustion and dehydration. 3,000 children became orphans. Many elderly were left behind. Thousands of Yazidi children were taken to ISIS training camps and brainwashed. Yazidi boys were forced to carry out suicide missions. ISIS conducted the largest sexual enslavement of Yazidi women. Yazidi girls as young as nine were raped and sold for sex multiple times.”

The entire Yazidi population has been displaced in refugee camps. ISIS held guns to the heads of Yazidi men and boys forcing them to convert or be killed. “74 crude mass graves have been discovered in Sinjar, most bodies haven’t been identified or families notified,” said Merza.

Ibrahim shared his personal experience during the attacks with Merza translating. On August 3, he received a call from a friend in south Sinjar, where ISIS attacked first, warning him to flee. Ibrahim and his family were especially in danger because ISIS knew his family worked with the U.S. military to distribute food supplies and aid. He got a call from ISIS threatening to take his markets and homes and kill him and all his family if he did not convert to Islam. He and 14 family members then squeezed into a car meant for five people. His elderly father and uncle decided to stay behind in order to provide space in the car for more women and children.

“They did not believe it would progress to the degree that it did. They believed that their non-Yazidi neighbors would protect them,” said Ibrahim, eyes welling.

When their car made it to the border of Kurdistan at 2 a.m. that morning, they discovered that it had been closed. “I saw an old woman holding the hands of two kids getting ready to commit suicide if they didn’t let them in,” said Ibrahim.

Eventually when the Kurds opened the border, Ibrahim and his family sought refuge in one of the settlements. Ibrahim, his wife and his 15-year-old daughter were lucky enough to secure a visa to come to America.

“Some of his family still live in Iraq in camps and are in a dangerous situation because they worked with the U.S. military and are considered ‘infidels’ by ISIS,” translated Merza. “His wife and daughter both have severe trauma and struggle to live a normal life.”

When Ibrahim returned to Sinjar to try to locate his father and uncle, an old man told him he saw them being forced into a car by militants. Ibrahim visited one of the mass grave sites and found his father’s ID on one of the bodies and recognized his uncle’s keys on another. The police granted his request to keep the keys to his family home. Upon returning to the area, he found his home and his family business had been destroyed. Ibrahim closed, “Now the question is ‘what was the fault? What did I do?’ People should think of others as human no matter who they are.”

To many Yazidis, the future of their homeland looks dim. Most of the little infrastructure they had was destroyed. Hospitals closed due to lack of doctors, medicine an electricity. The U.N.  used to help with essential items and some financial support, but no longer do, according to Merza.

“Most Yazidis don’t want to be refugees in other countries. The homeland is where you want to live,” said Merza. “They do want to stay in the homeland in case they get support from the big countries. I hope you can go to the government and tell them to help the most vulnerable.”

All hands in at “Helping Hands”

Prosthetics created in 3D printers in the Makerspace in Woodward Hall by members of The Helping Hands project. Photo courtesy of Vaishu Jawahar.

One of UNC Charlotte’s organizations, The Helping Hands Project, combines the newest technology campus has to offer with an interdisciplinary group of students with the goal of changing the lives of kids with disabilities. They utilize 3D printers in the Makerspace in Woodward Hall to create basic prosthetics that enable the kids to play sports or go fishing.

Since starting unofficial operations in January, a team of students from a variety of backgrounds such as engineering, biology, exercise science and computer science, successfully collaborated to make a prosthesis for a 9-year-old girl named Amy. They used a high-end 3D printer available for UNC Charlotte students free of cost and spent $30 on plastic filament, rubber tips, bands and straps. The result was a bright blue plastic forearm customized for Amy’s specific measurements with mechanically-powered fingers capable of grip.

“3D printing is something that anyone can do,” said Co-design Will Lenon.

Creating one prosthesis can take weeks. The Helping Hands Project uses designs available online and modeling software to tailor them to the specifications of each child.

“There are a lot of hand designs out there, but there are a lot of cases that are different than others and a lot of modifications that can be made,” Club President Henry Weaver said.

Once the design is ready, the parts are printed piece by piece. The Taz6 3D printer ejects melted PLA plastic in thin layers until the model is formed, which can be time-consuming since it isn’t always without error.

“The biggest dedication we make is definitely time because, one, it takes time to print and, two, you have to troubleshoot,” said Weaver.

On this particular Friday afternoon, biology major Weaver, mechanical engineering major Will Lenon, and exercise science major Brandon Glover are overseeing the print of the green forearm piece pictured below-a process that can take up to seven hours.

But for the nine students who rotate into the Makerspace throughout the week, working on the project is well-worth it. The organization is a branch of a non-profit founded in Chapel Hill, where it originally began as a student organization at UNC Chapel Hill. The first child to receive a hand through the non-profit was Holden Mora, a 7-year-old boy with a condition that prevented his hand from fully developing during the fetal stages. Now there are chapters throughout the research triangle park area, including at NC State, providing hands to children who have had amputations or were born with conditions like Holden’s. These hands are made at extremely low cost compared to those made by prosthetic companies and are provided at no cost to the children. Though they are not meant to replace prosthetic limbs, they serve a clear purpose.

