Crew Views – Last Thoughts from the Road

Everyone who was part of the 360 crew put together some final thoughts about the trip. Read them all on the SPARTANS WILL. 360 website by linking from here.

“So, what’s next?” I keep getting that question. You people who followed this trip want to know. And the answer really is, “I’m not sure.” More>> 

I’ve put off writing this a bit. Partly because I’ve been busy but maybe also because writing this seems like the final end of this project. And I’m not ready for it to be over. More>> 

As the days, and now weeks, separate us from the travel of the 360 project, I find the memories beginning to blend together. I don’t like that feeling. I’m going to fight it as much as I can. Maybe I need to look at some B-roll before it evaporates completely. More>> 

Having worked at MSU for 20 years, I’ve had the opportunity to meet some fascinating and incredibly talented people. The recent 360 adventures allowed me the chance to go places I have never been and to stand alongside some of MSU’s outstanding Spartans. More>>

I started traveling on airplanes when I was five years old. My dad would take us on road trips everywhere when we were kids. Growing up, I played with music groups touring all over the United States. Indeed, I grew up traveling, and it has never stopped. More>> 

This trip had many personal purposes for me and ultimately resulted in several positive outcomes. I can honestly say it was one of the most challenging things I have done. More>> 

As a college student and freelance filmmaker, I’ve put together some videos I never imagined I’d touch. If a client will pay, I’ll probably do it, because MSU’s tuition ain’t cheap for a kid from Minnesota. As one job leads to the next, I often find myself in some surprising places. Enter SPARTANS WILL. 360. More>> 

I am very proud to say that I am a Spartan. Like many others, I cultivated most of my pride from the successes of Spartan athletics. However, working on SPARTANS WILL. 360 reshaped my perspective on what truly makes Michigan State University a great institution. More>>

Sue Nichols
I’m a science groupie. Don’t get me wrong. I have other passions. I’m a hardcore travel junkie (I’ve been to 33 countries, several on the Department of State’s travel alert list). I’m crazy about food—the more adventurous the better. I count my dog as one of my children. More>>

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my journey with the SPARTANS WILL. 360 project began nearly three years ago, during my junior year at MSU. I completed a marine research project that took me on a trip around the world. The story of my trip and the details of my research were chosen as a focus for a Spartan Saga. More>> 

Sue Carter
It was everything I had imagined and nothing that I could have foreseen. Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, and the rural villages speak of a life very different from ours in the industrialized West, yet there are deep connections to make that transcend language, culture, status, and wealth. More>>

Missing. Home.

March 19, 2013

East Lansing, MI

“I am ready for winter to be over.”

I can’t even tell you who said that. Actually, it’s not that I can’t tell you, it’s that I’ve heard it from so many people that I have lost track. And I guess it is winter here, still. But to me, well, it feels like winter is just getting started. That’s what happens when you miss January and February in the Midwest.

Winter for the team and me has been an endless stream of cigarettes and magazines….no…wait…that’s Simon and Garfunkel. Winter for us has been an endless stream of planes and hotels and stories. And heat.

Being back in Michigan has been good. I like winter and feel a little gypped by missing so much of it. Waking up this morning was nice. Felt good to see some snow flying.

It’s also been good to be working on the final stories of this effort. We are getting to see some wonderful parts of Michigan and are learning about more amazing work on campus and around the state. I really liked heading up to Traverse City for the wine story. It’s such pretty country and felt even more like winter up there. Having to try some tasty vintages didn’t hurt, either.

The next story to go up is an important one about a way to monitor blood flow from the heart. It’s a new way to check on how much blood is being pumped and it can show if someone is bleeding out, meaning bleeding to death, if you didn’t know. Ramakrishna Mukkamala from MSU has come up with an algorithm that he says gives better information than the other methods of monitoring blood flow while being less invasive. That sounds good to me, although trying to wrap my travel-addled brain around heart algorithms is proving challenging.

Last night I had dinner with Kurt, Lisa and Al. It was just a last-minute thing. I grilled a leg of lamb out in the snow and we drank wine and talked about the road. We laughed a lot and talked until late in the night. I was sitting there in my house, my kids asleep in their rooms, but it felt like we were still on the road. It struck me right at that moment how much I missed the crew and our nightly gatherings. I wasn’t thinking about that when I invited them over, but maybe it was working on my subconscious.

