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Time Keeps on Slipping


Working at Penn Medicine does weird things to your perception of time, and not in the way that involves staring at the clock.

When I was very little, I remember walking with my parents through the Shore Mall in Egg Harbor Township and passing over a bronze plaque on display in the tile floor. I asked what it was, and my mom and dad explained it was a time capsule. They then went on to explain the very concept of a time capsule, which was entirely new to me—and I’ve been fascinated ever since. The idea of reaching out and connecting with someone else from an entirely different time when the two of you might have nothing more in common than the ground you’re standing on is inherently interesting to me.

Those of us who work at Penn Medicine share stomping grounds with a few centuries’ worth of physicians, educators, and innovators. The whole of this place is like a time capsule that never quite closes: It just keeps collecting and collecting. Now roughly 251 years into its existence, it holds countless trinkets from generations past—and remains eager to take more in as new brilliant minds and new innovations grace its halls. The same institution wherein you can walk halls Benjamin Franklin once walked is the same institution wherein you can find something as remarkably advanced as proton therapy.

There’s an exercise in Stephen King’s phenomenal On Writing that aims to show writing can be a form of telepathy wherein the writer and the reader are connected through time and space by shared experience. It points to that relentless drive within every person to relate—to find a way to frame whatever they’re studying within the safe, understandable realm of their own perspective. In a way, I think that’s the point of a time capsule: To place a stamp on our spot in the timeline of a place and affirm to a generation we may never see that we, y’know, were. That if nothing else, we all have that much in common.

We actually do have a time capsule of the non-figurative variety on Penn Medicine grounds. It was put together in 2009, and placed behind some signage in the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine. Its contents include—among other things— a CD, a Blackberry, some presidential election memorabilia, a SEPTA map, and a stethoscope.

I've written here before about how incredible the march of medical technology has been and continues to be, but to me, the stethoscope is the most interesting passenger on that time capsule. The earliest version of the stethoscope was invented in 1816, making this its 200th year—and yet seven years ago, there we were dropping it into a time capsule. Incoming medical school students still receive their stethoscopes at the white coat ceremony. It's still a perfectly viable medical instrument. It'd be safe to say that someone opening the Perelman Center time capsule 50 years from now may not even know what the CD is when they see it, but they'll almost certainly know what that stethoscope's for. While countless medical practices and devices have fallen by the wayside due to a lack of efficacy (or, for that matter, the outright harm they actually did to a patient), something as simple as the stethoscope has endured. That centuries-old device can be used to listen to something as unfathomably advanced as an artificial heart: the old meeting the new, separated only by the chest wall.

It's that melding of the old and the new that reaches the heart—no pun intended—of what I mean when I say working at Penn Medicine does weird things to your perception of time. The surgical amphitheatre in Pennsylvania Hospital's Pine Building predates the stethoscope by 12 years. You can tour it to get a look at what medicine was like several centuries ago. Mere steps away from the Pine Building, you can get a broken ankle taken care of (trust me on this one) by skilled physicians wielding advanced equipment those doctors from the early 1800s wouldn't even recognize.

Chemist Eamonn Healy talks in Richard Linklater's Waking Life about the telescoping evolution of humanity, and in doing so he points out that advances in the human experience are speeding up: Whereas it took us roughly 10,000 years to go from the agricultural revolution to the scientific revolution, it took us only a few hundred years to go from the scientific revolution to the industrial revolution—and we've only kept accelerating. Technology has advanced so quickly over the past half-century alone that many of our buildings can't help but hold vestiges of it. This is, of course, true outside of the health system as well: You need only look as far as the unused phone jacks around your home or office for proof of that.

It could very well be that in another 200 years, the stethoscope is a long-forgotten tool—no different to someone opening a time capsule than the CD and Blackberry sitting next to it. The same might be said of the X-ray you'd use today to get a broken ankle looked at. In fact, the pace at which technology advances means someone making a medically oriented time capsule today might only need to keep it buried for a few decades before someone else opening it marvels at the "antiquated" objects within.

Part of what makes working at Penn Medicine interesting is its concurrent reverence for medicine's past and relentless push toward medicine's future. Being in touch with both at the same time can occasionally get disarming, but there's no better way to understand both where we've been and where we might be going.

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