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A Memory for the Future

By Brian W. Simpson

A trail of fire and sparks stabbed the night sky.

I had fired off either a Roman candle or a bottle rocket during a backyard Fourth of July party many years ago. Fire. Explosion. Loud noise. Smoke. For a 7-year-old boy, those are fun’s most satisfying ingredients.

For the first time, I had set off fireworks myself. I felt a surge of pride and leaned against the charcoal grill in which my dad had cooked the evening’s hamburgers and hot dogs. Searing pain shot through my arms. My parents rushed me to the hospital. The party was over.

At some point while we were pulling together our special section on youth and public health, this story came back to me. A moment from childhood, a flash of experience, a sudden transformation of joy into something else. How quickly a young life can shift. Sensing parallels with the section’s topic, my brain unearthed the memory and brought it to the fore.

We call the section “Beginnings, Bright and Dark” because it best reflects the theme. Across cultures, youth represents promise, a future of possibilities. That’s what all parents want for their children. Yet reality sometimes delivers something quite different.

The stories in our special section look into some of life’s darkest corners:  child sexual abuse, adolescent suicide, childhood obesity and early origins of chronic disease. These are manifestly difficult issues, topics most people would rather not think about.

Fortunately, many public health experts do not shy away from a challenge. They push the concept of prevention toward the earliest possible opportunity to make a difference. Researcher Elizabeth Letourneauconfronts conventional wisdom about child sexual abuse with myth-exploding evidence. Xiaobin Wanguntangles incredibly complex threads that link a child’s in utero environment to his or her risk for hypertension or diabetes decades later. Youfa Wang tackles the expanding global childhood obesity epidemic. And White Mountain Apaches collaborate with our School’s Center for American Indian Health to prevent youth suicides.

In late March, I was fortunate enough to travel to the White Mountain Apache Reservation in eastern Arizona and see firsthand their remarkable efforts. When I spoke with tribal chairman Ronnie Lupe, he said, “We live and breathe knowing there is tons and tons of work to be done yet.”

When it comes to ensuring the best possible future for our children, that’s true for all of us.