I have to admit I miss the easy camaraderie of the trip. It was crazy and exhausting, but it was also good to be in our own little bubble, one where the world right around us was all that mattered at that moment. No matter where in the world we happened to be. Re-entry can be rough. I was talking with Lisa a lot about that before we got home.

The thing is, no one back here realizes what it was really like. No one really knows what you did. No one feels the passion you felt for it. So, when you get back, it can be pretty…blah. And it has been. Our team is really still on the road, but being back means everyone around us thinks we’re “back.” So that means meetings and phone calls and lunches and blah blah blah…

Even though we are still trying to turn out the rest of these stories, we don’t have the insulation of the road. We have all been doing the same sort of work on this project now that we’re back, but we’re also doing all the other stuff on our plates that form the realities of our day-to-day jobs. So, it’s kinda like having two jobs. Or more. And there are also all the personal stuff, houses and pets and kids and snowblowing and oil changes and non-sink laundry and more blah blah blah.

Don’t get me wrong; being back is good. The best part of the trip is coming home. I was in my daughter’s fourth grade class yesterday, reading to the group. They started asking me about my trip and I started by telling them exactly that; that the best part is coming home. The wonderful teacher told me I have a wonderful job. Yes, I do. But it is still a job, but if you have to work, it’s a great one to have. I say that to people all the time.

It would probably more accurate to say that it’s a great job for some people. Not everyone likes to travel, not everyone likes being gone. When I was gathering the crewmembers, it amazed me…totally stunned me…how many people didn’t want to go along. I would have thought there would be lines around the block with those who’d kill to go. I would have been very wrong.


I was sitting there last night with my crew thinking about the trip and the work and my life. I was surrounded by the things and people I love, laughing and talking with The Crew. It would be a natural to say, “I wish I could take it all on the road, that would be perfect.” But that wouldn’t be right. And it wouldn’t be perfect. If there is a perfection in this, it is in the balance of the excitement of the journey and the longing for home. One without the other would seem pale and thin. You need to leave something to miss it the same way you have to have fear to have courage.

We have a couple of more stories for you, but the end is in sight. We are all home, none of us is out on the road. We are still The Crew, but no longer on the same mission. Last night was awesome and needed. We’ll see each other at work and we’ll have projects to work on, but I know it won’t be the same. So, in a sense, I will be missing my team, even though they’ll be around. It’s the combination of people and the work and some distance that makes us The Crew.

We’ll just have to wait for President Simon, in a rough imitation of Inspector Gordon, to flash the big Spartan helmet into the night sky (or maybe just send an email) and we’ll assemble, gear at hand, packed for whatever’s ahead. Wayfarers, wanderers, vagabonds, ready for the road.


Cheers for Pure Michigan

March 10, 2013

Lisa Mulcrone
Suttons Bay, MI

After traveling around the world for almost eight weeks, it really was great to get back home to Michigan. I missed my family, my dog, my shower, clean water, clean air, different clothes and so much more.Black Star Farms

Heading up to Traverse City to cover the story on wine made me realize I had missed my state of Michigan, too. I get so caught up in day-to-day things that I sometimes forget to appreciate what’s right in front of my face.

And there are so many things about Michigan to appreciate. A sunrise on Lake Huron. A sunset on Lake Michigan. The beautiful shores of the Upper Peninsula. A game at Joe Louis or Comerica Park. Cider mills and apple orchards. The Detroit Zoo. Fudge from Mackinac Island, Better Made potato chips and Vernors. Pretty much any spot on MSU’s campus. The list goes on and on.

Of course Traverse City with its beautiful lake views, vibrant downtown, good food and beaches have always been part of that list so I was thrilled to be able to head up there with the 360 crew.

Black Star Farms award-winning wineWhile working on our story, I realized I’ve probably underappreciated Michigan’s wine industry and its impact. Sure, I’ve had wine from the many different wineries. I’ve toured a few and sampled at tasting rooms.

