Health and Science

Senior centers rev up physical activities

By Siyao Long

Senior centers are no longer about Bingo for the 80-year-olds.  As more younger seniors in their 60s are coming in, North Center Satellite Senior Center added  Zumba dancing, line dancing and more physical activities to the programs.

Helen Tubog seeks out Zumba rather than Bingo at the senior center.

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Experts predict rise in heart infection with increase of heroin use

By Dani Anguiano

An infectious disease that can affect intravenous drug users is expected to increase as a result of rising rates of heroin use across the United States, according to Sharon Kelley, CEO of Associates in Emergency Medical Education based in Tampa, Florida.

“We’re already seeing increases of Endocarditis from all the increase in IV drug use,” Kelley said of the potentially life-threatening heart infection that affects heart valves by causing them to malfunction.

According to Dr. Robert Sade, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, there is a relationship between the condition and intravenous drug use. Continue reading

3D printing just became more delicious

By: Lucy Vernasco

3D printing is more delicious than ever. With more than 1,000 Kickstarter backers, PancakeBot is the world’s first 3D pancake printer.

“It’s a project I did for my kids to get them inspired. It’s a family project,” Miguel Valenzuela said about his invention. Valenzuela is a civil engineer, inventor and father living in Norway.

PancakeBot was first prototyped as a LEGO model before Valenzuela made it into the current machine.

Launched in 2013, PancakeBot won’t hit stores until mid 2015, but Kickstarter backers can get their own for half the anticipated retail price by pledging $149 dollars.

“I’ve always wanted to dabble with 3D printing, especially since it was coming online with Makerbot,” Valenzuela said. “I learned how to program with LEGO code, pretty much spent six months making a pancake machine out of LEGOs. We posted the video on YouTube and then it went viral. It was all made out of LEGOs except for the ketchup bottle”

The idea originated with a question from Valenzuela’s daughter as he was reading an article in Make Magazine about prototyping with LEGO, Valenzuela said.

“My daughter Lily asked, ‘What are you doing, dad?’ and I said I was reading about a guy who made a pancake stamping machine out of LEGOs. Her eyes opened up really big, and she turned to Maya, her sister, and yelled, ‘Papa’s going to build a pancake machine out of LEGOs!’”

Valenzeula began bringing his PancakeBot LEGO prototype to Maker Faires including one at The White House. After partnering with StoreBound, he began a Kickstarter campaign in order to reach a wider audience and bring the project to stores later this year.  PancakeBot, which comes with pre-loaded designs and an SD card for custom designs, lets users create pancakes in any pattern they can dream of.

And, yes, then you pour syrup on it and eat it. Valenzeula reveals more secrets about his Bot.

How long does the process take?

It depends on the size of the pancake, of course. For a simple one it can trace something out in 45 seconds to a couple of minutes, the outline of it, and then it needs to come back to fill. You can do the fill by hand, or you can do the fill with PancakeBot. You’re looking at three to four minutes for a decent sized pancake with a custom design and logo on it.

How does PancakeBot work?

The way it works is that you import the image for the background into the software. Then you have a window where you trace over the background. You trace lines. There are no curves, just lines. If you want to draw a circle, you draw a bunch of small lines. Once you draw your dark lines, you go back and you click a [15 second delay] into it. That allows the brown stuff to cook and get browner. Then you come back and do the fill. The fill fills it in with a lighter batter. Then you give it a flip and you have your image revealed to you. Every time you flip the pancake you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get, because you don’t know how long it’s cooked. The cool thing is the reveal. Like ‘ooh look at that, it came out perfect.’

PancakeBot printing a butterfly pancake
PancakeBot printing a butterfly pancake

You can print layers, but it’s very limited in the amount of layers it’ll print. The main thing is that pancake batter is in this liquid form, so it’s not like taking an apple and making it into liquid form and squirting it out. So there’s a natal progression of going from pancake batter to pancake. That’s what’s really cool about this. For stuff that has the same viscosity as pancake batter and you can cook it, the sky’s the limit on that. We use 3D printing technology and it uses the idea of food and cooking. It’s the only printer out there that actually cooks food while it’s being made. We went from LEGO to this.

How do you hope people use Pancake Bot?

Number one, I hope people will make pancakes out of it. I don’t want it to end there. I want people to look at what we’ve created here as a tool for learning, a tool for exploration and a tool for inspiring kids to look at technology in a different way. Now what we’re doing is we’re putting a computer system and machine into the kitchen and you can tell it what to do. You’re the artist now. We’re looking into allowing the user to hack it. They can upload their own programs to it, and draw out custom shapes. It would be nice to see it at places like Disney Land, resorts, hotels.

