Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Interview with creative non-fiction writer Robert W. Soll, MD, PhD

My special guest today is Robert W. Soll, MD, PhD and he’s talking with me about his non-fiction book, Unraveling MS: Food and Infection: Unexpected Partners in MS and Other Autoimmune Diseases.

Welcome, Robert. Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
Although medicine has occupied my life for many years, I have had a wide range of interests including aviation, music, literature, military, and other fields of science. My attraction to medicine first surfaced during the summer of 1944 while I was attending a summer school in Minnesota. I became friends with another boy whose father was a well-known physician. My friend wanted to become a physician like his father. His ambitions strongly motivated my own interest in medicine.

Thereafter, I never considered doing anything other than becoming a doctor. I remember lying in bed at night as a college freshman—I just couldn’t wait to begin medical school although it was going to be at least 3 more years. I finally graduated from the College of Medicine at the University of Iowa in 1956, completed a rotating internship at Albany Hospital, New York in 1957, and then served two years in the Strategic Air Command at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri.

After finishing a three-year residency in Neurology at the University of Minnesota, I completed a post-doctoral fellowship in 1970, majoring in Bacteriology and Immunology. My intense interest in the immune system and its relation to multiple sclerosis had gradually evolved during my neurology residency, and that interest has never diminished throughout my life. My lifetime goal has been to understand multiple sclerosis so that I could control it and improve the lives of my patients. I was very fortunate to have had the support of my professor and mentor, Dr. Dennis Watson, during my post-doctoral studies, and the opportunity to work with Dr. John Najarian and Richard Condie in the Department of Transplant Surgery at the University of Minnesota. In addition to my career in medicine, I joined the Army Reserves, became a Flight Surgeon, rose to the rank of Colonel, and eventually retired from the Virginia National Guard.

Please tell us about your current release.
The cause of multiple sclerosis (MS) has remained a mystery for more than 150 years. Some of the first signs of MS might be symptoms such as intermittent numbness, weakness, dizziness, incoordination, or blurred vision. Individuals who develop such symptoms often become very concerned, fearing that they may become an invalid without any hope for a cure. I believe that most patients, their friends and relatives really want to know more about the way that MS actually causes illness and how it can be controlled. In my book, Unraveling MS, I have submitted an “easy to read” detailed explanation of MS. This involves describing our complex immune system—how it protects us as well as how it sometimes may cause a serious illness. I also have discussed the blood-brain barrier and how it serves to protect the brain and spinal cord from disease, the malicious role that viruses play in contributing to the onset of MS, the fascinating way that white blood cells interact with each other, and the process of inflammation in both health and disease. I have used multiple sclerosis (MS) as a model autoimmune disease in my book because of my involvement in research and treatment of MS for several decades. Since most autoimmune diseases have a similar immune mechanism like MS, much of the information presented here may also be relevant to those conditions as well. My understanding of MS has changed considerably since the publication of my first book entitled, MS, Something Can Be Done published in 1984 in conjunction with Penelope Grenoble, PhD. At that time, very little was known about the intercellular transmission of chemical signals between white blood cells within the immune system by substances called “cytokines.” Their discovery has brought a much better understanding for all of the autoimmune diseases, and it has stimulated the development of more effective methods for treating these conditions. Further, their discovery has also supported my earlier belief that controlling infection as well as modifying one’s diet is extremely important in controlling MS, a subject that has been emphasized in my current book.

What inspired you to write this book?
I had treated more than 50 MS patients with an equine antiserum over a six-year period between 1971 and 1977. This antiserum was revolutionary at that time. It had been developed by the Department of Transplant Surgery at the University of Minnesota for preventing the rejection of kidney transplants. The antiserum, called antilymphoblastic globulin (ALG), had been prepared against a specific type of white blood cell that was thought to be causing transplant rejection. I had considered MS to be a form of rejection of the nervous system similar to a kidney transplant rejection. It was easy to understand how removal of white blood cells attacking a kidney transplant could prolong its survival. On the other hand, it was more difficult to comprehend why ALG could improve MS even though it was not removing white blood cells already within the brain and spinal cord. Since there was no way to explain this paradox in 1984, I only mentioned the antiserum briefly in my first book. What now has inspired me to write this book is that research over the past three decades has helped “unravel” how the ALG antiserum actually was producing such good results. This explanation together with employing a proper diet can not only improve MS but can also help anyone live a longer and healthier life. Remarkably, many new therapies for MS and other autoimmune diseases now include a number of specific antisera directed against identified targets in the body.

What exciting story are you working on next?
Curiously, in a book of this genre, I have already found ways to improve and elaborate upon the explanations contained in it. Consequently, if I live long enough, I may write a “second” edition, hopefully in the not too distant future.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I have never considered writing as a profession although I have published or been a contributor to a number of medical papers and two other books.

Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
No, but I consider myself lucky to have lived to see the computer replace the encyclopedia, and find the internet marvelously helpful in answering many questions I have on a daily basis. Years ago, I remember talking with a salesman selling a set of encyclopedias. He told me an interesting story (although I don’t know if it was true). He claimed that he had tried to sell a set of encyclopedias to Orson Welles. Mr. Welles had apparently turned him down initially, stating that he knew everything in the encyclopedias. He even proved this by telling the salesman exactly how many bushels of corn was produced in Iowa in 1955. As the salesman turned to leave, Mr. Welles unexpectedly said, “Wait, I think I will buy a set of encyclopedias—then I can prove to others that I really know everything in those books.”

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
My quirk is writing something, then rewriting again and again, and still not being satisfied with what I have written.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I always wanted to fly an airplane. I also wanted to be a doctor. I can proudly say that I have over 1000 hours flying time with a perfect safety record. I am also very glad that I have been able to help patients over the years to the best of my ability.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
My neighbor and I together built a 25x40 foot, two story barn 8 years ago. Also, I have two wonderful golden retrievers, and one border collie that is too smart for his own good. They keep me healthy by exercising me every day!

Thanks for being here today, Robert.

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