But I had no idea how much research from MSU has gone into improving the industry here in Michigan. It had been years since I had been to the area and it seemed like the number of vineyards and wineries had exploded since I had last visited. Everyone we talked with in the business was quick to point out how key MSU researchers have been in improving grapes, wine and the entire industry.

Given that Michigan is now home to more than 100 commercial wineries and the industry contributes $300 million each year to the state’s economy, I’d say the Spartan impact is definitely worth toasting.

I’d hazard a guess that a lot of people in Michigan have no idea how much MSU impacts the state other than educating large numbers of students. For instance, did you know MSU’s AgBioResearch and Extension play a key role in the $91 billion in annual agribusiness economic impact through their partnerships, research and educational programs in all 83 counties?

Screen Shot 2013-03-18 at 3.18.54 PMMSU recently launched a really cool interactive site that lets readers poke around different regions and check out all sorts of impressive ways that MSU is impacting the state. You really should check it out – fascinating stuff and it really proves just how much MSU puts back into the state.

I love this state. I love MSU. Cheers to a long and important partnership between the two. Pure Michigan and Spartans Will.



Personal advocacy

March 11, 2013

East Lansing, MI

If there is one thing I’ve learned while on this 360 journey it is, yes, MSU faculty and staff are wonderful everywhere they are, but also those who work with them are incredible people in their own right.

While in Zambia I met Benjamin, who began as a patient for Dr. Birbeck’s epilepsy study and became a vocal advocate for her work and for epilepsy awareness.

Senior University PhotographerA month later back in East Lansing I had the pleasure to meet Peter Hasbrook of Okemos. Different place, different disease, same cause: personal advocacy.

Peter was diagnosed with Parkinson’s almost 13 years ago and is now working with MSU researcher Rahul Shrivastav on research on voice patterns that could in turn help detect the disease sooner. While the rest of the crew was setting up, I had the chance to talk with Peter and to thank him for coming in and helping with the shoot. “No, problem at all,” was his quick reply.

As he nestled in behind the microphone he leaned over to me and said, “It is important for each of us to tell our story, that way others benefit.”

How very true. He told me of how involved he has become over the years and is always willing to share what he has been through. Peter, along with his wife, Barb, became dedicated to educating others about the disease. Becoming members of the Lansing Area Parkinson’s Support Group and working with area doctors and researchers alike has helped him in his personal fight with the disease.

“It’s been very beneficial to me. You need to know what you’re up against. At times its not just the Parkinson’s but the medication and their interactions as well,” he mentioned in between audio recordings.

Peter has taken his diagnosis and used it as a voice for others, (although he humbly says he is not good at it).

“It is important that we all learn and the only way to do that is to get together on a regular basis and participate,” he says.

To Benjamin and Peter and so many others along this journey, thank you for being a major part of the work being done by Michigan State University.

Spartans Will.

Shaky memories

March 1, 2013

East Lansing, MI

grandpaEven though he’s been gone for more than 24 years, there are still many things I remember about my grandpa. His eyes. The chair he always sat in. His laugh. His occasional grumpy hrumph. The tomato-shaped ketchup container he used at every meal. Sitting at the head of the table on Thanksgiving. The smell of his hair and aftershave. Rowing a boat while he took us fishing. Baiting hooks and cleaning fish because I was too squeamish. Playing cards. Giving hugs, riding a bike, holding grandchildren…and eventually shaking hands and a measured gait.

I’m not even sure if he ever was actually diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease or if it’s something I just heard someone guess that he might have had after he passed away. What I do remember is being a teenager and feeling a little nervous to be alone with him for fear he might fall and I wouldn’t know what to do.

What I don’t remember is if his speech changed at all. At least from my memories, I don’t remember him talking that much—usually leaving conversations to my grandma. She always answered the door, answered the phone, relayed information and shared family stories. Grandpa was usually quieter and a bit of a stoic German, letting the loud family banter go on around him.

I wonder if anyone noticed any speech changes as he got older and his shaking got worse. I wonder if my grandma noticed anything—not that she would have shared that information with me. Like I said, I was still basically a kid. I wonder if maybe he noticed and that’s why he was quieter.

