It was with great enthusiasm that I accepted Dr. André Baruchel’s request to present an update on T-lineage acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL) at the annual meeting for the Societé Française de lutte contre les Cancer et les leucemies de l’Enfant et de adolescent (SFCE). This topic was the focus of my Fulbright Research Scholarship, and I looked forward to discussing some exciting new findings with my new French colleagues. My talk was scheduled to occur in the Session Thematiques “Leucemies” on November 20, 2015. In my experience, nearly every French physician or scientist speaks impeccable English. However, I quickly realized that every talk at the SFCE meeting was being given in French, all of them, except mine. I wondered what I might do to avoid giving the Worst Talk…Ever. I thought, “why not ask some quiz questions, with a brief test at the end? I could present some American culture along the way.”
When the moment for my talk arrived, I announced that there would be a quiz with questions taken from the slides I had written in French. The audience listened expectantly.
For the first quiz question, I showed a picture of New Mexico’s State Flag.
I asked, “What is this a picture of”? The audience looked puzzled. Finally someone offered that it was a design of some sort. Not quite sure.
Finally, I said, “C’est le soleil!” And they said, “Oh, you’re right, it is the sun!” I thought to myself, “This is worse than I imagined. It rains way too much in Paris!”
A few slides later, I posed another quiz question, this time about the results of a large clinical trial in leukemia showing amazing improvements in outcome. As I read the bulleted statements in French, members of the audience laughed at one of the words I had chosen, and said, “You definitely did not mean to use that word!”
To which I replied, “Well, damn that Google Translator!
At the end of my presentation, the audience was still awake – smiling, even — and answered all of the quiz questions correctly. I thanked André for the opportunities he had given me, and felt that a celebratory visit to the Eiffel Tour was in order.
The previous weekend had been the terrible terrorist attacks of November 13, 2015. Despite that, my parents had still chosen to visit me in Paris. Although I was afraid that more terrorist events might occur, I was glad that my parents came from Wisconsin anyway. In one week’s time, the mood had in Paris had changed considerably, becoming one of solidarity, defiance, and a renewed commitment that “Paris is Life”. This mood was palpably present at the Eiffel Tour.
When I commented that I was glad that they were able to visit Paris, despite everything, my parents pointed out that whether red-white-and-blue, or blue-white-and-red, the colors of the American and French flags might bleed, but they don’t run.
Let’s go back in time to November 20, 1985. On the morning of that day, I tumbled out of bed into a terrible existential crisis. It was my 25th birthday. I was still in medical school, acquiring debt hand-over-fist, and not quite sure that being a physician was the right choice. I wish I could have seen myself 30 years into the future, giving a talk about the huge progress that’s been made in pediatric leukemia, in French, in Paris, but I probably would not have believed any of it.
That’s the odd thing about dreams and time. We may forget our dreams, but our dreams will not forget us, who we really are and what we might be. For me, November 20th is a day to remember.