Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Take a Flu Shot for Raymond

Raymond Plotkin was a freshman at UNM in 2009. A native of Texas, he was one of 18 freshman accepted into the Learning and Living Community for Engineering. He planned to become a nuclear engineer, and he was very happy here. He loved living in Redondo Village and eating at La Posada. He was a friendly young man who liked his roommates and got involved in student engineering clubs and the local Hillel House. He kept in close touch with his parents and older brother in Houston. His mother Elaine said, “Raymond fell in love with UNM. He really connected with his School of Engineering advisors and did very well in school. He made good friends and was having fun. Everything was falling into place for him and the future looked bright.”
The Fall semester was going well. Raymond carved a jack-o-lantern for Halloween and reveled in his first snow experience, even saving snowballs in his dorm room freezer. When the time came, he got a flu shot. Sadly, that was the year that the H1N1 flu took the nation by surprise, and the regular flu shot, the flu shot that was available to Raymond, didn’t include protection from H1N1.
In early November, 2009, Raymond got his first symptoms. He came to the Student Health Center and was treated for flu. A few days later, on a Saturday, he got much worse and his roommates took him to UNMH where he was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit. For four days the doctors did everything they could, fighting to save his stricken lungs and heart with all that modern medicine has to offer. Tragically, nothing worked. On November 11, just weeks shy of his 19th birthday, Raymond died from H1N1.
A week before his death, Raymond posted a quote on his Facebook page. “Life’s challenges are not supposed to paralyze you, they’re supposed to help you discover who you are.”  Raymond’s parents, rather than allowing themselves to become paralyzed by the terrible grief that losing a child brings, have become passionate advocates of influenza immunization. They don’t want anyone else to lose a son or daughter to flu if it can be prevented. “Take One for Raymond” is the name of their initiative that has now become a foundation, spreading the word about influenza immunization.
Writes Elaine Plotkin, “All we ask is that everyone considers taking a flu shot, and if you’re on the fence about it, please think about it again. No family wants to hear that a loved one is sick in bed with the flu. It is our intent to educate and inform everyone about the importance of flu immunization. We do this because we wouldn’t want any other family to have to go through what our family has … without our son. That is why we will do everything we can do to ask each of you to take the flu shot, if you are able to do so.”
Stu­dent Health & Coun­sel­ing (SHAC) and UNM Hos­pi­tal part­ner to offer free “Take One For Raymond” flu shot clinics for the UNM com­mu­nity. The influenza vac­cine will be offered to UNM stu­dents, staff and fac­ulty (any­one 18 years old or older) Tuesday-Wednesday, Sept. 25–26, and Tuesday-Wednesday, Oct. 23–24 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Stu­dent Union Build­ing atrium.
  Elaine and Ronnie Plotkin, Raymond’s parents, also established a scholarship in his name, starting the fund with a generous donation the same year they lost Raymond. Each Fall, the scholarship is awarded to an incoming freshman engineering student. Recipients so far are Paul Gilbreath and Sean Chavez. To contribute to the scholarship or for more information, contact the UNM School of Engineering at 277-5064 or visit .
For the past two years, Elaine Plotkin has written an article like this one for the Daily Lobo. This year the honor is mine.  I take this task very seriously because, you see, I have a son almost Raymond’s age.  And that same year, my son also contracted H1N1. To my profound relief, he survived it. So every Fall when flu season breaches the horizon, I imagine the pain Raymond’s parents have endured, and my heart hurts. And every Fall I find inspiration in the courage they have shown by moving beyond the paralysis of unimaginable challenge, and I go “take one for Raymond.”
I hope you will too.

Sunday, September 16, 2012


Last week I had the great good fortune to attend a meditation retreat in the high country of northern New Mexico. For three days I sat for many hours on a cushion, silently bringing my attention back to my breath over and over again, or walked slowly upon the earth, soles alert to every pebble on the path. During the breaks I savored delicious food, wandered flower-bedecked meadows, and immersed my senses in fresh air, stars and running water. There was no phone service, no internet connection, no television. By the end of the retreat I felt a depth of rejuvenation and calm that still sustains me.

Why am I telling you this? Beyond wanting to share my joy, I thought you would be interested to know that meditation is actually good for you. For starters, it can improve your GPA. Meditators have more gray matter. This has been measured. Gray matter is what does your homework for you, so presumably more is better. More specifically, the gray matter growth that has been observed in mediators occurs in areas associated with learning and memory, sense of self, empathy and stress management. Further, long-term meditators have more folds in their cerebral cortex, which allows for faster information processing. “Sitting” makes you smarter.

Meditation is also good for your health, both physical and mental. Scientists have studied this, in typical scientist fashion, by plastering electrodes all over the heads of meditating Buddhist monks, surveying thousands of people with a smart phone app, and of course using more conventional methods like basic lab measurements. Meditation can lower blood pressure and pulse rates, improve your immune system and decrease your experience of pain. People who meditate have less anxiety, depression, and insomnia, and respond better to stress. If you have a chronic illness like AIDS or cancer, meditation can help manage the physical and emotional symptoms. Meditation and exercise are the only two activities proven to prolong brain function in old age. And perhaps most importantly, meditators are happier and more resilient in times of stress.

What is meditation anyway? In the simplest sense, it is the practice of relaxing the body and clearing the mind. Another way to describe meditation is focused attention on the present moment with awareness and without judgment. There are different kinds of meditation, but they all have the same goals. Mindfulness meditation uses awareness of the body and mind to bring the attention to the here and now. Other traditions use an object or an image for focus, and some use a prayer, a mantra, or a wish for widespread happiness. Yoga was traditionally a way to prepare the body for sitting meditation, and can be used as a kind of movement meditation. There are many choices. The concept of meditation is simple, but that doesn’t make it easy. The nature of the mind is wild and wandering, and getting to even a few moments of calm, present-moment awareness can take years of practice.

Sakyong Mipham, a great Shambala Buddhist teacher, likens the mind to a wild horse that gallops off at every opportunity. Jack Kornfield, an internationally renowned meditation teacher, writes that meditation is like training a puppy to sit and stay. The puppy always gets up and runs away, and you just pick it up and put it back down over and over again. If you have never tried it, meditation might sound mysterious at best, useless at worst. But more and more people are trying it, liking it, and keeping it up. It is sweeping the globe. In fact, just last weekend people in over 100 cities around the world held a special meditation for peace. This included 100,000 meditators in Buenos Aires alone.

If you think you might be interested in meditation, you could start with some reading. In addition to the teachers mentioned above, I recommend Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron, The Dalai Lama, or Jon Kabat-Zinn. These are just my personal favorites: there are many others. You could also check out a DVD, find a meditation center near you, or take a class.

Amy Gross, former editor in chief of O, the Oprah Magazine, retired from her highly successful career to become a full time meditation instructor and practitioner. She writes, “As you meditate, the grip of your history loosens and you get a little saner, lighter, less entangled.” Maybe that is what I was feeling up in the mountains last week. It’s somewhat indefinable for me at this moment. All I know is that it felt good, and right, and if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to my cushion.

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