Completed PancakeBot pancake
Completed PancakeBot pancake

Do you ever get tired of pancakes?

The kids still love pancakes. They never get sick of them. I love pancakes too, so I think that shows a little bit. What the challenge is is challenging ourselves to come up with different designs and pushing ourselves to see what we can come up with and things like that.

Have your kids been inspired from you invention?

Totally! Now my kids are inventing stuff and making things. They’re playing with robotics and [are] interested in programming. The kids look at things differently now. They say, “Dad, can you build a robot for this?” They’re seeing now that technology can be used on a daily basis.

This project would not have been possible without the Maker community, because this is one of the reasons we decided to do it, is to inspire kids to get involved with technology. The Maker community has been very awesome in helping us out.

Photo at top: A butterfly pancake created by PancakeBot.

Food waste in the crosshairs of NUvention entrepreneurs

By Bryce Gray

That tomato on your salad and other produce items across the U.S. endure an odyssey of more than 1,300 miles from the field to your local grocery store. That journey not only costs energy, but also time that cuts into shelf life and contributes to $7 billion worth of domestic food waste annually.

When it comes to freshness, the dizzying logistics of this system require food to be picked when under-ripe and treated with chemicals and costly refrigeration until it reaches far-off consumers.

“This is a very complex system,” said Aidan Mouat, a chemistry Ph.D. candidate and the CEO of Hazel Technologies, speaking at last week’s end-of-term presentations for entrepreneurial NUvention Energy students at Northwestern University. “We’d like to say, ‘Let’s stop all that. Let’s just come up with a solution that works well and drops into a number of different spaces and just stops that senescence process – that ripening process.’” Continue reading

Southeast Siders: No End in Sight For Pet Coke

By Sarah Kramer

Jessica Loy had lived in her new two-story home for three months when her youngest son, Carlos Gonzalez, Jr., 5, started showing the same symptoms of asthma his twin sister, Carla Gonzalez.

Carla has suffered from asthma since she was a baby, Loy said, but Carlos didn’t have a history of the same problems. He’d never needed a nebulizer treatment. Now he does. Now Loy has to convince the energetic kindergartner to sit still for 10 minutes, breathing in vaporized liquid through a small plastic mask, twice every day.

“My doctor asked me what happened, what did you do differently?” Loy said. “Nothing. We just moved.” Continue reading

Chris Borland’s Early Retirement Raises Questions About Football’s Future

By Bennet Hayes

The Monday retirement of Chris Borland, 24 years young and poised for a successful and lucrative NFL career, has sparked serious concern that on-field safety issues may turn young players away from football.

Dave Jacobs, the VP of Health and Safety for Chicagoland Youth Football League, said Borland’s decision is likely to increase already prevalent concerns about the safety of football, particularly among parents contemplating their children’s participation in the sport.

“For lack of better words, we’re under attack,” Jacobs said. “The game is as safe as it’s ever been, but I think we now have the biggest challenge yet to make sure kids still enjoy the sport and are coming out to play it.” Continue reading

Creative. Energetic. Talkative. Narcoleptic?

By Priyam Vora

“It was what everybody jokes about when somebody falls asleep somewhere in a chair at a holiday party like you know ‘Oh you must be narcoleptic,” said Regis Watson, Annie’s mother. “I mean it was always a joke.”

Annie was diagnosed with narcolepsy when she was 6 years old, a long painful year after Annie started showing symptoms when she was 5.

“It took us some time before we knew Annie had narcolepsy because she was just so bright,” said Regis Watson, Annie’s mother. “She is fabulously smart.”

Video reporting by Priyam Vora/Medill; videography by Ronak Vora

Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder that impacts 1 in 2,000 people in the U.S., according to Narcolepsy Network. The disorder is characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness and an overwhelming sense of tiredness and fatigue throughout the day. Continue reading

Chicago start-ups embrace digital health

By Jin Wu

2014 proved to be a stellar year for digital health. According to data from Startup Health, a New York based digital health accelerator, $6.5 billion was invested into the digital health sector in 2014, up 124 percent from 2013. The money is coming not only from venture capital, but also from the private sector as well as individual partners. Continue reading

Jails lack resources to care for heroin addicts, experts say

By Dani Anguiano

Sonja Radtke, 30, a recovering heroin addict, says experiencing heroin withdrawal feels a lot like going through hell, but it is much worse in jail where treatment is limited.

