Anne Underwood

Stories by Anne Underwood

  • A Certain Bittersweet Comfort

    As a boy, Steven Peterson of Seattle didn't worry too much about the affliction that landed his grandmother in a nursing home. Everyone's grandparents were frail. But when Peterson was only 17, his father, then 45, was diagnosed with the same disorder--a rare genetic disease called spinocerebellar ataxia. As Peterson learned all too well over the next two decades, the disease gradually destroys an area of the brain called the cerebellum, taking muscle control with it. It starts gently with double vision, as the eye muscles weaken. Later, arms and legs fail. By the end, even the muscles that coordinate swallowing go, so that patients have to be fed with a stomach tube. The mind, however, remains untouched.By the time Peterson reached his early 30s, he began to suspect that he, too, carried the bad gene. "I'd have a couple drinks and my vision would go wacky," he says. "I'd get up in the middle of the night and my equilibrium would be off." Friends assured him that these things...
  • A Revolution In Medicine

    Ann Miscoi had seen her father and her uncle die of organ failure in their mid-40s, so she figured she was lucky to be living when she turned 50 last year. The trouble was, she felt half dead. Her joints ached, her hair was falling out and she was plagued by unrelenting fatigue. Her doctor assured her that nothing was seriously wrong, even after a blood test revealed unusually high iron levels, but Miscoi wasn't so sure. Scanning the Internet, she learned about a hereditary condition called hemochromatosis, in which the body stores iron at dangerous concentrations in the blood, tissues and organs. Hemochromatosis is the nation's most common genetic illness, and probably the most underdiagnosed. As Miscoi read about it, everything started making sense--her symptoms, her blood readings, even her relatives' early deaths. So she found a doctor who would take her concerns more seriously.Until recently, diagnosing the condition required a liver biopsy--not a procedure you'd undertake...
  • How To Get To Your Golden Years

    Tithonus, the legendary Greek warrior, had almost everything going for him. His paramour, the beautiful goddess Eos, so loved him that she persuaded Zeus to grant him eternal life. Unfortunately, she forgot to mention eternal youth. So while Eos stayed as fresh as the dawn she presided over, Tithonus spent eternity growing ever more shriveled and infirm. None of us is at serious risk of living that long, but as futurist Ken Dychtwald observes in his recent book "Age Power," the Tithonus story is a fitting allegory for the state of America's health. Prosperity and modern medicine have delivered us from early death, only to prolong our decrepitude. We may have vanquished typhoid and diphtheria, but we spend a growing proportion of our lives hobbled by diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease and cancer.We could prevent most of these scourges, or at least postpone them, by exercising, eating well and staying away from cigarettes. The trouble is that few of us--even within the ostensibly...
  • Drugstore Dangers

    Teresa Vasquez was not worried when she couldn't read her husband's prescription for heart medication. Who can read a doctor's scrawl? Anyway, that was the pharmacist's job. But fate was against the Monahans, Texas, woman that day in June 1995. As it turned out, a pharmacist looked at the handwritten word "Isordil," a drug for angina, and saw instead "Plendil," a medication for high blood pressure. An unsuspecting Vasquez took the prescription home and gave it to her spouse, 42-year-old Ramon Vasquez. Within two weeks he was dead. Although lawyers for the doctor argued at trial that the cause was congestive heart failure, the jurors unanimously concluded last October that the real reason was the misread prescription. They held the pharmacist and cardiologist jointly liable for $450,000 in damages. "It's the first time a doctor has been held negligent for poor handwriting," says attorney Kent Buckingham, who represented Mrs. Vasquez.It may not be the last. There are no good...
  • Dyslexia And The New Science Of Reading

