Students inspired to move at TEDx event


John Fetterman, Mayor of Braddock, was one of six speakers at the TedX talk. Will Miller | Staff Photographer

By Erin Hare / Staff Writer

When Kerry Harling got sick of organizing her pills in daily containers each week, she decided to nix medication altogether.

Harling suffered from countless illnesses before realizing she could fix her body with an alternative form of medicine that focuses on individualized treatment, called Aryuveda. The treatment consists of lifestyle changes and dietary restrictions, based on holistic medical practices, such as yoga and breathing exercises, to heal patients.

Though she maintained through a TEDx talk Saturday that she is not a doctor, Harling said she healed her illnesses through Aryuveda and now wants to turn the health care industry as a whole away from pills and toward conscious, healthy lifestyles. As an Ayurvedic practitioner at UPMC Center for Integrative Medicine, Harling said she has the resources to make serious change.

Her talk, part of Pitt’s second annual TEDx event, focused on Harling’s personal experiences with Aryuveda and Holistic Highway, an online community for people who follow holistic medical practices.

“I am here to start a revolution in health care, and the time is now,” Harling said. “It’s time to change how we give a pill for every ill.”

Kerry Harling, an expert on mindfulness stress reduction, also spoke.  Will Miller | Staff Photographer
Will Miller | Staff Photographer

Harling’s talk was during the last of Saturday’s TEDx University of Pittsburgh event, a six-speaker series that drew about 300 students and community members from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. in the William Pitt Union Assembly Room. The event centered on one unifying theme: “Move.”

Student Government Board member Jacky Chen booked Harling, along with five other local professionals in politics, medicine and city planning: Janera Solomon, executive director of Kelly Strayhorn Theatre; Christopher Seymour, professor of critical care and emergency medicine at UPMC; Raymond Gastil, director of city planning for Pittsburgh; John Fetterman, mayor of Braddock; and Michael Boninger, professor and chair of physical medicine at UPMC.

Chen said the event, which aimed to showcase succinct and interesting talks similar to the TED Talk live events and podcasts, centered on the theme “Move” to draw attention to how bodies move, what moves individuals and how Pittsburgh is moving forward. The talks ranged from tales of battling social inequality to traditional and alternative medicine to city planning.

Each presenter spoke in front of the backdrop of a map of Oakland crisscrossed with the routes students reported walking the most and representative of the “flow of ideas across campus,” according to Chen.

In her presentation, Harling focused on the internal flow of ideas through meditation and yoga.

According to Harling, scientists have shown that the benefits of meditation and yoga outweigh the benefits of sleep education and medication for insomnia sufferers, which plagues one in two American adults. Medical practitioners, Harling said, should incorporate these findings into their treatment. 

“Can you imagine the benefits of seeing a doctor that understands that time in nature is what calms the central nervous system?” Harling said. “That understands that too much visual stimulation hypersensitizes our children, and understands that stillness in every day is what calms and rejuvenates us?”

Despite the encouraging imagery, some student attendees were hesitant to place meditation above pharmaceuticals.

Ariel Epouhe, a junior neuroscience and psychology double major, said Harling’s ideology breaches acceptability when it comes to dealing with ailments.

“It seemed like a good idea, definitely, an alternative to modern medicine,” Epouhe said, but also said Harling overstated the effectiveness of her approach.

Epouhe heard about the TEDx event through word of mouth as well as Facebook. Epouhe turned out for the excitement of seeing a TED talk, with its strong reputation and notability, live in person.

Kicking off the second and last section of three talks, John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock and candidate for Pat Toomey’s seat in the U.S. Senate, spoke about what moved him to fight social injustice.

According to Fetterman, Braddock is the poorest community in Allegheny County.

“I am working to close this gap, working against inequality, working against this disparity that exists in this society,” Fetterman said. “It’s now the [home of the] last steel mill, which is a really remarkable thing to say. It’d be like going to San Francisco and saying this is the last software company,” Fetterman said.

Rather than focusing on his work in Braddock, Fetterman’s talk told the story of what moved him to pursue a path of fighting social injustice. Twenty-three years ago, he said, his best friend died suddenly in a car accident.

“It moved me to consider my own mortality. It moved me to consider, ‘John, you could wake up tomorrow morning and not know that you only had 20 minutes to live,’” Fetterman said.

He decided that something good had to come from the tragedy. So he joined Big Brothers Big Sisters, a mentorship program for underprivileged children.

Fetterman mentored an 8-year-old boy named Nick, whose parents would die of AIDS before his ninth birthday. Nick moved Fetterman to reconsider his whole life trajectory.

“The random lottery of birth that gave me a cushy life, that gave me two graduate degrees and no student loan debt,” Fetterman said. “The same random lottery that made him an AIDS orphan before his ninth birthday. Something has to be done.”

While Fetterman’s speech focused on action toward patching social injustice, Christopher Seymour, professor of critical care and emergency medicine at University of Pittsburgh Medical School, presented on diagnosing sepsis in the emergency room.

“Sepsis is the condition that kills most people in the hospital, but only 5 or 10 percent of people randomly surveyed have even heard of the word,” Seymour said.

Sepsis is the body’s response to infection where it injures its own tissues and organs. However, sepsis diagnosis suffers from what Seymour calls “the platypus problem.”

A platypus is a creature that defies classification, Seymour said, and falls squarely between the classes of birds and mammals — a phenomenon that plagues the field of medicine, as well.

He said, often medical patients show symptoms that show two potential diagnoses: sepsis, or a nonlife-threatening infection. The platypus problem ensues — doctors don’t know how to treat something they can’t accurately or easily classify, which, in this case, is sepsis.

“How are we going to move sepsis forward?” Seymour said. In a massively collaborative effort involving 170 hospitals across two countries, Seymour and his colleagues developed a system for quickly and accurately identifying sepsis.

Seymour said some have called this project one of the largest clinical research studies in the field to date.

They identified just three features — altered mental state, elevated respiratory rate and low blood pressure — that can identify 75 percent of patients who die from sepsis.

“Oftentimes we trade simple things that are quick and easy and low-cost for accurate things,” Seymour said.

There is still a platypus problem in diagnosing sepsis, Seymour said, and accurate diagnosis must go beyond vital signs, but as time is of the essence, identifying septic patients early is critical for saving lives.

Chen said after the event, he was happy to find the five months of planning that he and his team put into TEDx was worth it.

“Overall all of the speakers had interesting ideas and ideas worth spreading,” Chen said. “Hopefully students walked away with a different perspective and will be inspired to do something.”

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