“Like, I throw up blood and have seizures when I get sick, but [jail staff] really don’t do anything,” Radtke said of her withdrawal experience while incarcerated in an Illinois jail.

Similarly, Chenel Jones said the pain that she experienced while withdrawing from heroin was so intense that she became delusional.

“Because it’s hell,” Jones said. “I just asked God to take my life. I had gave up – it’s so painful and it’s so sickening.”

The jails where Radtke and Jones experienced withdrawal are among the more than 5,000 jails and prisons across the United States, many of which lack the resources to provide treatment for heroin withdrawal and detoxification. The National Commission on Correctional Health Care says methadone-based treatment is highly effective for opiate addiction, but only a handful of facilities have a methadone program, such as Rikers Island’s Key Extended Entry Program. Heroin use has reportedly skyrocketed across the country in recent years leaving more and more facilities ill-equipped to offer treatment. Continue reading

Homeless Chicago couple chooses streets over shelters

By Adrienne Hurst

Geronimo Lightfoot has a home. It’s between two concrete pillars underneath the Illinois Center on Michigan Avenue; a cozy nest of blankets, paper bags and empty cans of Natural Light.

The 54-year-old endures Chicago’s biting winters in the wind-sheltered underpass of Lower Michigan Avenue. Though this one’s coming to an end, he’s kept warm using the few amenities his monthly disability check affords him—a result of kidney failure that happened two years ago—and the occasional hand warmers donated by volunteers and passersby.

And another thing: love.

“Yeah, I came out here for my boyfriend,” Joyce Wiggins, 62, said with a grin.

Wiggins and Lightfoot met 10 months ago at Four Winds Casino in Michigan, where Lightfoot was spending an evening away from the elements and Wiggins was enjoying a night of gambling. She didn’t live on the streets at the time, but she “wasn’t doing much” back home in Ann Arbor, either. “I was living with my cousin, babysitting and house-sitting,” she said. “I followed [Lightfoot] here.”

The couple is in good company beneath Chicago’s bustling shopping district. Their echoing underpass is sprinkled with tents and piles of blankets sheltering dozens of the city’s homeless. It’s warmer here than on the streets above, where winds faster than the speed limit can make wool coats feel almost futile. It’s an area volunteers and employees at the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS) know to scrutinize during their biennial point-in-time (PIT) count of the city’s homeless population.

Lightfoot, left, and Wiggins relax in the underpass they call home. Adrienne Hurst/MEDILL

Lightfoot and Wiggins weren’t around for this year’s count. They were resting on the Red Line, sleepily following its path from Howard to 95th Street and back again. “The train’s got heat, so that’s better than being out here,” Lightfoot told me, rubbing a leather-gloved hand on his knee. “You just gotta stay alert for pickpockets.”

On just one night in winter 2014, city employees and volunteers counted 6,294 homeless individuals while scouring the streets and city-funded homeless shelters. Nearly one thousand were sleeping outdoors that night in around zero degree weather.

A five-month-long winter

The Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office measures the beginning and end of winter by a grim criterion: hypothermia body count. It’s a season flanked by the first and last cold-related deaths. This winter began on Nov. 20 when 52-year-old David Powells, a homeless man, was found unconscious on Chicago Avenue. The combination of acute alcohol poisoning, hypertensive cardiovascular disease and cold exposure proved fatal.

By the medical examiner’s standards, last winter didn’t end until April 3, 2014.

“The interesting thing is that we usually see most of our hypothermic patients in the emergency room during October, and then during April, May,”said Dr. Jeffrey Schaider, chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the Cook County Health and Hospital System. “You wouldn’t expect it, but think about it: It’s early May, late April, fairly warm out. You lie down on a park bench, dressed in a t-shirt. You have too much to drink and you fall asleep. It starts to drizzle; it gets down to the 40s. Your body temperature will drop pretty quickly in that situation.”

I wondered why many displaced people continue to sleep on Chicago’s trains and underpasses even with shelters available. On Thursday, Jan. 22, a week before I met Lightfoot, I followed DFSS employees for this year’s federally mandated PIT count.

Tallying the displaced

Chicago is one of 414 U.S. Continuums of Care (CoC)—regional or local planning bodies in charge of directing homeless services—that conduct a biennial PIT count. According to an August 2014 analysis by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, the number of Chicagoans without permanent housing could be as high as 138,575 when those living temporarily with family or friends are included.

