Walking through the halls of the AHA conference last week, I was struck by a few things.
1. There is an extremely high ratio of black suits to friendly, smiling faces on display
2. Orlando has way too much space to occupy. It does so by erecting massive, sprawling convention centers with east and west concourses, all air-conditioned to the point where distal fingers and toes take on a dusky hue…unless you are well padded by a snowsuit or wool jacket or something of the variety of clothing that no one should own in Florida. These concourses are joined by an elaborate series of elevated walkways and shuttles and cabs driving on roads around unnecessary water features, when it would be a perfectly acceptable, and much more soothing, to actually step outside for a minute and walk on the sidewalk.
3. It was brought to my attention by an astute friend conducting an exercise in federal emergency responses that this very large, otherwise ideal, location for an emergency shelter would turn into one giant safety hazard in a hurricane due to the floor-to-ceiling windows, effectively wiping out the population of global cardiovascular researchers in one fell swoop. Morbid, perhaps, but…aren’t there hurricanes in Florida?
4. The food available at a cardiology conference is wickedly engineered to be the most salty, fattening, arterial plaque-inducing stuff imaginable. Somewhere along those ultrabright, endless corridors must have been a portable cath lab. And several intervention cardiologists on-call with the latest breakthrough in arterial roto-rooting.
I think I prepared well for the experience. I packed every black dress that I own, 4 pairs of shoes for a 5-day conference, and my USB drive with the AHA logo emblazened upon it. I also remembered not to smile too much and to walk as if I was going somewhere important at all times. I struggled with the reality of my identity among this very large body of people who spent some of the best moments of their days traveling through other people’s arteries. Do I tell people that I’m not a cardiologist? Do I tell them that I’m a, gasp! General Internal Medicine researcher and primary care physician? I did this about half of the time. As usual, I got the range of responses: politely confused, genuinely interested, “ok, let’s move on,” and, oh, do you work with such-and-such? If the answer was yes (as it usually was), then I was validated. I was excited to see that a major topic during the conference was focused on efforts, research and progress in the prevention of global cardiovascular disease. At last! I have found my people. Unfortunately, while it was heartening to see such emphasis from the AHA body on this cause, the sparsely attended sessions were a let-down. What is it about prevention that is so un-sexy? I suppose I will spend my career trying to change that.
I also realized how much conference-goers stand out against the generally calm Florida backdrop. The first was the abnormally large, RED nametags that we invariably forgot to take off when we went out for lunch (nevermind that everyone in the place had matching adornments). The pace of walking (cardiologists: fast, ignoring the sunshine, moonlight, and other people on the path. General Orlandoans: why walk when we can drive!). The preponderance of technology: iPads, iPhones, tablets, bluetooth earpieces, all designed to communicate with people who are 2000 miles away rather than 2 feet away).
I learned several survival skills for the research/cardiology world. 1. ALWAYS have your talk with you. Always. The optimal place and time to practice your talk with your mentors is in a busy restaurant after several glasses of wine and an alfredo sauce that has slowed down your processing speed to minimal levels of functional capacity. Then we will magically pull out a laptop, after clearing coffee cups and wine glasses to the floor, ledges of potted plants, other people’s tables…I still am dubious that they actually heard what I said. The suggestions, however, were constructive and excellent (even the next day in the clear, sober, frigid conference halls). 2. The only people who you will just “run into” during this conference of 30,000 participants are those who you are trying to avoid. This happened several times with friends there, which usually resulted in us ducking into a darkened presentation room about something genomic and unintelligible. You find yourself trailing the back of a head that looks oddly familiar between boards displaying posters, slumping down in your seat at lunch (which you have chosen to extend until 3 pm on this particular day) when you watch that colleague stroll to an adjacent table. 3. Make time to go to Disney world while in Orlando. Yes, fine, you are no longer 6 years old and don’t have children in tow so cannot blame them for “dragging” you to Epcot, and, fine, you have to go to ALL of the conference sessions on therapeutic hypothermia. But still. Orlando is Orlando for a reason. I didn’t get to go this time, but I’m planning well for my next conference there next May…