Friday, March 2, 2012

More Than 3 Standard Deviations Above the Mean: Lactivism In Memory of Susan Eitelman Dean

Several days ago I found out that a friend of mine, Susan, had suffered a "major embolic stroke that occluded 2 major arteries in her brain". Much of my graduate work and some additional later research was in the area of cognitive neuropsychology -- I studied what brain damage could tell us about how the undamaged brain works. I knew, as a friend had written, that this was likely "bad, bad, bad".

A wonderful web site tracking her progress was quickly set up and her close friends provided regular updates. I first read that doctors were using medication to reduce the pressure in her brain. Then they decided surgery was neccessary. Then there were reports that the swelling continued and was potentially causing more damage. Her friends expressed that any recovery could take from months to years. I knew in cases like this, though, that "recovery" can truly mean "as recovered as possible".

But there will be no recovery of any length. Earlier today I read Susan had died.

Susan was married and in her early 30's. She had a 2 year old boy. She was very health conscious.

My heart goes out to her child, her husband, her parents, and everyone else who was close to her.

Reading the stories and comments others left on the web site and her Facebook page was both uplifting and sad. I think one of the comments on her Facebook page says so much:
I love you more than 3 standard deviations above the mean!!
Her friend wrote that just days before Susan's stroke. It highlights both the feelings many genuinly had for Susan and the dorkiness Susan proudly displayed.

I could go on and on about how years ago a work colleague and I recruited Susan fresh after she graduated from Carnegie Mellon and how she proved to be such a great work colleague and friend. Or how she was so helpful when I needed to make a long distance move. Or how she semi-randomly thanked me last month for the used knife set I gave her over 10 years ago -- it solved a minor but long unsolved mystery for me since I had forgotten giving it to her.

Instead, I will share one of the issues dear to Susan: breast feeding. She considered herself a lactivist -- someone who promotes breast feeding. This is not limited to simply encouraging women to nurse their children. In American society, some women are made to feel as if they are doing something wrong by simply feeding their child in public -- as if it is something that needs to be hidden away. That something so incredibly natural, healthy, wondrous, and loving as breastfeeding even needs advocates boggles my mind.

Just days before her stroke I shared with Susan a recent news report that caught my attention:
Nirvana Jennette, a mom of four from Camden County, Georgia says she was forced out of church for breastfeeding her baby. Church leaders asked her to breastfeed in the bathroom and implied they could have arrested her for “lewd behavior.” The most egregious statement? She told news station WSAV that her pastor compared her breastfeeding to a stripper performing.
How breast feeding is "lewd" or like a "stripper performing" is beyond me. Sometimes, the same people who can be charmed by watching puppies suckle can without hesitation criticize a woman for nursing her own child in public. Whatever the cause for such feelings, I have yet to hear a good reason for banning public breastfeeding. If you do not like to look at it, tough. I do not like to listen to people in the supposedly free U.S. whine about public breastfeeding. But I will be the first to protect your right do so.

Fortunately, in Georgia the law allows women to nurse anywhere they and their child have permission to be. Now, there is a movement to add an enforcement provision to the law. The article also mentions nurse-in protests in reaction to several other incidents.

In response to the article Susan commented:
Thanks for sharing this Brian! I love how some of my guy friends are becoming lactivists too!! Even from as far as China! I'd love to hear your thoughts on how breastfeeding is viewed over there... :)
I was hoping to more carefully consider the issue of breastfeeding in China when I had the chance and get back to Susan later. Sometimes, later does not work.

In the spirit of Susan's lactivism I want to pass on some relevant links Susan recently shared:

I must admit I had no plans to do a post on breastfeeding, but I share Susan's feelings on this topic. I am happy on this very sad day to help spread Susan's concerns about an issue that was particularly important to her.

Finally, just a few weeks ago Susan shared a post of this photo:

It is a collage of photos telling the story of a couple who married despite the bride being in the midst of a very difficult fight against cancer. She died 5 days after the wedding. Like me, Susan is careful about checking out such stories and included a link to Snopes indicating the story about the photos was indeed true.

And she left a brief comment on her post that seems so apt now:
Life is short, and delicate. Handle carefully.
Sometimes, it is much too short.

Susan and her son Andrew at a Kindermusik class last week (thanks to Holly Lesnick)


  1. Brian,
    This is a wonderful post and expresses thoughts and feeling that I can yet articulate. This morning I realized that I was drawn to her as my best friend because she reminded me so much of my late father. I thought of a correlation matrix in my head, knowing how much she would have loved to pour over that data.

  2. Brian,

    I don't know if you noticed, but you were the last person she talked to on Facebook. I have your post saved for her son Andrew.

    She was the best girl nerd in the world. I miss her terribly.


  3. And this was her geeked out response to me: I love you more than 6 sigma accuracy!!!! ♥

    Thank you, Brian, for posting this. You are a true friend to Susan.


  4. Beautiful post. Thank you. I found a picture earlier today of Susan, our friend Tabitha, and I all nursing our babes in public at a Panera lunch date last year. She looks radiant in it, and just so natural.


  5. Tiffany, thanks. I'm sure Susan would have appreciated your correlation matrix.

    Melody, I'm touched to know that. Thanks. All of the comments and stories shared by Susan's friends should help Andrew piece together a beautiful picture of his mother.

    Angela, that response is totally Susan. Thanks for sharing.

    Theresa, thanks. Panera lactivism sounds great. I'd love to see the photo.

    So happy to connect with all of you. So sad to do so under such circumstances.

  6. She was certainly special. Just saw this post and tried hard not to cry. Failed. What a great friend you are! I am bookmarking the links, thank you!