From 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. that Thursday, I watched as John Pfeiffer, DFSS First Deputy Commissioner, knelt with a pen and clipboard before men and women wrapped in layers of blankets. He asked if they would be willing to answer a few survey questions: how long they had been homeless, whether they dealt with substance abuse or mental illness, and other questions. The questions are intended to capture a “snapshot” of Chicago’s homeless population, which will ultimately help direct federal funding when the data is released this summer.

Many were asleep in tattered tents along the fringes of Lower Wacker and Lower Columbus Drive. DFSS employees tapped at the tarps of their residences in an attempt to wake them up, many times apologizing and explaining the purpose of their visit. Some of those residents became audibly upset; others were either too intoxicated or delirious to provide coherent answers. Irritated by the crowd of reporters and city employees, one man agreed to speak only if someone purchased a copy of “StreetWise” from him.

Disturbing some of Chicago’s most vulnerable residents to ask about their lives felt tense. Despite their good intentions, DFSS workers were dismissed by some who were trying to sleep or otherwise maintain privacy.

I went back to Lower Wacker and the people sleeping on Chicago’s wintry streets one morning in February, when they would be awake and more willing to talk. That’s where I met Lightfoot and Wiggins.

During the winter months, some of Chicago’s homeless seek refuge on public transportation. Adrienne Hurst/MEDILL

‘I had nowhere to go’

Lightfoot hasn’t set foot in a shelter since last winter, he told me. He spent most of his time outdoors before becoming homeless, working in construction and eventually quitting to become a live-in caretaker for his father who had Alzheimer’s disease. When his father passed away two years ago, “I had nowhere to go, so I ended up in shelters,” Lightfoot said. But incidents of theft and bed bugs eventually led him back to the streets.

Lightfoot is faring better this season than he did last year. Winter 2013-2014 was Chicago’s coldest on record, and during one of its bitterest days, Lightfoot passed out on State Street.

He asked a postman to call 9-1-1 as soon as he came to. Lightfoot knew that progressive loss of consciousness can signal severe hypothermia, a condition that contributed to the deaths of 32 people in Cook County last winter. About one-third of them were homeless, according to the medical examiner’s office.

“We see them all the time in the emergency room,” Schaider said.

The Chicago city government funds 10 emergency shelters with a total of 581 beds—places to sleep for 12 hours or less—and 41 interim shelters with 2,708 beds, places to stay for longer periods and receive housing services. That number doesn’t include independently funded shelters like the Pacific Garden Mission, Chicago’s largest and longest-running shelter, where more than 1,100 homeless men, women and children sleep during the winter.

Despite the shelters that are in place, last year’s PIT count found 16 percent of homeless Chicagoans living on the street. DFSS employees and volunteers provided those individuals with directions to the nearest shelter as part of the count process.

But “even during the polar vortex, we had people who did not want to come in,” said DFSS spokesman Matt Smith during this year’s count. “They might have taken blankets, they might have taken coffee, but they refused” to visit a shelter.

Pfeiffer listed a general distrust in institutional care as a possible factor. “Mental health is probably the biggest issue,” he said. “Or perhaps they’ve been abused in a shelter before. They might have had a bad experience.”

Lightfoot put it this way: theft is unbearable when all you own is on your back. He said he experienced that on more than one occasion at the shelters. “When you have that bad taste, you don’t want to go back,” he said.

“And I can’t deal with bed bugs,” Wiggins added, shaking her head in disgust. Living with Lightfoot, she’s never stayed in a shelter. “I can’t deal with bugs of any kind.”

A Chicago flag near the Illinois Center flutters in the wind. Adrienne Hurst/MEDILL

Winter isn’t over—but this year’s ‘a cakewalk’

Although Lightfoot applied for low-income housing in December, his application fell through due to high demand, he said. He’ll try again soon. But until then, he and Wiggins have a routine in place for the colder days: They spend their mornings in the Harold Washington Library, afternoons in the Barnes and Noble on Jackson Boulevard, and nights on the red line.

“Last year, it was rough,” Lightfoot said. “I seen guys who totally lost their toes. But this year?”

He paused to gesture at the concrete substructure of Michigan Avenue above him, beyond which a February sky was beginning to blanket the city in more than a foot of snow. It was the first blizzard of the season and the fifth heaviest snowfall in city history. Directly above us, the city flag by the Illinois Center writhed in nearly 40 mph winds.

”This is a cakewalk,” Lightfoot said, cradling an unopened packet of Hot Hands in his lap. He threw his head back and laughed. Wiggins laughed, too.

Photo at top: Tents equipped with brooms and fold-out chairs line the sidewalks of Lower Wacker. Adrienne Hurst/Medill