“Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” from “Les Miserables”

A young man mourns his friends killed during a revolution

“Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” is a song from the musical “Les Miserables” based on the book of the same title by Victor Hugo.

Poster for the musical "Les Miserables" which features the song "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables"

Credit: metro.co.uk

In the show, one of the characters, Marius, has joined a student revolution to try to improve the quality of life for the poor in France. The revolution is a disaster. School boys prove no match for the French military. Marius is seriously wounded and his friends are killed.

When Marius is well enough to be up and around again, he returns to the bar where he and his friends planned the revolution. There, he mourns his losses.

The tune of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” is simple and mournful; the lyrics are direct. The song begins:

“There’s a grief that can’t be spoken

There’s a pain goes on and on.

Empty chairs at empty tables,

Now my friends are dead and gone.

Here they talked of revolution,

Here it was they lit the flame,

Here they sang about tomorrow.

But tomorrow never came.”

As the song continues, Marius realizes that the reasons for fighting that had once seemed so important to him no longer matter. “My friends, my friends! Don’t ask me what your sacrifice was for!” he cries out.

Marius’s grief is all the more sharp because all of his friends have died. The death of a lone loved one is hard enough to endure. But to lose several loved ones at once is agonizing.

A single, lonely chair symbolizes "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables"

Credit: tolovearose.com

Multiple deaths may occur as the result of an accident; an act of war as in Marius’s case; an act of terrorism; or an epidemic. Often, the people who get out alive suffer a condition known as survivor’s guilt. People with survivor’s guilt feel that they somehow did something wrong by staying alive while those around them perished.

One of the symptoms of survivor’s guilt is flashbacks. And in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” Marius is clearly flashing back to how he and his friends planned the revolution, hoping to make the world a better place. Realizing that nothing changed in spite of their efforts and the sacrifice of so many lives makes his grief much more difficult to bear.

“Les Miserables” premiered at the height of the AIDS crisis. And so it was common to hear this song at fundraisers and funerals where the LGBTQ community mourned their dead.

The actor Michael Ball first performed the English version of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” when he debuted the role of Marius in London’s West End in 1985. Since then, many others, including Nick Jonas and Josh Groban, have sung the song. In the movie version of the “Les Miserables” it was performed by Eddie Redmayne.

“Les Miserables” is a beautiful tale of loss and redemption. If you get the chance to see the play, grab it! It’s well worth the price of a seat. In the meantime, watch Michael Ball sing “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” in the video below, and check out the full lyrics here.

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FDA Approves New Drug for Sickle Cell Disease

Endari is the first new FDA-approved treatment in 20 years for this debilitating disease
Sickle cell disease causes abnormally shaped red blood cells shown here

Sickle-shaped red blood cells under a microscope
Credit: africanleadership.co.uk

A new drug, Endari, has just received FDA approval for the treatment of sickle cell disease. The medication is the first new sickle cell therapy to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration in over 20 years.

Endari is manufactured by a privately held biotech company, Emmaus Medical, Inc. of Torrance, California. Emmaus has marketed a nutraceutical-grade version of the drug, L-glutamine, (NutreStore®) as a treatment for short bowel syndrome since 2004. L-glutamine is also widely available without a prescription at drugstores across the United States, albeit in much smaller doses than those the FDA recommends for sickle cell disease.

The FDA granted Endari Orphan Drug status, a designation reserved for medicines that treat serious diseases that affect only a small portion of the population. Sickle cell disease affects about 100,000 men, women and children in the United States, most of them of African American descent.

About Sickle Cell Disease

Sickle cell disease, or sickle cell anemia, is an inherited disorder of hemoglobin, a component of red blood cells. In persons with the disease, abnormal hemoglobin causes the red blood cells to become fragile and misshapen, especially when the body is under stress (such as from dehydration or an infection). These fragile cells break easily, which causes anemia (a decrease in the number of circulating red blood cells). And because of their abnormal “sickle” shape, they easily become lodged in small blood vessels throughout the body, causing severe pain. The disease also causes organ dysfunction, especially in the liver, spleen and lungs.

Photo of a child in a hospital bed

Endari is the first sickle cell treatment approved for children
Credit: ladybud.com

People with sickle cell disease spend a great deal of time in the hospital and generally suffer a diminished quality of life. Fatigue and pain are common, and life-threatening complications, such as severe anemia, heart failure, lung injury and bacterial pneumonia often occur. Although life expectancy for sickle cell patients has improved considerably over the last few decades, their average lifespan is still only about 50 years.