    The first thing Kathryn Nicholas will tell you about her 11-year-old son Jason is that he's a bright, curious kid who can build elaborate machines out of Legos and remember the code names and payloads of bombers. "He has a phenomenal desire to see how things work," she says proudly. But reading, for Jason, was a train wreck. In first grade he was assigned to special-education classes with three mildly retarded children. Two years later, despite extra help, he still couldn't decipher a sentence, and his mother was worried that he would soon become so discouraged that he would give up trying. Then she heard about Virginia Wise Berninger, an educational psychologist at the University of Washington who studies dyslexia, a disorder that makes learning to read extremely difficult. As part of her ongoing research, Berninger tested Jason and then invited him to a summer program for dyslexic boys. The kids didn't just play letter games. They did science experiments, studied biodiversity, met...
  • Stress In The Skies

    Over the coming four-day weekend, more than 6 million Americans will board commercial flights, a record for this typically heavy holiday. While the EgyptAir crash may continue to blanket the news, fatal crashes are the exception. Last year the death rate on U.S. carriers was zero; by contrast, over last Thanksgiving weekend alone, 598 people died on U.S. highways. And yet, even as the industry rightly touts its safety record, the Unfriendly Skies have increasingly become a source of lesser horror stories.Consider, for example, the fairly routine August experience of Christine Cunningham, who wanted only to fly from Denver to Albuquerque, N.M., with her two young kids. The short United flight was scheduled for 5:30 p.m. When she got to the gate, the flight status was listed as "delayed"; no one would tell her why, or for how long. Then it was canceled. With two kids in tow, she joined 150 or so other passengers in a mad scramble to the customer-service desk to make new plans. After...
  • Dyslexia And The New Science Of Reading

    The first thing Kathryn Nicholas will tell you about her 11-year-old son Jason is that he's a bright, curious kid who can build elaborate machines out of Legos and remember the code names and payloads of bombers. "He has a phenomenal desire to see how things work," she says proudly. But reading, for Jason, was a train wreck. In first grade he was assigned to special-education classes with three mildly retarded children. Two years later, despite extra help, he still couldn't decipher a sentence, and his mother was worried that he would soon become so discouraged that he would give up trying. Then she heard about Virginia Wise Berninger, an educational psychologist at the University of Washington who studies dyslexia, a disorder that makes learning to read extremely difficult. As part of her ongoing research, Berninger tested Jason and then invited him to a summer program for dyslexic boys. The kids didn't just play letter games. They did science experiments, studied biodiversity, met...
  • The Perils Of Pasta

    Mary Mack thought she was dying. For 11 years, the secretary from Baton Rouge, La., suffered digestive problems. Her weight dropped from 140 pounds to 110. Her hair fell out in clumps. Good teeth were coming out. Her bones ached. Doctors diagnosed ulcers, colitis, migraines, chronic fatigue syndrome--everything except what was actually ailing her. Finally her aunt handed her an article on celiac disease. Mack had already noticed that she felt particularly ill when she ate certain foods, including bread and pasta, and the article offered a potential explanation. People with celiac disease, it said, have a lifelong intolerance for gluten--the protein in wheat, rye and barley. The resulting inflammation of the intestines makes it difficult to absorb nutrients. Mack immediately went on a gluten-free diet. "Four years later, my life has turned around," she says. Her body feels strong again, and her spirits are soaring. At 55, she's getting married in November.Celiac disease--also known...
  • Finding The Right Rx

    David Slawson was sitting at his desk one morning last February when a colleague called to tell him that one of his patients was in the emergency room, suffering from pneumonia. The patient, an otherwise healthy 43-year-old woman, was in no immediate danger, but the ER doctor wanted to hospitalize her just to be safe. Few physicians would have stopped to question whether hospital care actually benefits such a patient. But Slawson, a family practitioner at the University of Virginia, had an easy way to find out. He grabbed the mouse on his computer and, with a few clicks, pulled up a "prognosis calculator." By punching in basic facts about the woman, he determined that her odds of dying would be 2.2 times higher if she checked into the hospital (where germs are rampant and medical errors possible) than if she recuperated at home. Shown that number, the ER doctor quickly wrote a prescription and sent her on her way--saving her insurer thousands of dollars and, in all likelihood,...
  • The Winged Menace