I’ll never know the answers to my questions, but I couldn’t help but think of my grandpa while covering the story about Rahul Shrivastav’s research.

Rahul and his team are researching ways to measure changes in speech in the hopes of diagnosing Parkinson’s disease earlier than other methods. Diagnosing earlier means earlier treatment and hopefully a better quality of life. With 50,000 new diagnoses every year, the impact of Rahul’s research could make a huge difference for so many families.

Who knows if this would have helped my family or my grandpa? But I’m pretty sure that it will help someone’s grandpa. And that’s pretty awesome.

Spartans Will.




Haves and have-nots

Feb. 16, 2013 

Dhaka, Bangladesh

Needs. Wants. Haves. Have-nots. Comfort. Rich. Poor. Survival. Happiness. Life.

These words have been banging around in my head ever since we got to Bangladesh. My mind is trying to put them all together in anything resembling some sort of sense, but I can’t.

Dhaka homesBangladesh is not an opulent place. The airport was swarming with mosquitos and the bathroom was nothing more than a dirty hole in the floor.  The smells were overwhelming to my Western nose. And yet when we got outside, there were beautiful fields of marigolds—a strange site that disturbed my sense of order. The streets were crowded and noisy. The buses were overflowing with people. Many of the buildings were in disrepair.

Our first trip out into the city brought me literally face-to-face with some of the residents as they pushed their faces up against the car windows asking for money or begging me to buy their wares. It’s disconcerting, to say the least, and hard not to think about the people and the lives they have. Or the life I have.

Haves. Have-nots.

Dhaka girlWe visited one of the poorest sections of this city—a settlement of poverty on tracks still used by trains. It was startling. Families who have so little who were going about their lives the best they can. Children playing. Mothers cooking. Fathers working. There were smiles, laughter and offers of tea for us. People welcomed us, a bunch of strangers with cameras, into their homes. I didn’t hear any complaining. No whining.

Life. Happiness.

The way these people are surviving is so different than what I know. Even reading about it or seeing pictures is one thing. I honestly can’t truly describe what it was like to be there.

Dhaka boyAnd while I was there, I remembered the details of the story we were there to cover. People so desperate to care for their families that they sell their bodily organs to the rich. My mind was already swirling around with things I couldn’t make sense of, and this crashed in like one of the trains that sped by. How? What? Why? None of it made any sense and still doesn’t.

Rich. Poor. Survival.

While we’ve been here, I’ve been reading about the cruise ship that was stranded for days leaving people living in hot conditions without proper sanitation. I saw an interview of a passenger when she returned, holding a big Starbucks coffee in her hand. Now, I certainly don’t begrudge them being angry for what they experienced. When they plunked down large amounts of money to buy a vacation, that’s not what they were signing up for. I’m sure it was awful.

Kurt in DhakaYet I couldn’t help but compare their trip with the lives of the people we met. Hot? Smelly? No sanitation? No food? I’m certain the people here would give anything to only have to live with that for four days, instead of their whole lives, before returning to lovely homes, air conditioning, indoor plumbing, food and jobs where they can make an honest wage.

Needs. Wants.

Dhaka childI will go back to my lovely home with all its comforts. I will continue to work at a job I love that pays me a good wage. I will drive my cars and eat good food and take nice vacations. I’m not saying anyone should feel guilty for anything they have—maybe just appreciate it a little more.

Life. Happiness.

Spartans Will.







Songs and laughter in Bangladesh

 Editor’s note: Sue Carter, MSU professor of journalism, joined the 360 video production crew in Bangladesh to help cover the story there.

Feb. 16, 2013

Sue Carter
Joypurhat, Bangladesh

We have so much to learn from one another—and children can often be our best teachers.

With very little in the way of toys, and certainly no possibility of television or computers or video games, dozens of children in a northern Bengali village and I spent part of an afternoon teaching each other cheers and songs.

Sue Carter and Kirk MasonThe Situation: I was dispatched to corral and distract some three dozen youngsters while the MSU 360 videographers Kirk Mason and Colin Marshall were shooting footage. They didn’t need a noisy exuberant crowd as a “studio audience” so off we went, the children and I, to a nearby field with the herald cry of “Let’s go!” It echoed behind me in a chorus of piping voices: “Let’s go!”