Sickle cell disease is caused by an autosomal recessive gene, which means a person must inherit an abnormal gene from both parents to have the disease. People who have one copy of the abnormal gene do not have symptoms of sickle cell disease.

What Endari Does

Endari is not a cure for sickle cell disease. However, in clinical trials, it decreased the number of painful “crises” by about one per year in people who had at least two attacks in the previous 12 months. The FDA felt this was a significant benefit, especially in patients who had four or more painful crises per year.

People treated with Endari also had fewer hospital visits for pain treatment; fewer hospitalizations for sickle cell pain; and spent fewer days in the hospital than those treated with a placebo. Perhaps most significantly, they also had fewer episodes of acute chest syndrome, the leading cause of death in adults with sickle cell disease.

Endari is not yet commercially available. Emmaus plans to begin marketing the drug in the fourth quarter of 2017. The company has not yet announced the price, but Endpoints reports that the company anticipates “the list price range will be approximately $11,000 to $18,000 per year depending on dosing.” Insofar as most people with sickle cell disease are on Medicare or Medicaid, that price point may be a hard sell.

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“When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what the storm’s all about.”

- Haruki Murakami
Woman looking out over a gathering storm

Credit: sun-surfer.com

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Extra-Virgin Olive Oil May Protect the Brain Against Alzheimer’s

New study reports that extra-virgin olive oil could protect against cognitive decline

Extra-virgin olive oil may protect against cognitive decline, according to a new study recently published in the Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology. The study, conducted by researchers at Temple University, concludes that extra-virgin olive oil contributed to the preservation of memory and helped protect against the development of classic markers of Alzheimer’s Disease in the brains of mice.

Bottle of extra-virgin olive oil

“Brain cells from mice fed diets enriched with extra-virgin olive oil had higher levels of autophagy and reduced levels of amyloid plaques and phosphorylated tau,” said Dr. Domenico Praticò, one of the lead researchers of the study. Autophagy is a process in which cells discard debris and toxins, such as amyloid plaques and tau tangles. Phosphorylated tau is a substance that causes neurofibrillary tangles. Scientists believe that these tangles contribute to the deterioration of nerve cell function in the brain, which in turn is responsible for symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

Dr. Pratico and colleagues used an established Alzheimer’s disease mouse model to study the effects of extra-virgin olive oil on dementia. In this triple transgenic model, the mice develop three important characteristics of the illness: memory impairment, amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. The team then divided the animals into two groups. They fed one group a regular chow diet, while they fed the second group a diet enriched with extra-virgin olive oil. They added the oil to the diets at the six-month marker, before Alzheimer’s symptoms developed.

At the nine and twelve-month checkpoints, mice received the olive oil-enriched diet performed better on working memory, spatial memory and learning ability tests. The scientists studied brain tissues from both groups after the experiment’s conclusion and saw significant differences in nerve cell appearance and function. The connections between neurons, known as synapses, were preserved in the group exposed to olive oil. Brain cells from the olive oil group also showed a boost in nerve cell autophagy activation, which is responsible for reduced levels of amyloid plaques and phosphorylated tau.

“Thanks to the autophagy activation, memory and synaptic integrity were preserved,” said Dr. Pratico, “and the pathological effects in animals otherwise destined to develop Alzheimer’s disease were significantly reduced. This is a very important discovery, since we suspect that a reduction in autophagy marks the beginning of Alzheimer’s disease.”

“Taken together,” the researchers wrote, “our findings provide strong experimental support for the translational value of extra-virgin olive oil as a therapeutic tool with potential disease-modifying activity for Alzheimer’s Disease since it beneficially influenced all three major aspects of the Alzheimer’s phenotype in the implemented disease model.”

Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

The article also makes mention of the fact that Mediterranean diets are associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline. Previous studies have shown that people in Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Greece have a longer life expectancy and lower instances of cardiovascular disease and dementia than populations where other diets are the norm. Mediterranean folks tend to eat large amounts of fresh fruit and vegetables, cereals, beans and legumes. Extra-virgin olive oil is a primary source of fat for people in that region.Cinque Terre, Italy symbolizing the Mediterranean region where extra-virgin olive oil is a dietary staple

“The thinking is that extra-virgin olive oil is better than fruits and vegetables alone,” said Dr. Pratico, “and as a monounsaturated vegetable fat it is healthier than saturated animal fats.”

It is clear that diet is extremely important to our overall well-being. Our diets not only supply us with the necessary energy required throughout the day, they also have long-term ramifications. Though this study by no means proposes that eating olive oil is a way to completely prevent dementia, it’s definitely food for thought. Maybe next time I need to buy cooking oil, I’ll reach for the olive oil first.

