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Personal Reflections On A 9/11 Hero (repost)

Here is why I will always remember.

Originally posted on 11 September 2006 at Terra Sigillata on ScienceBlogs.

This post tells you what it means.

Let me tell you about John Michael Griffin, Jr.

Griff, as he was known in high school, was a friend of mine.

Late in the first half of our lives, he stood up for me physically and philosophically, for being a science geek. John’s endorsement was the first time I was ever deemed cool for wanting to be a scientist.

Griff died an engineer and hero in the collapse of one of the World Trade Center towers five [12] years ago today.

We lost touch almost twenty years before, but his kindness and friendship formed not only one of the cornerstones of the scientific life I have today, but in the person and father I have become as well.

—–

At a northern New Jersey Catholic high school in a predominantly Irish town, being a gangly Polish boy from two towns over was not the formula to cultivate one’s popularity or self-preservation.

Throwing the curve in biology and chemistry classes didn’t help either, nor did being a David Bowie fan in a place where Bruce Springsteen was as revered as St. Patrick. That’s probably where the nickname, “Zowie,” came from – the name of the glam rocker’s first child.

Worse, I had skipped a grade in elementary school, and being a year behind physically was not compatible with self-preservation during high school gym class.

But, it was a very simple gesture, sometime in junior year, when one of the packs of scoundrels had me cornered, slamming me against the wall and throwing my books down the hallway. I believe that the offense was that our biology teacher had taken to buying me a Pepsi every time I scored 100 on one of his exams, and I had been enjoying yet another one.

John, already well on his way to his adult height of 6′ 7″ or 6′ 8″, stepped in and said, “Hey, lay off of Zowie. He’s goin’ places.” And with that, the beatings stopped.

I didn’t play sports, at least not any of the ones offered by our school. At that time, soccer hadn’t taken off in the States but I was a huge player and had met John at Giants Stadium in the NJ Meadowlands where I had season tickets (Section 113, row 7, seat 26) for the relocated New York Cosmos. At just $4 a ticket for kids 16 and under, I could afford season tickets to see some of the greatest international soccer stars of the late 20th century: Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer, Italy’s Giorgio Chinaglia, Yugoslavia’s Vladislav Bogiçeviç, and, of course, Brazil’s great Pelé.

All accounts of John as an adult include his devotion to the Giants, NY Rangers, and NY Yankees, but few recall those soccer days. John’s family were long-time Giants season ticket holders and probably got their Cosmos season tickets three rows behind me as some sort of promotional giveaway. I recall that John was surprised that a science dork such as I would be cool enough to know about soccer and come to games myself, my father dropping me off outside the gates so he could go home and watch his beloved football games.

But, we Jersey boys loved soccer at a school where American football and basketball reigned supreme. Many Saturday and Sunday afternoons were spent at the massive stadium during soccer’s American heyday of the late 1970s, with crowds of 50,000 – 75,000 that have yet to be matched today.

—–

Among John’s gifts was the ability to make anything fun and to make anyone laugh. I recall sitting with him in a ski lodge in Amsterdam, NY, as I was recovering from frostbite during an ill-prepared class trip ski weekend. He pulled me into an imaginary board game with a napkin dispenser, where he pretended each napkin contained a message as to how to proceed during each turn. We looked at each other in horror when the waitress came unannounced and cleared our table of the napkins.

As a teenager, John was a physical caricature, handsome but a goof, self-effacing but self-confident, and had a clever and caustic wit, both of which he carried into adult professional life and fatherhood. His 15 Sept 2001 missing notice in the Bergen (NJ) Record noted that schoolkids called him, “Barney,” to reflect how they flocked to his presence.

No one was safe from John’s good-hearted and bombastic comedy routines. My father was nicknamed, “Groucho,” by John due to the resemblance of his thick mustache to that of the 1930′s comedian – John would burst spontaneously into seemingly classic Marx Brothers riffs, but with the content imitating my father carrying on about some printing press mishap.

From Class of 1981, St. Mary’s High School, Rutherford, NJ: Clockwise from John with cap in the foreground: Kevin Tormey, Joe McGuire, Matt DiTomasso, Walter Marlowe (valedictorian), Benn O’Hara. Taken at my boyhood home in Wallington on the afternoon between Communion breakfast and evening graduation ceremonies. Griff and DiTomasso ran around Communion breakfast saying, “Party at Kroll’s house.”