The Challenge: How could I keep them engaged for the length of time that the videographers needed for their shooting?

The Solution: We divided into two groups and—you guessed it—“Go Green!” and “Go White!” filled the rice paddies surrounding the village.

Sue Carter with local villagers


That worked for a while.

The youngsters became a bit restless, requiring me to dip into the repertoire of songs from my own childhood, the ones I now share with my two grandsons, Ben and Harry.The Little Folks’ Hit Parade: “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain,” “There Was an Old Lady,” and “Old McDonald Had a Farm,” complete with animal sounds. (The donkey braying brought the biggest laughs from the attentive critics.)

In turn, the nearly-40 strong sang their songs. The words were unknown to me, but the children’s energy and the exhilaration transcended the language barrier.

The deep and spreading poverty in much of Bangladesh might seem paralyzing to many from our culture. Yet there is still a large measure of joy and happiness that transcends the notion that wealth contributes happiness.

For me—and I hope for them—it was an afternoon to remember, complete with the sounds from an American farmyard and a rice field in Bangladesh.

Just before dark, Dhaka. Everywhere.

Feb. 16, 2013

Dhaka, Bangladesh

What I’m thinking about as I’m standing here in this filthy slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh is how I know I’m supposed to feel.

I’m watching these two little kids playing baseball, except they’re playing cricket. But it reminds me of when I was little, my friend tossing a ball toward me to hit with my yellow plastic bat on a sticky summer evening in Washington, D.C., trying to smack that ball into outer space.  The buzzing of locusts or cicadas or something. Mosquitoes. There are mosquitoes here, but it’s a long way from D.C.. And there aren’t any cicadas or locusts or whatever. Instead, the thrumming of a beat up train, shoving it’s way through the garbage on the tracks, steps from where I’m watching baseball. Cricket.

Senior University PhotographerLook at this picture. Not sure if you can tell, but the ball isn’t a ball. According to regulation, “A cricket ball consists of cork covered by leather, and manufacture is heavily regulated by cricket law at first class level.” Their ball is a bundle of plastic bags, wrapped tight. And they’re loving it.

This is when I’m thinking about how I’m supposed to feel. I’m supposed to feel how gluttonous I am and talk about how I feel sad when I see how these kids are happy with such rough, basic toys. How I am supposed to feel guilty for my rampant American consumerism and waste. I should write about how I should be happy with the simple things in life and not need the excesses. But that’s not how I feel. I guess I could try to feel guilty about that.
image-5In Malawi I watched my teammate Kirk kicking a “soccer” ball around with the kids in Magomero. That ball was made of plastic bags, too. Outside Kigali, Rwanda I laughed with kids as they pulled a sort of truck made of a milk carton with sticks for axles and corncob chunks for wheels. Along a dirt road in Merida, Mexico kids rolled these big iron circles, like thin bicycle rims, faster and faster, with a stick. Wind in their dark hair, flying along. In Beijing kids laughed and laughed, watching videos on computers and handheld devices. I’ve got some pictures of my own kids with the stuff I sent them for Valentine’s Day. A Swiss Army knife, some princess toys, toy frogs and candy in the shape of frogs for my son.IMG_4284
And, the thing is, all these kids seem so happy. My kids don’t seem any happier than kids here in Dhaka and those kids don’t seem sadder than the kids in China who seem every bit as delighted as the kids in Mexico…

That isn’t to say there aren’t things to feel sad about. We’ve met children who suffer when small change would save them. We’ve met people who’ve sold their kidneys and sections of their livers for enough money to feed their families. We have seen, first hand, what poverty is. We’ve shown you.

IMG_4206But I know that you have to be very careful when you try to evaluate or judge someone else’s poverty. It hit me in Cuba where everyone has access to, and is expected to go to, good schools. Where they have a solid healthcare system and a longer life expectancy than the US (according to the United Nations). Where everyone, no matter how poor, gets the basics of food, a place to live and a job. I went there expecting to tell a story about how bad things were and got slapped around in the face by the reality of my own dumb opinions which weren’t based on anything real. I also met people who will suffer the injustices of human rights violations the rest of their days. And stood among the graves of those whose suffering is done. I saw most of the kids there playing with pretty basic stuff, too. Playing games with their own shadows under the hot sun.

