November 1, 2010
November 1, 2010
November 1, 2010
It is possible that the key to immortality is hidden in this delicate girl, who is only about 76 centimeters (2 feet, 6 inches) tall and weighs seven kilograms (15.4 pounds). Her arms and legs are as fragile as the branches of a young tree. Her laugh sounds like the whimper of a puppy; she has hazel eyes. And when Brooke Greenberg wants her mother she stretches out her tiny arms, shakes her head slowly, and twists her face into a lopsided moue.
“Come here, Brooke, yes, you are a pretty girl.” Melanie Greenberg, 49, picks up the fragile looking child and gently strokes her back. “She loves being held,” says Greenberg, a mother of four. Brooke’s sisters are named Emily, Caitlin and Carly. Brooke is the second youngest. She will be 18 in January.
Other girls her age are driving, going out dancing and sleeping with their first boyfriends. But for Brooke it’s as if time had stood still. Mentally and physically, the girl remains at the level of an 11-month-old baby.
“Brooke is a miracle,” says her father, Howard Greenberg. “Brooke is a mystery,” says Lawrence Pakula, her pediatrician. “Brooke is an opportunity,” says Richard Walker, a geneticist with the University of South Florida College of Medicine. They all mean the girl from Reisterstown, a small town in the US state of Maryland, who may hold the answer to a human mystery. At issue is nothing less than immortality: Brooke Greenberg apparently isn’t aging.
She has no hormonal problems, and her chromosomes seem normal. But her development is proceeding “extremely slowly,” says Walker. If scientists can figure out what is causing the disorder, it might be possible to unlock the mysteries of aging itself. “Then we’ve got the golden ring,” says Walker.
He hopes to simply eliminate age-related diseases like cancer, dementia and diabetes. People who no longer age will no longer get sick, he reasons. But he also thinks eternal life is conceivable. “Biological immortality is possible,” says Walker. “If you don’t get hit by a car or by lightning, you could live at least 1,000 years.”
An Unprecedented Case
Brooke Greenberg was born prematurely on Jan. 8, 1983 at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. She weighed only 1,800 grams (about four pounds) at birth. It soon became clear that she wasn’t normal. Almost all of her organ systems were altered. Her hips were dislocated, so that her legs pointed awkwardly toward her shoulders. She’d hardly been born before she was placed in a cast.
The first six years were torture for Brooke and her parents. On one occasion, seven holes in the child’s abdominal wall had to be repaired. Because food kept entering her windpipe instead of her stomach, a gastric feeding tube had to be inserted. She fell into a 14-day coma when she was four. Then doctors diagnosed a brain tumor (the diagnosis later proved to be incorrect). “The Greenbergs had gone out already and made the preparations, buying a coffin and talking to the rabbi,” pediatrician Pakula recalls.
Pakula practices in a medical building near the Greenbergs’ house. He wears a tie adorned with cartoonish hippopotamuses. A tall stack of paper — Brooke’s file — sits on his desk. “This can’t be lost,” says the doctor, placing his hand on the documents. He knows what a treasure the file represents.
The most surprising thing about Brooke is that she hardly ages at all. Her body stopped growing when she was two years old. She hasn’t grown a centimeter or gained a pound. Pakula injected the girl with growth hormones, but nothing happened. He studied the medical literature and consulted specialists worldwide. “She was presented to everybody who was anybody in the medical world at the time,” says the 77-year-old pediatrician, “but she didn’t match anything any physician had seen before.”
The Greenbergs waited and hoped — one year, two years, 10 years — but nothing happened. Their daughter’s facial features have remained unchanged. There are no signs of puberty. “Brooke’s nurses, her teachers, even her father can’t consistently sort photos of her chronologically,” says Pakula. Only the girl’s hair and fingernails are growing normally.
‘She’s a Miracle’
At the family’s house in Reisterstown, Howard Greenberg points to photos on the walls: Brooke at three, next to her one-year-old sister Carly, who was already bigger than she was at the time; Brooke in a playsuit on her 12th birthday; Brooke at 14, at her Bat Mitzvah, the Jewish rite of initiation.
Greenberg hurries from picture to picture. Brooke looks the same in all the photos. Her mouth is always slightly lopsided and her eyes just a tough too far apart. “She’s a miracle.” It’s something that has to be said, again and again. “What’s she missing in life? Nothing. She hasn’t got a worry in the world. She isn’t broken. We’re the ones who are broken.” This is the father’s way of explaining away his daughter’s condition. “If you look at it that way, it makes it much more bearable,” he says later on.
At first Melanie Greenberg took care of Brooke on her own, but now she has help. Feeding Brooke through the tube takes 10 hours a day. She goes to a school for disabled children from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Much of the rest of the time she spends in her room, sitting in her bed and watching television, or bobbing back and forth in her light-blue baby swing.
“She can do this all day,” says Melanie Greenberg, lifting her daughter into the air and carefully placing her on her thin little legs, with her feet twisted inward. “It was not easy, it was very hard,” she says, “but I’m sure there is a reason for Brooke to be here. Something is in her, something that could help millions of people…”
November 1, 2010
For a brief, glorious, and unforgettable moment 20 years ago, it seemed as if a great and terrible question that had been perennially stalking humanity had finally been answered. That profound question was as old as human hope itself: could ordinary men and women, regardless of their location on this earth or their station in this life, hope that deliberate social arrangements could provide them—and their descendants thereafter—with permanent and universal protection against the grinding poverty and material misery that had been the human lot ever since memory began? For those exhilarating few years back in the 1990s, it seemed to many of us that the 20th century had indeed answered this age-old question: decisively, successfully, and conclusively.
Brute facts, after all, had demonstrated beyond controversy that human beings the world over could now indeed create sustained explosions of mass prosperity—rather than temporary and transient windfalls—that would utterly transform the human material condition, relegating the traditional conception of desperate want from a daily personal concern to an almost abstract textbook curiosity.
According to estimates by the late economic historian Angus Maddison, the world’saverage per capita output quadrupled between 1900 and 1989/91, with even greater income surges registered in the collectivity of Western societies where the process of modern economic growth had commenced.1 Membership in this “Western” club, though, manifestly did not require European background or heritage, for the Asian nations of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan had come to embrace political and economic arrangements similar to those pioneered in Western Europe and its overseas offshoots, and had in fact enjoyed some of the century’s fastest rates of long-term income growth.
The formula for generating steady improvements in living standards for a diversity of human populations, in short, had been solidly established. The matter at hand was now to extend that formula to the reaches of the earth where it could not yet be exercised—most obviously at that time for political reasons, given the fact that nearly a third of the world’s peoples were still living under Communist regimes in the late 1980s.
By the early 1990s, with the final failure of the Soviet project and the widely heralded idea of the “End of History,” it suddenly seemed as if the liberal political ideals that promoted the spread of the Western growth formula would no longer encounter much organized global resistance. It now seemed only a matter of time until every part of the world could join in a newly possible economic race to the top. Prosperity for all—everywhere—no longer sounded like merely a prayer. Quite the contrary: the end of global poverty was increasingly taken to be something much more like a feasible long-term-action agenda.
Alas, in the years since, new brute facts have asserted themselves, while other awkward facts of somewhat older vintage have reasserted themselves, demanding renewed attention. All too many contemporary locales have managed to “achieve” records of long-term economic failure in our modern era. The plain and unavoidable truth is that countries with hundreds of millions of inhabitants today are not simply falling behind in a global march toward ever-greater prosperity: they are positively heading in the wrong direction, spiraling down on their own distinct, but commonly dismal, paths of severe, prolonged, and tragic retrogression.
Haiti is a particularly awful case in point…