    Dr. Deborah Asnis was perplexed. Chief of infectious diseases at Flushing Hospital in New York, she had three elderly patients in intensive care with high fevers, but they were not responding to either antibiotic or antiviral drugs. Asnis called the city health department on Aug. 23 to see if there was anything unusual going around. If there was, the city didn't know about it. But officials began interviewing patients' families in search of clues. The patients had only three things in common. They came from the same neighborhood, they were at least 60 years old and they had suntans. "They liked to spend time in their backyards," says Asnis. That's apparently how they contracted a mosquito-borne virus called St. Louis encephalitis.SLE strikes about two dozen people a year nationwide, causing a potentially fatal inflammation of the brain. It had never been recorded before in New York City--but with no effective drugs to fight it, local officials were taking no chances. As soon as lab...
  • To Build A Cancer Cell

    Human cells don't become malignant all at once. It typically takes a prolonged assault to turn them cancerous, and several genes have to go awry. But which ones? For the last two decades, biologists have been identifying many of the rogue genes in tumors. But despite repeated, frustrating attempts, they've never been able to prove that a specific combination of bad genes actually caused a malignancy. Nor have they been able to accomplish this sinister feat of creation in a laboratory. Until now.In a study published last week in the journal Nature, Robert Weinberg and William Hahn of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass., reported they had succeeded in turning normal human cells into cancerous ones. The transformation wound up requiring the alteration of four genes, including one that had never conclusively been implicated in cancer growth before. The findings--which Nature termed "landmark"--could one day help scientists develop new cancer therapies...
  • What Is Same

    She was making lunch for herself and a friend one Saturday this spring when an unfamiliar feeling swept over her. The 50-year-old social worker had fallen deep into depression two years earlier, and had given up on prescription antidepressants when the first one she tried left her sluggish, sexually dormant and numb to her own emotions. Then, in mid-March, she heard about a naturally occurring substance called SAMe (pronounced "Sammy"). She had been taking it for just a few days when she began setting the table that Saturday morning. A ginger-miso sauce was chilling in the fridge, and she was garnishing her finest plates with fresh anemones. Suddenly, there it was: a sense of undiluted pleasure.This woman (who asked not to be named) has taken SAMe ever since, and her mood isn't the only thing that has changed. Until this spring she took prescription-strength anti-inflammatories for her arthritis, and still had trouble bending her knees. She's now off those drugs--and feeling more...
  • New Clues To The Puzzle Of Dyslexia

    There's new evidence that dyslexia, a common reading disability, is caused by a problem with processing sounds in the brain. Dyslexics get confused when trying to link rapid-fire consonants like "b" and "d" to specific letters, say scientists at the University of California, San Francisco. In a study published last week, the researchers recorded brain-wave responses of adults to a series of two beeps. The dyslexics showed distinct responses to both tones--but only when there was a half-second pause between them. As the gap shortened, delayed response to the first sound obscured the second. The good readers could consistently tell the two apart. ...
  • Chemo In Question

    For a woman, perhaps the only news worse than "you've got breast cancer" is the diagnosis "and it's spread." Hearing those words, thousands of women in the last decade have chosen aggressive, debilitating treatment--ultrahigh doses of chemotherapy, followed by a bone-marrow transplant . Common sense dictates that chemotherapy at five to 30 times the normal dose should kill more cancer cells and increase survival, but there's a worrisome lack of supporting research. Results released last week from five trials did little to quell those concerns. Four of the five studies showed no significant increase in survival rates after high-dose therapy--discouraging news to desperate patients.These results, however, are far from the final verdict. Only one of the trials released by the American Society for Clinical Oncology compared a high-dose treatment with a standard-dose regimen, and that study found that five-year survival rates for the high-dose patients were twice as good . For ethical...
  • The Heart Of Women's Health