“We can make them more tailored to the kid and specific tasks. Say the kid wants to play the piano, fish, or play the Xbox, we can make them multiple cheap hands [to suit those purposes],” said Weaver.

“Obviously kids are growing quickly, so instead of paying $1000 for a new one every time, we can make these at no cost to them,” said Glover.

When the club isn’t at work in Woodward, they’re busy raising money for the cause. They raised close to $200 collaborating with the Chemistry Club at a Pie-a-Professor event and look forward to throwing a fundraiser at Chipotle. Mention “Helping Hands” at the register between 5-9 p.m., and half of your purchase will go towards helping children in need receive a hand. Helping Hands is also hosting a Rent-A-Puppy event in the courtyard by Woodward from 1-4 p.m.

The Helping Hands Project raised money at the Pie-A-Professor event. Photo courtesy of Henry Weaver.

When asked about the future of the club and goals for the semester, Weaver focused on finishing the group’s two current projects: the second hand for Amy and a hand for a boy named Landon, and also added that the club looks forward to “establishing themselves as a club and doing more for the kids receiving the hands such as creating a family day for the Helping Hands families to enjoy or organizing opportunities for the kids to meet athletes on campus.”The group is seeking new members who are interested in assisting with publicity, fundraising or social media. If you are looking for ways to get involved or know a child in need, email hhpuncc@gmail.com for more information.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates speaks as part of Chancellor Speaker Series

Former Secretary of Defense Dr. Robert Gates, who worked under two presidential administrations, spoke at UNC Charlotte Sept. 21 as part of the Chancellor’s Speaker Series.

Students, faculty and administrators gathered in the Multipurpose Room of the Student Union to hear Gates discuss his latest book “Duty” and both the serious and humorous aspects of a life spent in public service.

Gates’s career began in intelligence as an officer. He worked his way up the ranks, serving in posts at the National Security Council and the White House, eventually becoming director of the CIA.

After spending some time in the private sector, he returned to government to serve as secretary of defense upon the request of former President George W. Bush. In 2009, he became the only defense secretary to serve two consecutive presidents of opposing parties. His memoir is an open reflection upon the unique experiences of his career including detailed accounts of the various personalities that have graced the White House. He brought the crowd to their feet with a well-developed balance of steely opinions and insider anecdotes.

As the moderator opened the floor to questions from the audience, requesting the audience to ask questions in a respectful way, Gates who has testified in front of both legislatures on multiple occasions jokingly remarked “in other words, not like members of Congress.”

He then went on to address his issues with Congress, his ideas on the cornerstone of good leadership and the difficult decision to leave his post among many subjects.

When asked his opinion on Donald Trump as a presidential candidate, Gates, who has written a recent opinion-editorial on the subject, evoked a quote by former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes on Franklin D. Roosevelt. Holmes stated that what made Roosevelt an exceptional president was a second-rate intellect and first-rate temperament. Gates agreed and believed that good presidents share that character.

“[The best presidents] never considered themselves the smartest person in the room, felt comfortable being in a room with people smarter than them and had the temperament required to make decisions. Temperament above all,” said Gates.

He was in disdain of leaders in Congress because of their failure to build bridges across both sides of the aisle and had words of advice for younger members in the audience seeking a career in public service.

“Follow your own path but realize there is a bureaucracy-and you’re guaranteed at some point to work for a jackass,” said Gates. “Don’t identify just one mentor but multiple that are two to three levels above you and lastly be willing to take risks.”

Gates also expressed his support of mandatory national service. He believes that young Americans should be required to spend one year in public service, not only through military but through other avenues such as Teach for America.

Then he discussed the factors which may have contributed to his own success in public service.

“Never underestimate the importance of luck and timing” said Gates.

He also believed that moving around the world and getting broader experience helped him a lot. Gates said he got better at every job he did, constantly learning. With mentors such as former President George H.W. Bush, Gates thought that associating himself with good people was also critical to his success. In the case of military leaders, he noted nuances in good leadership-identifying the qualities of a good military leader during war time to be different than the qualities of a good military leader during peacetime.

Gates discussed military spending, describing weapons development projects that had been ongoing unsuccessfully for 11 years that he shut down.

In taking charge of the Department of Defense, Gates strove for efficiency and took the role of secretary under great deliberation before finally deciding to stay on board with the Obama administration. When he received a call saying that he was being considered, he wrote a list of 10 questions for  then-presidential candidate Barack Obama and handed it to a top aide as a basis for a conversation.

When discussing leaving his post as secretary after four and half years, Gates said that he was emotionally and physically spent.

“I felt that my concern for the troops might be overriding what was in the best interest of the United States,” Gates said.

Photo by Sam Lee.
Photo by Sam Lee.