My last remembrances of John are half a life away, from the impromptu high school graduation party he called at my house to his pride at finishing his engineering degree and managing facilities for a million-square foot building in Manhattan.

Perhaps he protected me as a kid because he knew that way deep down, he was destined to become an engineering geek himself. And a hero, a much bigger hero, in protecting the lives of others in a very real way.

—–

On the glorious fall morning of 11 Sept 2001, I was fixing coffee for my wife who had been sleeping in when the newsreader on my pager announced that a jet had struck the south tower of the World Trade Center.

I had missed my recent 20-year high school reunion and had not known that John had only months before been appointed director of operations at the WTC by Larry Silverstein’s, Silverstein Properties.

I did not learn until two weeks later that John had facilitated the escape of dozens of workers, handing out wet towels so people could breathe on their way down the stairs. In the 102 Minutes book by New York Times writers Jim Lynch and Kevin Flynn, John is immortalized in the corroborated account of the elevator rescue of 72-year-old Port Authority construction inspector, Tony Savas.

When he returned to 78, Greg Trapp saw a group of three Port Authority employees at work on the doors to the elevator where Tony Savas, a seventy-two-year-old structural inspector, was trapped. Trapp peered into the small gap and saw him, a man with thinning white hair, seemingly serene. One of the workers grabbed a metal easel, wedging the legs into the opening, trying to spread the doors from the bottom, where they seemed to have the greatest leverage. But their efforts had the opposite effect at the top of the doors, which seemed to pinch tighter.

At that moment, John Griffin, who had recently started as the trade center’s director of operations, came over to the elevator bank. At six feet, eight inches tall, Griffin had no problem reaching the top of the door to apply pressure as the others pushed from the bottom. The doors popped apart. Out came Savas, who seemed surprised to find Griffin, his new boss, involved in the rescue. Savas seemed exhilarated, possessed of a sudden burst of energy, rubbing his hands together, or so it seemed to Trapp.

“Okay,” Savas said. “What do you need me to do?”

One of the Port Authority workers shook his head. “We just got you out-you need to leave the building.”

No, Savas insisted. He wanted to help. “I’ve got a second wind.”

John and Mr. Savas stayed behind.

John’s wife, June, sweetheart of the class behind us, was quoted in John’s NYT, Portraits of Grief:

“He was at the back of about 30 people they were evacuating,” his wife, June Griffin, related from the accounts of survivors. “He had been in fires before — he should have gotten out.”

Mrs. Griffin speculated that her husband, instead of running for the exits, headed for the fire control center, where his training as a fire safety officer would have directed him. “He was an engineer,” Mrs. Griffin said. “He must have thought, ‘Buildings don’t just fall down.’”

John also left two daughters, both now teenagers, his parents, a younger brother and older sister, and literally hundreds of friends.

Not just any friends, either – anyone who knew John still says that when he talked with you, it was as though you were the most important person in the world.

—–

Leaving New Jersey in the mid-1980s and running on the tenure-track treadmill 1,600 miles away caused me to stop living life and lose track of a great many friends. I am deeply saddened not to have known John as an adult, a devoted husband and, by all accounts, a remarkable father.

Since John’s death, we’ve all found a little more time in our schedules to make time for one another. As the father of a little girl conceived in the months after the terrorist attacks, I try to respect June’s privacy and just send little gifts for the girls every so often. I cannot imagine how they and nearly 3,000 other families deal privately with the most public of tragedies.

I finally worked up the guts to go to Ground Zero [seven years and] two months ago for the first time. Despite all the bickering about what the memorial should look like, there is a small memorial area set up in the interim. John’s name sits at the top of one column of names on the placards commemorating those lost.

He’ll always be at the top of my list.

John’s wife, June, put up this as her Facebook profile photo this year.

Postscript

This picture also appeared in 2011 when John’s younger daughter, Julie, now 20, was interviewed for the Waldwick (NJ) Suburban News by Jody Weinberger.

Julie’s memory of the events that took place on 9/11 is spotty. She was a fourth-grader at Crescent Elementary School when relatives came to take her and Jenna home.

“It was kind of chaotic,” Julie recalls, sitting on a stool in her kitchen. “Even though people were saying things, I didn’t know what they were talking about. I didn’t know what terrorism was and not even adults could really grasp what was happening.

“My grandpa came up to me and told me bad people did something to where my dad worked and that’s all I could really grasp at the time.”

