Scary marsupials and intimate stories from TEDMED
October 28th, 2010
04:27 PM ET

Scary marsupials and intimate stories from TEDMED

SAN DIEGO, California - TEDMED 2010 has taken us on a journey from diseases in exotic animals to the most intimate stories of dying humans.

The conference posed this question: When it comes to spreading new diseases to humans, what's the scariest animal in the world?

According to Peter Daszak, director of EcoHealth Alliance, it may be the sugar glider, a small marsupial mammal that resembles a flying squirrel.

The sugar glider is more closely related to humans than any snake, although the former may appear more menacing, Daszak said at TEDMED, after bringing living examples of the sugar glider and a large yellow snake on stage Wednesday night. The cuter creature is being caught in tropical habitats where disease emerges, and shipped around the world, "straight into our homes, where we hold them, kiss them, and cuddle up to them," he said.

Trade in wildlife has spread serious viruses such as SARS and HIV, he said. In fact, some 120 million animals come into the United States every year, he said.

Tuesday night at TEDMED also included an illuminating presentation by Alejandro Berenstein, whose techniques have helped many children with face and neck tumors with innovative non-surgical procedures.

Then, this morning, the tone of the conference turned from intellectual to deeply emotional when Antje Duvekot got up with her guitar and sang about her grandmother descent into Alzheimer's disease. Twitter revealed that I wasn't the only one who was holding back tears - Duvekot's song was all too relatable for those of us who have watched loved ones slip away. "And Anna tries to form a thought / But at the end she's forgotten where she started from / There's something she would like to say / But the words in her head seem to have got away," she sang.

Following Duvekot's intimate portrait of her grandmother was another deeply personal story from Alexandra Drane, founder of the nonprofit Engage With Grace, which encourages end-of-life conversations. Drane shared the story of her sister-in-law Rosaria, who died of a glioblastoma at age 32 in 2004. "Death just wasn’t something you talked about in our family," Drane said. After hospitalization, the family decided to take her home. Drane spoke of a moment when Rosaria held her daughter in an intimate moment of mother's love, a moment that may have been missed if she hadn't gone home. Drane's mission now is to help others get a sense of their family members' end-of-life wishes long before the ending nears.

Charity Tillemann-Dick ended an emotional morning with the song "Someone to Watch Over Me" by George Gershwin.

TEDMED is an annual event that brings together dozens of luminaries from a variety of fields to "demonstrate the intersection and connections between all things medical and health care related: from personal health to public health, devices to design and Hollywood to the hospital." TEDMED 2010 is taking take place from October 26 to 29 in San Diego, California.

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