    Back in the 1980s, says housekeeper Josephine Tucker of Martha's Vineyard, she was "a heart attack waiting to happen." She reveled in fried foods, carried more than a few extra pounds and had blood pressure and cholesterol levels high in the danger zone. She even had a family history of heart disease. Yet four doctors on 12 separate occasions dismissed her complaints of chest pain as job-related stress. They'd learned in medical school that heart disease was a man's problem. In 1990, at 50, Tucker proved them all wrong--by suffering a heart attack and having to be air-lifted to Boston for triple-bypass surgery. She has since taken up exercise, slashed the fat in her diet, renounced her Lucky Strikes and started a heart-disease support group. Her advice to other women? "Take charge of your life. If I'd known I was at risk, this wouldn't have happened."Wake up, America. Heart attacks are killing a quarter-million women every year--nearly six times the number who die of breast cancer. ...
  • The Ovarian Cancer Conundrum

    What did comedienne Gilda Radner, singer Laura Nyro and actress Jessica Tandy have in common? All three were great performers--and all three died of ovarian cancer. Fortunately, the disease is far rarer than breast cancer. A woman's lifetime risk of developing it is only 1 in 57, versus 1 in 8 for breast cancer. But when it strikes, ovarian cancer is much deadlier. Though only 25,000 women are diagnosed each year, nearly 15,000 die. That's because just 25 percent of cases are detected early, when the cure rate is excellent. By Stage III, when half of ovarian cancers are found, a woman has only a 20 percent chance of surviving five years. "At Stage IV, they tell you to go home and get your affairs in order," writes survivor Liz Tilberis, editor in chief of Harper's Bazaar, in her book "No Time to Die." Why is ovarian cancer so hard to spot? The symptoms--abdominal bloating, constipation, indigestion, frequent urination, feeling full after eating very little--are not specific to the...
  • Do Scopes Spread Sickness?

    ONE OF THE FEW good things you can say about tuberculosis is that it doesn't spread easily. To get infected, you normally have to live or work in close quarters with someone who's acutely ill. So how did an elderly woman in Baltimore contract TB from a much younger woman she didn't even know? The two lived in different parts of the city and moved in different social circles. But within two days in 1995 both women had their lungs examined in the same hospital. In fact, as researchers later discovered, both were examined with the same bronchoscope. No one now doubts that the instrument spread a potentially fatal disease from one patient to another. The question is this: was the incident a fluke--or evidence of a large and unrecognized hazard? ...
  • How The Plague Began

    E ARE MORE satisfying than solving a mystery--especially if it involves 14 million deaths and has stumped the world for nearly 20 years. So imagine the satisfaction of Dr. Beatrice Hahn of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. On Sunday she announced to a conference of virologists in Chicago that she'd learned the origins of HIV-1, the virus responsible for 99 percent of the world's 33 million AIDS cases. Her findings, which also appear this week in the journal Nature, confirm what scientists have long suspected--that the virus came originally from an African primate. Hahn and her colleagues were able to trace it specifically to a subspecies of chimpanzee called Pan troglodytes troglodytes. ...
  • A Little Help From Serotonin

    FOR RHESUS MONKEYS, LIFE IN THE WILD IS A little like high school. Some animals--call them losers--slouch around looking aggrieved. They're volatile and bellicose, slow to form alliances and loath to reconcile after a spat. One in five dies during the passage to adulthood. But while the losers scrap over bits of chow, other animals--call them winners--stay busy grooming each other. They maintain wide networks of allies. They deflect challenges without resorting to violence, and 49 out of 50 survive to produce offspring. Why do they fare so well? The answer is no doubt complicated, but the monkeys' spinal fluid provides an intriguing clue. In study after study, researchers at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism have found that the winners' nervous systems are loaded with serotonin.As the 20th century winds down, we humans seem increasingly convinced that serotonin is the key to a good life--and it's easy to see why. This once obscure neurotransmitter is the secret...
  • Surgeon, Drop That Scalpel

    IT HAS BEEN A CENTURY OF MEDICAL WONDERS. Vaccines have all but vanquished such killers as polio and diphtheria. We've learned to control our moods, fertility and blood pressure with pills. And surgeons routinely fix or replace our failing joints and organs. Yet we continue to pay a high price for these marvels. Lifesaving surgery often maims and our miracle drugs cause all manner of devastating side effects. In any given year, roughly 63,000 Americans die from taking prescription drugs as intended, and many more are sickened or injured. (By comparison, AIDS claimed about 26,000 American lives last year; homicide, 21,000.) It's nice to live in a world where pimples are curable. It would be nicer if the cure didn't cause birth defects.Fortunately, a second revolution is underway. Just as the 20th century has brought us ever more powerful treatments, the 21st seems poised to deliver gentler ones. Surgeons are learning to work through keyholes rather than manholes, and drugrmakers are...
  • Sign Or Hit The Street