After discussing her father’s rescue of Mr. Savas, Julie shared more of her mixed feelings:

“But then I think he actually went back to help more people and I think that’s when the buildings collapsed,” Julie said. “I was kind of angry knowing that he went to go save other people instead of thinking about coming home to his family. That bothered me but now I know he’s a hero.”

As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, Julie thinks about just some of the many moments she’s missed not having her father around.

“People think that it’s just the anniversaries, birthdays and holidays, and it’s true, those really are hard times, but every day [you have to] keep your head up and think positive,” she said. “It’s little things like learning how to drive and applying for college, or my first day of college that you just kind of wish he was there for, and you just have to keep going, I guess.”

Julie feels that by going after her dreams – which currently means graduating from the University of Tampa and pursuing a career in elementary education – she is making her father proud.

 

That Facebook post from June was from last year, 2012. This year, we hear directly from Julie Griffin in a brave article she wrote for the national website of Kappa Alpha Theta, “Overcoming tragedy with the help of my sisters.”

GriffRocksOnFull

Next Friday, September 20th, many of us are gathering in Rutherford, New Jersey for Griff Rocks On, a fundraiser to honor our fallen hero at our alma mater, St. Mary High School. My sister, Sandi, Class of 1985, designed the announcement for this now sold-out event:

Do you remember your PhD defense?

A new and already-dear friend is defending her doctoral dissertation tomorrow. I remembered that I had written a post awhile back on my feelings about my own defense, and how my perceptions at the time didn’t measure up to reality.

The timing of this repost also coincides with the Diversity in Science Blog Carnival just posted at Neurotic Physiology, written by another remarkable woman scientist friend of mine, Scicurious. The theme of that carnival is “imposter syndrome” – the broad pathology of self-doubt that one is somehow not qualified for one’s career. I should have submitted this post for that carnival because it falls into that category.

So, for what it’s worth, I’m reposting my feelings in 2008 from the 19th anniversary of my dissertation defense. (How quaint to see that I was using a Palm Treo back then!)


 

This post appeared originally on 13 November 2008 at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata.

For whatever reason, I woke up really depressed and exhausted today – pretty much for no reason, I think.

I checked my schedule on my Treo – today marks 19 years since my dissertation defense.

I remember being really depressed throughout writing my dissertation thinking, “is this all I have to show for this many years of public support for my training?”

My defense was on a Monday so I spent most of Sunday practicing my seminar in the room where I’d give it – it sucked so badly that I couldn’t even get through it once.

When the time came, it was the most incoherent performance I had ever given or ever would.

I was a blithering idiot during my oral exam. There was a great deal of laughter in the room as I stood outside in the hall.

How in the hell did they give me a Ph.D.?

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Poppy seed tea can kill you (repost)

Almost exactly two years ago, I posted the following story at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata. I was drawn to revisit this moving, tragic story yesterday after reading a post by organometallic chemist Sharon Neufeldt at I Can Has Science? entitled, Morphine, Heroin, and Lemon Poppy Seed Cake.

In honor of Tom’s courage and the memory of his son, this repost is a fitting adjunct to Sharon’s essay.


The following post appeared originally on 31 March 2009 at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata.

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Remembering Challenger…

This post appeared originally at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata on 28 January 2007.

It was a very cold morning in North Florida (in the teens/low 20s Fahrenheit) as I walked in to class during my second semester of graduate school. I vaguely recall some concerns about the launch of Challenger that morning because of the cold and I believe it was scrapped once before, this highly-touted launch of America’s first schoolteacher in space.
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What’s the buzz?: Synthetic marijuana, K2, Spice, JWH-018

The topic of one of our most popular posts of all time has been the synthetic marijuana products containing JWH compounds, naphthoylindole cannabimimetics synthesized in the 1990s in the Clemson University laboratory of John Huffman. This post first appeared at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata on 9 Feb 2010 and gives you some background on the active components of K2, Spice, and other products.


ResearchBlogging.orgThis post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org

My field of natural products pharmacology was founded by indigenous cultures who recognized that plants and fungi contain compounds that produce altered states of consciousness, leading to their most common use in religious ceremonies. While we may most often associate these naturally-occurring drugs with hallucinogens, the arguably most common natural product in use today is marijuana or Cannabis sativa. Indigenous to India and China, Cannabis has been the subject of increasing decriminalization worldwide due in part to its clinical, medicinal effects in multiple sclerosis, cancer, and AIDS.