Cricket balls and toy frogs and milk carton trucks are things. Stuff. I think we need some stuff to be happy, but the stuff we need varies. The stuff that makes us happy is relative to our place in the world. I do get envious and sometimes even frustrated when I can’t afford something I want that someone else has. It’s even worse when I want to get something for my kids and can’t. I think most people are like that, everywhere. But every one of us finds our happiness in things we can have no matter where we are. Sometimes they’re bought, sometimes made, sometimes scavenged…we make it work. All over the world, we make it work.

So I’m standing here and I’m watching…cricket…and it’s that time of the evening, Those golden moments between day and night when the games are always at their best. When you know it’s time to go home for dinner, but you just want one more game of tag, one more chance to hide, one more pitch. It’s that time when the ball comes at you and you can barely make it out in the near dark. And just before dark, here in this place, the kids are the same. Life is the same. Mothers and grandmothers are cooking something that smells like heaven amid the piles of garbage and rotting food. I’m watching these kids and their non-regulation ball. The one kid is sending it whistling toward the non-regulation bat (two-by-four) in the hands of the other kid, the sphere gliding down the center of the railroad tracks. I lose it in the darkness but pick it up as I hear a satisfying “WHAP” that sounds meaty and wet and I look up and see the silhouette cutting through the ashen sky. One kid’s laughing and yelling and running. And the mosquitoes are terrible and the humidity is heavy and a few lights buzz like cicadas or locusts or something and there’s a train in the distance and I am here and I am home and this place is everywhere and we all live these lives under our own skies and we all want to laugh more than we cry and we all want to send that ball into space in those last precious moments before things go totally dark.

And so that’s what I’m thinking about.


Faces I can’t forget

Feb. 11, 2013

Somewhere between Tanzania and Qatar

IMG_3214 copyIt’s the kids. I’m in the air leaving Africa and I can’t forget the kids. We were in four countries—Malawi, Zambia, Rwanda and Tanzania. We saw amazing things and covered truly inspiring Spartan stories. All of them were different, yet one thing remains the same in my mind—the kids.

I can’t stop thinking about them. The girl in blue who wanted to visit my “palace.” The boy in the Star Wars shirt I couldn’t get to smile. The girl named Anna who wanted to know my name. The girl on the side of the road who only wanted my water. The boy with the big smile. The baby entranced with peek-a-boo. IMG_3328 copyThe newborn whose mother insisted I hold him. The girl with the beautiful eyes. The toddler with the worrisome, deep cough. The many who simply wanted to touch my hair or see themselves in my camera. The giggling crowd following us down the road. The infant in the pediatrics ward breathing so hard. It’s the kids—so many kids breaking my heart.

There were hundreds of kids, but they’re all still so clear in my mind. This trip has been long and we’ve seen a lot. I know when it’s over there will be things I will forget. But I won’t forget these kids. I don’t want to.

IMG_3482 copyWe all worry about our kids. My daughter is a 20-year-old college student and I’ve spent her life worrying about her. Would she walk on time, learn to read, do well in school, make friends, stay healthy, get accepted to college. Now I worry about her finding a job she loves, supporting herself and being happy and passionate about life. If only the mothers of the children I met were so lucky.
IMG_3475I never had to worry if she had enough to eat. I simply went to the faucet for water when she was thirsty. I got her vaccinated against childhood diseases. I took her to skilled doctors when she was sick. She always had a roof over her head, shoes on her feet and a comfortable place to sleep at night. It was easy for her to go to school and she got a great education. I could send her to the college of her choice. She is able to follow her dreams.

But I can’t stop thinking about these kids. How can I not worry about them? Malaria and other diseases are constant threats. There often isn’t enough food. Some walk miles to collect water and it’s not always safe. It’s a challenge to get an education and might mean walking many miles in searing heat to get to school, if they have the opportunity at all.IMG_3443 copy

What happens to them? How many will get to follow their dreams?

