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TODAY news for Thursday, June 30, 2008

Loma Linda University news

Taking China and Mongolia to the Grand Canyon—part 2

Left to right: �Anthony� Pan Xiaohong, PhD; �Mary� Wang Huiying, PhD; �Grace� Wang Huiping, PhD; Aaron Marson, MBA; �Zola� Munkhzul Byambaa, MS; and Undrakh-Erdene Erdenebold, MD.
Intrepid Grand Canyon explorers from China, Mongolia, and Loma Linda pose for a snapshot in Barstow. Left to right: “Anthony” Pan Xiaohong, PhD; “Mary” Wang Huiying, PhD; “Grace” Wang Huiping, PhD; Aaron Marson, MBA; “Zola” Munkhzul Byambaa, MS; and Undrakh-Erdene Erdenebold, MD. 
Zola admires Norman’s handmade wooden jewelry boxes so much that he insists she take one. Zola is elated; she grins as someone snaps a picture of the two of them holding his artful creation on the front porch. After that, our whole international entourage gets into the picture and beams from ear to ear!

As we head back onto the road, Zola and Undrakh get into a lengthy conversation about all things Mongolian. Grace falls asleep in the back row, Mary and Anthony hold forth in rapid-fire Chinese, and I take pictures of the golden hills in dramatic sunset light. Aaron says Hoover Dam is our next stop.

As we coast across the rim of Hoover Dam, the giant structure looks amazing. Fading colors of evening bathe its enormous concrete walls in elegant hues. We pull to a stop and pile out. Everybody’s taking pictures.

In another hour, we pull into the parking lot beside the Flamingo Las Vegas. We drag our luggage into the elevator, ride to the ground floor, walk around the corner, take a side entrance into the establishment, and line up at the checkout counter. There’s a problem, though: try as hard as she might, the concierge can’t find a reservation under the name of Loma Linda University.

“Wait a minute,” I reply, grabbing a note from my pocket. “It says here we’ve got four rooms reserved at the Flamingo! The confirmation numbers are …”

“Sir,” the concierge interrupts. “This is Bill’s Gambling Hal
The Grand Canyon is beautiful in every season of the year, even February. Here, a lone tree stands sentinel over the Colorado River at Desert View.
The Grand Canyon is beautiful in every season of the year, even February. Here, a lone tree stands sentinel over the Colorado River at Desert View.
l And Casino. The Flamingo is next door. Just go through the door and turn right.”

By the time we finally check into our rooms at the Flamingo, it’s 9:15 p.m.

Everybody’s famished. We cross the walkway linking this side of the Las Vegas Strip with Caesar’s Palace. If we hadn’t seen the Grand Canyon this morning, we might have been impressed at the size of Caesar’s. A visitor could walk for hours and never see it all, but compared to the South Rim, this is small potatoes. Little tiny tater tots, really. The Canyon’s 200 miles long!

I’ve always disliked the pervasive unreality of Las Vegas. It seems tawdry and exaggerated to me, no matter what the corporations that run the town say to the contrary. The architecture’s impressive and the food’s not bad, but I prefer the natural grandeur of stone canyons and dark woods to this glittery gulch of flashy hucksterism and seductive buffoonery. But our guests from China and Mongolia want to see Las Vegas, so here we are.

After dinner at the Cheesecake Factory, I ask Aaron to take charge of the group for the rest of the night. I’m the old guy on the trip and my energy’s fading fast. He agrees, and I head back to the room and collapse into bed. Aaron drags in a few hours later and says everyone is too tired to go on.

At the crack of 9:00 the next morning, we meet in the hallway with our luggage in tow, load the van, find an open restaurant, devour breakfast, climb back into the van, and get ready to let whatever happened in Vegas stay there. Unfortunately, Anthony spots a humongous rollercoaster at a casino. 

“Let’s ride that!” he exclaims.

“Yeah,” replies everyone but Aaron and me. “Let’s do!”

“Naw,” Aaron says. “That’s too lame. Let’s go to the Stratosphere and ride something 900 feet off the ground!”

That sounds like a great height for airliners and flying squirrels on steroids, but 900 feet is way too high for this landlubber. Apparently not, however, for an invisible imp who sometimes whispers ridiculous suggestions in my ear. He says I’m too old to wimp out on an opportunity like this.

“Get lost!” I order the imp. 

“What’s the matter?” he sneers. “Are you chicken?”

It’s a losing battle. After an hour of dialogue—not only with the imp, but also with Aaron, Zola, and Anthony (who,  I must say, are acting a lot like imps!)—I finally climb into a dangling merry-go-round with 900 feet of empty space beneath my feet. It takes all my will; it leaves my stomach in knots!

Nevertheless, the bragging rights are terrific: as the interminable ride comes to an end, I suddenly realize that I just conquered my fear of death. It seems like my humble duty, thank you very much, to remind my colleagues of that fact all the way back to California! I feel empowered, adrenalized, invincible.

But somewhere between Primm, Nevada, and Baker, California, a twist in the conversation catches me off guard. One of the Asian doctors is talking about differences in the way medicine is practiced in our respective countries when I ask for a candid evaluation of the eight-week mentorship program Loma Linda University offers through the office of international affairs.

My guest comments on the strengths of the program and singles out how the individual mentors give so much of themselves to maximize the benefits for their guests from overseas, then shocks me with an unexpected conclusion.

“You know,” the doctor says, “what impresses me the most is the fact that at Loma Linda, you pray with your patients. One doctor I followed on clinical rounds prayed with every patient. We don’t do that in my country, but maybe we should. It offers an extra treatment modality that we don’t have.”

My friend turns toward the window. A lava-strewn hillside looms up large, then whizzes by at 70 miles per hour. Ten miles away, a dormant cinder cone punctuates the sky. Everywhere I look, the Mojave Desert is a delight in serene visual beauty. My doctor friend turns back for one final comment.

“I think I’ll start praying with my patients when I get back home. Of course, I’ll have to become a Christian first. I think I’ll do that, too.”

I mumble my startled congratulations and turn back to the window to reflect on the trip. It was wonderful seeing the haunting ruins of Wupatki, the vanishing elk herd at Grand Canyon, and the stupendous beauty of the Canyon itself. And conquering my fear of death in Vegas wasn’t too bad, either. Still, God topped it all with that revelation from the Asian physician.

“That’s what I like about a trip like this,” I think to myself. “You never know what you’ll find around the next bend in the road.”

By James Ponder

TODAY news for Thursday, June 30, 2008