Over the last few months, I’ve seen reports of a so-called “synthetic marijuana” being sold on the internet with stories most commonly coming from England and Germany and, in the US, from Kansas, Missouri, and Arizona. In fact, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports today that a bill has been brought before the Missouri House Public Safety Committee seeking to add this product to the state’s list of illegal drugs.

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Sharks don’t get cancer but do they get Salmonella poisoning???

This post appeared originally at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata on 18 May 2007. I’m putting it up today to accompany a superb post by University of Hawai’i graduate student and science writer, Christie Wilcox, at Observations of a Nerd.

Actually, sharks do get cancer but a 15-year-old book by William Lane led people to think otherwise, launching investigation of shark cartilage as a source of antiangiogenic, anticancer compounds. While there is one promising shark cartilage extract (Neovastat) in clinical trials for multiple myeloma, most oral preparations on health food store shelves aren’t stabilized and characterized well-enough to guarantee stability of antiangiogenic compounds.

But it gets worse with this news today from FDA’s MedWatch program that illustrates once again the safety problems of some dietary supplements – shark cartilage may just not work; it might also give you Salmonella poisoning:

NBTY and FDA informed consumers and healthcare professionals of a nationwide recall of 3 lots of Shark Cartilage Capsules the company manufactured in 2004 and distributed to consumers through mail and internet orders, and retail stores throughout the United States. The product was recalled because of possible contamination with Salmonella, an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. Healthy persons infected with Salmonella often experience fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. In rare circumstances, infection with Salmonella can result in the organism getting into the bloodstream and producing more severe illnesses such as arterial infections, endocarditis and arthritis. Customers can return the product back to the place of purchase for a full refund. Read the press release for specific names and lot numbers of the recalled product.

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Undeclared drugs in herbal and non-botanical dietary supplements

This post appeared originally on 13 April 2009 at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata.

An interesting question arose the other day when we discussed the Key West acupuncturist who was diverting prescription drugs for personal use as well as in her practice. While we are not certain that the defendant put the cited muscle relaxants and anxiolytics in remedies doled out at her practice, we doubt that the demographic she targeted would be too impressed if she were to hand out prescription drugs.

This scenario led our scientific and blogging colleague, DrugMonkey, to ask how common it might be for alternative practitioners to dope their herbs with prescription drugs exhibiting known efficacy. He also notes how disingenuous this practice might be in that the alternative practitioner is admitting in doing so that their herbs and elixirs have no efficacy on their own.

I can’t speak to trends among individual practitioners but this practice takes a page from the big boys: the dietary supplement industry.

Adulterating commercial herbal products with prescription drugs is so common that the US FDA is keeping a running tally of actions against companies selling supplements containing “undeclared drugs”: the polite regulatory term for deceptive doping of a useless product with a real drug.

We’ve spoken about these cases several times before [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]. Most common approaches have been to dope weight-loss supplements with sibutramine, a prescription amphetamine-like, serotonin/norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor sold in the US and Canada as Meridia®. The US FDA list on this class of deception has increased from 28 to 69 products since 22 Dec 2008. For example, we get a large number of hits from readers searching for apple cider vinegar capsules and whether they can help one lose weight – well, yes they can, if they contain sibutramine, of course.

Another common adulteration tactic is for erectile dysfunction supplement manufacturers to boost their products with prescription phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5) inhibitors such as sildenafil (Viagra®) or related compounds. So popular is this approach that the same manufacturer cited above for sibutramine-adulteration of apple cider vinegar products has also been found guilty of adding PDE5 inhibitors to their “Long Weekend” product. At least their business model is consistent, eh? A recent FDA investigation of such supplements sold online revealed that up to one-third of products are so adulterated.

This may all seem like fun and games but there is at least one case in the literature where supplement doping has been associated with unusual cases of prostate cancer (Clin Cancer Res 2008:607-11). In this case, the bodybuilding supplement Teston-6 was found to contain testosterone and other compounds more potent than testosterone in promoting prostate cancer cell growth in vitro.

As a natural products pharmacologist, I am all for researching botanical and non-botanical supplements that may intrinsically contain useful therapeutic molecules – that is the cornerstone of my field. Indeed, some traditional herbal medicines have been used as sources for modern pharmaceuticals.

But to dope supplement products with effective drugs is to admit that one is selling crap: a deceptive practice to prey upon those who choose to seek out “alternative” medical approaches.