I can’t get those beautiful little faces out of my mind. They creep in and pierce my heart when I least expect it. Many expressed a desire to come to America. Some said they wanted to go to the school I worked at. In a perfect world, every single one of them would have that opportunity.

IMG_3384But this isn’t a perfect world. Many will still be often hungry or thirsty. Some will get sick with things that are preventable. The road to college will be tremendously difficult. Some will even die.

And yet they persevere. They ignore hungry bellies. They walk miles for water or school in beat-up shoes or bare feet. They watch over siblings. They tend to livestock and fields from a very young age. They greet visitors with shy smiles or loud giggles. They make do with balls made from plastic bags and cars made from milk cartons and corncobs. I rarely heard any of them crying and there was laughter from many.

IMG_3440 copyThough my heart was breaking for these kids, knowing that the MSU researchers we met are helping these communities mends it a little. They’re doing incredible work in places many don’t know exist. They’re helping little faces most will never see. They’re helping communities produce better milk. They’re literally saving lives of those with malaria and epilepsy. They’re helping people grow better food. They’re building schools where there were none. They’re bringing water sources to those who desperately need it. They are making a difference.

As I met these Spartans, I was in awe of their fortitude, fierce dedication and grace. These are real heroes and whether you’re a Spartan or not, you should be incredibly proud of them and the work they do. IMG_3385 copyI know I am. I hope by bringing you their stories, you will be too.

It’s the kids. I’m guessing these Spartan heroes can’t forget them either.

Spartans Will.

A young child at the market in Chikankata, Zambia




Outside the ward, Zambia

Feb. 3, 2013

Chikankata, Zambia

20130131KAS9553I’m standing outside the pediatric ward in Chikankata, Zambia. This is the hospital where Dr. Gretchen Birbeck does her work.  She’s a neurologist from MSU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine and is investigating epilepsy here in Africa. She has been for years.

Inside the ward, she’s seeing patients. Little kids who are mostly in pretty bad shape. A lot of them either has, or are recovering from, malaria. Malaria can invade the brain and the damage can lead to epilepsy. They’re part of her study.

20130131KAS5480I’m not going into this ward today. We have a crew of three with video and still cameras who are capturing the scene for the story we’re working on. They don’t need me. If they do, they’ll come get me.

The easy thing is to say is that they don’t need me in there, and so I’m staying outside. But I could go in. No one told me not to.

I know what it’s like in there. I spent a lot of time in the malaria ward in Blantyre, Malawi. I saw what this deadly disease can do to kids. I watched the toll it took on the families. I looked into the glassy eyes of little kids, about the same age as my younger daughter, and I knew they weren’t looking back at me. It was such an empty, hopeless feeling.

Some of those kids came out of it, some of them didn’t. Some walked from the ward and back into regular old life as a kid in rural Africa. Some left with unfixable damage. Some never made it out.

Those days on that ward have stuck with me and I remember the kids. I even wrote about them in a past blog.

20130131KAS9637And the truth is that I don’t need to be in that room with the sick kids in there, this time. And I’m glad for that. It always feels like a terrible intrusion to me. I believe deeply that the stories we tell from these difficult places will help kids like these. These are places most people don’t ever see, but these places are part of our world. And our world is getting smaller and smaller. You need to know about these places. I will go on telling these stories because it’s important. But it can be hard. I see the looks on the faces of the crew as they come out of the ward. There is much sadness in there.

This story is about the lifesaving work Dr. Gretchen Birbeck does every day. She is helping more kids live. Her work with those suffering from epilepsy means people are living full lives and not locked in the shadows of this disease. Gretchen tells me epilepsy can be a social death sentence here in Africa. It’s seen as mysterious and terrifying. People think it’s contagious or the result of some sort of bad luck. 20130131KAS5526Many won’t have anything to do with you if they know you have it. She’s helping turn on the light in some very dark places.

She’s changing the lives of people. People like Benjamin. He has epilepsy and the treatment and medicine he’s getting from Dr. Birbeck have changed his life. He told me he no longer has seizures and that people are no longer afraid of him. He says it means he’s been able to hold a job, to get married and have a family. That’s powerful stuff.

And, soon, you’ll see her story here. Please pay attention.