The Prodigal Son

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Child Prodigy

imageAugust 4th, 1991 – John Smith is born
August 4th, 1991 – Wen Chyan is born.

1992- 1996 – John Smith watches cartoons
1992-1996 – Wen Chyan watches Baby Einstein

1997- 1999 – John Smith still watches cartoons after school. He particularly enjoys Pokemon
1997- 1999 – Wen Chyan reads books in school, after school, and under the covers

1999- 2002 – John Smith plays little league baseball, hockey, and basketball
1999- 2002 – Wen Chyan takes apart and puts back together father’s radio, mother’s sewing machine, and attempts to do the same to little brother’s face

2003-2004 – John Smith discovers X-Box and Sony Playstation, and is rarely seen
2003-2004 – Wen Chyan discovers JAMA, Advanced Materials Journal, Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal, and is rarely seen

2005-2007 – John Smith graduates to Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and YouTube
2005-2007 – Wen Chyan turns his basement, bedroom, garage, and school locker into mini-laboratories

2008 – John Smith has a long conversation with the guidance counselor about why GED’s are his best bet
2008 – Wen Chyan wins $100,000 in scholarship money from the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology, the country’s premier high school research contest for an invention that should save the life of millions.

You can continue the timeline from here if you want, but you can probably guess which will include stock boy at Wal-Mart, trailer home, and mounted deer heads, and which one will include MIT, biotech IPO, Nobel Prize, and gazillions of dollars.

Wen Chyan actually exists. He is a high-school senior at the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science. He just invented something that should affect the health of millions of Americans, including my family. He invented an anti-microbial coating for medical devices. This coating will combat nosocomial infections, infections that are a result of treatment in a hospital or a healthcare service unit, but secondary to the patient’s original condition.

Over 2,000,000 Americans develop nosocomial infections annually, and for over 100,000 the infection is fatal. There are many reasons for this astonishing number, the simplest being that a hospital is a place with a high concentration of people hosting a smorgasbord of nasty bacteria which like to travel to new locations. They can travel through air ducts or, more commonly, on the clothing or tools of the staff. Even though most hospitals have protocols to try to prevent the spread of bacteria, the protocol is often ignored due to the intense pressure on personnel to tend to many patients at once. Additionally, some of the bacteria just refuse to let go of the tools they’ve latched onto, and are resistant to current antimicrobial soaps or solutions.

With hospital censuses (censi if you speak proper Latin) expected to soar in the next few decades, and bacterial resistance on the rise, the problem of nosocomial infections is one of the most serious challenges facing the medical community in the 21st century. Wen Chyan’s solution is simple, but brilliant. He developed an antimicrobial film that can be applied to a variety of tools which doesn’t allow the bacteria to nest on the tools in the first place. (I’m assuming one of the next steps would be to find a way to apply it to clothing as well.) An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, or in this case, an ounce of prevention could save the lives of millions!

This breakthrough affects me personally and immediately because my wife is a CM-ICU nurse (Cardiac Medical Intensive Care Unit) and often works on a ward dedicated to people who have developed a highly resistant strain of nosocomial infection called ACB, (Acinetobacter if you speak proper Latin). The safety protocols on that ward are enough to drive a rational man insane. Every time you enter a room you must suit up in a protective gown, face mask, gloves, and head covering. Every time you leave the room you must discard what you were wearing. So if you have to go down the hall to get a medication or a chart, you need to take all of the protective gear off only to put on fresh gear a minute later. Additionally, wearing a facemask all day is about as comfortable as burying your face in a sack of slugs. With this new invention, ACB wards could go the way of the Macarena and the eighties, sliding comfortably out of our memories, and making my wife’s life that much easier.

Wen Chyan earned $100,000, won one of the most prestigious science awards in the world, saved millions of lives, and did it all before graduating high school. (He also composes music and plays piano and violin in his spare time.) How did he swing it?

From a very young age Chyan’s parents, both scientists, encouraged him to explore things more important than Pokemon, Facebook, or even the Nintendo Wii. His parents home-schooled him due to the below-average rating the US gets in primary school education in the fields of math and science (despite spending more per-pupil than almost every country in the world). Even more importantly, they not only gave him an excellent education, they actually brought him along with them to the lab. At first they just performed demonstrations for him, but then they encouraged him to participate in their experiments despite his young age. From a tender young age, Wen Chyan learned the value of study, scientific exploration, and experimentation.

Clearly, contrasting Wen Chyan and John Smith is an extreme comparison, but learning about the extremes helps us understand the means. It helps us discern the methods we can use to produce the actions we hope to see in ourselves and others. While we may not be able to produce the next Wen Chyan, we can use similar tactics to produce children who grow up with a zest for spiritual life and helping others. The trick is chinuch. The word chinuch means education in Hebrew, but it has a deeper meaning than simply learning material. Rashi, the primary commentator on the Torah, explains what the function of chinuch is, and how it works. “Chinuch is the entrance of a person or vessel into the craft it will in the later hold” (Genesis, 14:14). Chinuch is putting someone through the motions of what you want them to do later in life.

If you want your child to give charity when he grows up, make sure to give him coins to put in a tzedaka box each day. If you want your child to be neat as an adult, have him clean his own room. If you want your child to love learning when he grows up, study with him while he is young (and make sure it is a positive experience). If you want him to eat healthily when he gets older, provide healthy foods. It is a mitzvah for parents to give their children chinuch in mitzvot even before the children are obligated to perform them. We therefore give our children a lulav to shake, bring them to synagogue to hear shofar, dress them in tzitzit, and a host of other activities

Even if we have no young children, the concept of chinuch still applies to us. If chinuch is the way to get something or someone into a rhythm of doing a particular action, we can give ourselves chinuch. We do so by continually doing the good deeds that we want as part of our life. We can start giving charity every day (even fifty cents a day!) until it is part of our life. We can start eating healthfully until it becomes part of our life. We can keep a few Shabboses and soon find ourselves fitting our lives around it, rather than the other way around. What we do today is the chinuch for tomorrow and will determine how we look in the future.

Chinuch coats our souls with a protective layer, preventing the evil that surrounds us from nesting within, and keeping our souls pure and pristine.

Leiby Burnham, LMSW, is a rabbi, psychotherapist, and writer. He lives in Detroit with his wife, an ICU nurse, who is on strict orders to “leave her patients at work” and their two daughters, Orah and Shifra. Rabbi Burnham works for the Jean and Theodore Weiss Partners in Torah program of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, where he does community outreach, and runs a Jewish educational programs at University of Michigan, Wayne State, and Oakland University. He taught learning-disabled high school students for eight years in NYC, while receiving Rabbinical training at Shor Yoshuv Institute, and obtaining his Masters in Social Work from Yeshiva University.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.