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Monday Hearts for Madalene

Page Hodel creates beautiful hearts as a tribute to enduring love
hearts made of pink and lavender flowers

Beautiful flowers for my beautiful love

It’s an honor for SevenPonds to share with our readers the story of the Monday Hearts for Madalene project, a true account of the power of love in the midst of death. The project’s origins take us to 2005: the moment Page Hodel encountered Madalene Rodriguez and fell “instantly, dizzyingly in love with her.” The couple’s first meeting was electric, and Page felt inspired to do something unique for the woman who captured her heart. So, she began leaving handmade hearts – made from flowers, leaves, and other materials – on Madalene’s doorstep. The hearts became a ritual, and they were there to greet Madalene as she left for work every Monday.

“To start her week with a visual reminder of our beautiful love.”Page Hodel

Just seven months later, Madalene was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and passed away on June 20th, 2006. But Page’s love for her hasn’t ceased, and she continues to make a heart for her every Monday in celebration of her life.

If you would like, you can also receive Page’s “Monday Hearts for Madalene” by emailing her at page.hodel@gmail.com with “subscribe” written as the subject. Images of the hearts can also be purchased in her beautifully compiled book, Monday Hearts for Madelene. Please also visit her website and Facebook page. A portion of all sales will go to the Women’s Cancer Resource Center in Oakland, California (www.wcrc.org). See more Monday Hearts for Madalene here.

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Hofheide Crematorium Uses Shadow to Create A Work of Art

Modern crematoriums abandon architectural norms in favor of bold designs
A photo of Hofheide Crematorium, featuring a long line of metal pieces lined up next to each other on the side of the building

Credit: OMGEVING

In the past, a crematorium had one simple purpose: to cremate the dead. Today, many families now gather in these spaces to remember loved ones. But most crematoriums still lack bold decor or elaborate architecture. They’re not the warmest, friendliest places to visit. Often, they’re just basic buildings designed to be as unobtrusive and utilitarian as possible. But Hofheide Crematorium in Holsbeek, Belgium breaks this stereotype.

The Hofheide Crematorium is a sleek, modern, artistic piece of architecture that isn’t afraid to be eye-catching. The subcontractor group who made Hofheide Crematorium, OMGEVING, crafted intricate metal plates all along the sides of the structure that tilt at varying angles. From a distance, the metal pieces almost look like reeds sticking out of the shallow water basin below.

A photo of Hofheide Crematorium, with a close up of the calm water of the swamp, with water plants growing at the center

Credit: OMGEVING

As a result of their unique tilt, the sun hits these metal “reeds” at different angles throughout the day, creating a new line of shadows each hour. When you visit Hofheide Crematorium in the early morning, you’ll see what appears to be an entirely different building than the one you see in the evening. The moving shadows represent the changes that we go through as we move from life to death. And they highlight the fact that we can find beauty in every stage of life, including our twilight hours.

A Place for Contemplation

The building evokes a sense of calm contemplation in its visitors, which derives in part from of the contrast between wild, ethereal nature and cold, hard industrialism. The building sits at the end of a gorgeous nature park, surrounded by the still waters of the swamp basin below. The architects carefully rusted each one of the steel reeds so that they blend seamlessly into the earthy environment around the building. They also used deep brown stone in the building itself to tie the structure into the background.

All of this careful planning gives Hofheide Crematorium a meditative feel, which the architects continue on the inside of the crematorium.  There you’ll see moving shadows that come from strategically placed skylights and window openings. The seating is simple and deep brown (almost black), once again blending into the rest of the structure.

A photo of people walking along the trail next to the Hofheide Crematorium

Credit: OMGEVING

You won’t find elaborate flower arrangements or lacy details inside. The designers maintained a clean, uncluttered atmosphere in every room. This reserved minimalism keeps the crematorium non-denominational, allowing families to bring their own religious beliefs, or lack thereof, into the space. And it also promotes deep thought. As you walk through the space, your mind isn’t distracted by artwork or elaborate decorations; it has room to wander.

The two groups who designed the concept behind Hofheide Crematorium (RCR Aranda Pigem Vilalta S.P and COUSSÉE & GORIS) earned multiple awards for their work, including the sought-after Pritzker prize. And it’s easy to understand why. The crematorium is one of the best examples of the latest trend in artistic funeral spaces. The architects who designed the Hofheide Crematorium and others like them are changing the way we think about funerals and cremation. Perhaps they will also help shape a more modern attitude toward death and dying in our society one day.

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