    WHEN KAY BAKER WAS A TOP executive with JCPenney in 1995, she agreed to appear in a company video praising the retail giant's new plan for dealing with termination complaints. To avoid lengthy and expensive trips to court, Penney would pay 95 percent of the bill for an outside arbitrator to evaluate the claims. The decision would bind both parties. Baker thought it sounded like a good deal for employees who couldn't afford a lawyer. Then, a year later, Penney fired the 46-year-old Baker, stripping her of $300,000 in stock options. Believing herself a victim of both age discrimination and sexual harassment, she tried to take the company to court. Penney, which insists that Baker's claims are ""totally without merit,'' said she no longer had that option, thanks to the very plan she'd gone on camera to commend. Baker argued that arbitration was voluntary - after all, the policy is called ""the JCPenney Alternative'' - and that she had never signed a consent form. The court sided with...
  • Yearning To Breathe Free

    BACK IN THE DARK AGES of asthma care - like five or so years ago - ""managing'' one's asthma meant scrambling for a puff of bronchodilator as breathing suddenly became as arduous as sucking peanut butter through a straw. But lately doctors have bee n abandoning this ""treat as needed'' approach in favor of a preventive one. ""The paradigm has shifted from being reactive to being proactive,'' says Dr. Stan Szeffler of National Jewish Medical Center in Denver. And while today's ""preventive'' treatme nts still target the symptoms of asthma (inflammation and constriction of the bronchial tubes), scientists are in hot pursuit of drugs that target the causes: the hyperreactivity of those airways. Until the new drugs arrive, physicians are trying to educ ate patients to do the most with existing therapies. ...
  • Why Ebonie Can't Breathe

    Thirteen-year-old Antonio O'Bryant knew the drill by heart. A lifelong asthma sufferer, he never left for school without an inhaler full of medicine to open his airways. But whhen Antonio went to his gym class last Dec. 18, he apparently left his g ear behind. When he felt an attack coming on, a substitute teacher sent someone to fetch the nurse. Unfortunatly, the nurse had stepped away from her desk. By the time she and an assistant principal reached the gym with medication, the boy wasn't breathi ng well enough to get it into his lungs. The nearest hospital was only a mile away, but Antonio was unconcious when he arrived by ambulance. He hung on in a coma for several days and once managed to squeeze his brother's hand. But when his brain started to swell, his prospects for recovery faded. "They finally had to turn off the ventilator," his mother recalls. "My baby died on Christmas Day." ...
  • Onward, Mormon Pilgrims

    AS SHE MADE HER WAY WEST 150 years ago, Mormon pioneer Patty Sessions endured sandstorms and scorching sun, mosquitoes and axle-deep mud. She bore the hardships of the trail because she had to. Now her great-great-granddaughter Shauna Dicken is set to do it all again--because it's there. This week, with 400 other trail enthusiasts, history buffs and Mormon faithful, Dicken will set out from Omaha, Neb., on a three-month, 1,000-mile overland trek, re-enacting the great Mormon migration to Utah. Her covered wagon and team of horses stand ready. She has sewn pioneer dresses for herself and her four daughters, made buffalo robes for the family and secured goose-feather ticks for bedding. She has dried 50 pounds of buffalo meat and bushels of apples and beans, made lye soap and prepared medicinal herbs--elder flower for flu, horehound for coughs and colds, calendula salve for infection. "If the horses die, we'll walk to Salt Lake," says Dicken. "I want my daughters to know what our...
  • Halting Airbag Deaths