This practice makes one wonder how many anecdotal cases of “success” with herbal products is due to adulteration with prescription drugs.

Getting a rise out of helium

This post appeared originally on 22 October 2007 at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata.

Sci/Med blogging is an interesting pastime. You can spend a tremendous amount of time writing a post and get two comments and 30 total viewers, or you can write a brief post about your daughter asking where helium comes from and get many more commenters and nearly a thousand viewers.

Clearly, the five-year-old is a better source for blog content. Q.E.D.

And, wow, what we have learned from our readers in response: one frequent Australian commenter, Chris Noble, confirmed the abundance of helium in Amarillo by noting their next shipment was indeed coming from Texas. Casey pointed us to an NPR story on the current helium shortage and Gretchen wistfully told us to stop filling our balloons so she could complete her experiments. Amarillo native, Biggs, noted the 50-foot high helium molecule in town – isn’t the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo too? (Those Amarillians seem to be enthusiastic about memorializing big things.).
Dave S. shared the tidbit that helium was detected on the Sun before it was found on Earth and Dr William Dyer told us that helium is a non-renewable resource because, while it is generated from radioactive alpha decay, the velocity of the particles is greater than the Earth’s escape velocity.

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Arsenic: from drug to poison to drug again

This post appeared originally on 23 May 2007 at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata.

The 2 May issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute has an interesting news article on the advancing use of arsenic trioxide against a variety of human malignanices, mostly cancers of the blood.

The medical uses of arsenic reach back more than 2,000 years, but only recently has Western medicine embraced its surprising rise from folk cure-all to proven cancer treatment.

The January announcement of positive results in a 6-year NCI-sponsored phase III clinical trial to treat a rare form of leukemia is merely the latest in a series of kudos for arsenic’s medicinal prowess. The latest study affirms that arsenic can effectively maintain remissions in acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL). But some investigators hope that arsenic could go even farther and eventually replace chemotherapy as a front-line treatment for APL.

In 1908, Sahachiro Hata working in the laboratory of Nobel laureate Paul Ehrlich had identified an arsenic-containing compound they named Salvarsan (arsphenamine, compound 606) that was used to treat syphilis until the advent of penicillin. (The compound number came from it being 606th of those tested against Treponema pallidum in an animal model.). We consider arsenic a poison today, but Salvarsan was a great improvement over organic mercurial compounds of the day.

We still try to keep arsenic out of our water and seafood supply, but the old Paracelsan adage seems to hold that it is the dose that determine the difference between a remedy and a poison.

The JNCI article notes the recent successes in using arsenic trioxide (Trisenox) to treat leukemias and other cancers and its roots in traditional Chinese medicine:

[Mt Sinai School of Medicine Dr Samuel] Waxman was one of the first Western physicians to see promise in the a series of small studies in Chinese medical journals that reported intravenous doses of arsenic trioxide-induced long-term remission in APL [acute promyelocytic leukemia] patients. The medical uses of arsenic reach back at least 2,000 years, but it was political ideology that prompted its modern resurgence, Waxman explained.

Arsenic may never have entered the western pharmacopoeia were it not for the Chinese cultural revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, he said. During that time, Western medicine virtually disappeared in China, and physicians turned to traditional Chinese herbal cures that had sustained the culture for millennia. The Chinese physician Zhang Ting-Dong of Harbin Medical University made the initial breakthrough by formulating a stable, low-dose solution of 1% arsenic trioxide in injectable form. Zhang presented his work at a Chinese medical society meeting in the early 1980s and gained interest from colleagues in Shanghai.

Around this same time, a researcher in Waxman’s lab began an exchange with Zhu Chen, M.D., Ph.D., and others at Shanghai Second Medical University in China, and thus began a decades-long collaboration between the two groups. They, along with colleagues in Europe, established that arsenic is associated with degradation of the PML-RARα oncoprotein that, in part, defines APL. The group also reported that arsenic trioxide is associated with induced apoptosis of the abnormal promyelocytic white cells.

“These cells are particularly sensitive to arsenic-induced apoptosis,” Waxman said. “Secondly, they are undergoing differentiation, so you are getting a double hit from the same drug. Thirdly, it is very well tolerated in the doses given.”

In my last search of clinicaltrials.gov for arsenic, I find there are currently 26 clinical trials ongoing in the US to test arsenic trioxide or novel organic arsenic compounds for a variety of human malignancies.