With the two week countdown approaching, I decided to take a short trip to Philly, and ultimately further delay the inevitable packing. Since I had time to kill, I opted to take the bus from South Station, a mere 7 hour trip down to the city of Brotherly love. If anything, there was no way this bus trip was going to be as bad, or absurd, as my last double decker experience in Xieng Khouang (in case you want to read about that, check out that post here: http://laolandia.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-night-bus.html), and let’s be honest: who’s doesn’t love a trip down the Jersey turnpike?
Being a bus newbie, I decided to reserve a seat on the top floor, hoping that would alleviate any issues with getting a more desirable location (again, photo documenting the NJ turnpike is only fun from a window seat.) Of course, my seat was occupied when I boarded, but since the bus was half empty, I let the man stay there. He insisted on moving and hopped across the aisle to the other side’s window seat. For the first 5 hours of the trip, we sat in silence. He flipped through the WSJ and onto the NYT, while I plugged away at “Cider House Rules” and drifted in and out of sleep. After our obligatory rest stop in Jersey, we started talking- not anything exciting, just the unseasonably cold and rainy weather in New England.
His name was Myron and he was traveling down the East Coast visiting old friends. Originally from Chicago, Myron now lived in Houston, after spending a forty year career in public policy at the Department of Labor in DC. When he asked what I was doing, I responded that I was making my rounds to see friends before leaving for the Peace Corps in two weeks. To my disbelief, Myron had served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal in the 1960’s. In the years before the HIV/AIDS epidemic, he worked to improve sanitation (some things never change) and focused on building schools. His most memorable moment came in 1969, when, huddled around his small crank radio, he listened to the broadcast as the first men landed on the moon. In broken French, he tried to explain how monumental this was for the history of the world, but in reality, he only left his villagers more confused (They probably thought he came from the moon too; in some ways we’re all just aliens in this world, right?) When he entered the service, they spent their training period in the US. Virgin Islands, the idea being that the volunteers could acclimate to the climate for a couple months before shipping off to Africa. Alas, we’re going into Benin head first.
After expressing his utmost appreciation for his own Peace Corps experience and wishing me luck on my own, the conversation turned to my years in Boston. When I told him I just left a job at a genetics lab in Boston, he started throwing out names of Geneticists, many of whom I’ve gotten to know. Apparently, Myron was diagnosed with Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) several years ago and, while living in Boston getting one of his several advanced degrees, turned to the Laboratory for Molecular Medicine for HCM Panel testing. When the testing returned no identifiable genetic causes for his disease, he started looking for research studies and ultimately enrolled in the MedSeq project. For those of you who don’t know what that is, MedSeq is a randomized trial studying the integration of whole genome sequencing (WGS) into clinical practice. While the trial was not specifically set up for discovering HCM variants, Myron joined for the possibility to undergo WGS and share his data with the research community. Unfortunately he was not selected for the sequencing arm of the trial, but we talked for the remaining bus ride about how participating in the study opened him up to the field of genetics and made him hopeful for eventually finding a cure for the disease. In addition to being shocked by how serendipitous it was that Myron had “stolen” my seat on the bus, I was increasingly thankful for my time in Boston and the wonderful things that the medical community I got to work with is striving to accomplish. Keep Calm and MedSeq on :)
So, while this post isn’t necessarily about the Peace Corps or even getting ready to leave, I think it illustrates a really valuable lesson that will be essential to my success overseas: A stranger is just a friend waiting to happen.