    FIVE YEARS AGO ENGINEER TONY Corrado was busy designing smart bombs for the military. Then he heard the first reports of how the explosive power of car airbags was causing injuries and death. As he read up on the problem, he felt certain that technology could solve it. Today Corrado is leading a team of engineers developing ""smart airbags'' that will save lives without hurting people in a crash. ""This is one of the most difficult technical problems ever posed in the auto industry,'' he says. ...
  • A Gentler Approach To Heart Surgery

    HORACE STONE IS A MINOR CELEBRITY around Roswell, Ga. No one was surprised last fall when the retired AT&T manager had to go in for a bypass operation; he had already been through a heart attack and two angioplasties when his chest started aching again. What impressed people was his recovery. Instead of spending a week in the hospital and three months gaining the strength to dress himself, Stone walked out of the hospital in three days. Two weeks later he was playing golf. Stone's internist was flabbergasted when he showed up for an appointment sporting a three-inch cut in place of the traditional foot-long chest wound. And when the story spread through Stone's church, folks started calling from as far away as Florida to learn his secret. Not that he minded. ""I would recommend this treatment to anyone,'' he says. ...
  • Hey--Look Out, World, Here I Come

    ELIANA, 14 MONTHS OLD, REFUSES TO WALK. SHE has never attempted to stand alone, much less take a step. The other four children in her play group, however, have all earned the right to be called toddler: they started staggering on two feet right around their first birthdays. Even Eliana's friend Rachel, not yet 10 months old, has taken a few precarious steps. But Eliana is seemingly oblivious to her playmates' advanced locomotion. A demon crawler, she is still perfectly content to navigate her Washington, D.C., house on hands and knees. Her parents, of course, are certain that they have the first healthy kid in human history who will never learn to walk. ...
  • Shyness, Sadness, Curiosity, Joy. Is It Nature Or Nurture?

    IF ANY CHILD SEEMED DESTINED TO GROW UP afraid of her shadow and just about anything else that moved, it was 2-year-old Marjorie. She was so painfully shy that she wouldn't talk to or look at a stranger. She was even afraid of friendly cats and dogs. When Jerome Kagan, a Harvard professor who discovered that shyness has a strong genetic component, sent a clown to play with Marjorie, she ran to her mother. "It was as if a cobra entered that room;' Kagan says. His diagnosis: Marjorie showed every sign of inherited shyness, a condition in which the brain somehow sends out messages to avoid new experiences. But as Kagan continued to examine her over the years, Marjorie's temperament changed. When she started school, she gained confidence from ballet classes and her good grades, and she began to make friends. Her parents even coaxed her into taking horseback-riding lessons. Marjorie may have been born shy, but she has grown into a bubbly second grader. ...
  • Scanning The Skeleton

    Yes, you've had a mammogram and a pap smear. You've checked your eight, cholesterol and blood pressure. But if you're a woman over 50, don't head for the door just yet. You have still another test to consider. It's called bone densitrometry, and it could revolutionize women's health care. The quick, painless procedure can reveal signs of osteoporosis-the gradual loss of bone mineral that leaves the skeleton as fragile as fine china--long before symptoms appear. And newly developed treatments can control the process indefinitely. Bone scanners aren't yet a fixture in doctors' offices, and insurers don't always cover the $100 to $250 cost. But as one specialist says, "There's a tidal wave of interest and enthusiasm." ...
  • The Iceberg Cometh

    The RMS Titaic sank 84 years ago, but there's a new wave of interest in the great ship. See the mini-series, hum the musical, buy the cookbook! ...
  • Like Hitting A Wall

    EVERY ENGINEER IS FAMILIAR WITH the Law of Unintended Consequences, the principle that almost any technological improvement will create unforeseen problems of its own. The automobile has been a fruitful source of unintended consequences, from the days when it was predicted to rid the country of drunken horsemen. More ominously, it now seems that air bags, intended to save lives, may in fact be dangerous, especially to children. A study this fall by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded that air bags increase the fatality risk to children in the front passenger seat by 30 percent. Carmakers last week were planning to send warning letters to the owners of some 15 million cars about the danger air bags pose to children. ...