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‘New Year miracle’ twins delivered in Toronto apartment lobby

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When Melissa Arrubla saw her twin boy’s head sliding out between her legs, the Toronto woman knew she didn’t have time to get to the hospital to deliver her babies.

Crouching beside a bench in the lobby of her parents’ apartment building on Dixon Rd., she had her younger brother call their mother waiting in the driveway, who had dashed out minutes ago to pick up the family van. With the boy’s cord still attached, they all panicked when the twin girl emerged, legs first.

Melissa Arrubla and Anderson, 7, hold Elian and Elena.
Melissa Arrubla and Anderson, 7, hold Elian and Elena.  (Steve Russell / Toronto Star)

“Call 911!” Arrubla yelled at her mother, Liliana, who was trying to catch the baby while she also tried to get through to the emergency services.

That commotion set the scene of the family’s memorable New Year’s Day as they ushered in little Elian at 5:03 a.m. and Elena, who arrived 12 minutes later.

“We started our new year with a bang,” Arrubla said with a chuckle while resting in her bed at Etobicoke General Hospital. “What happened was surreal, but I’m glad we’re here and everyone is okay.

Arrubla had just visited the hospital in the evening of Dec. 31 for a final cervical gel treatment and had celebrated New Year’s Eve with a McDonald’s meal before she was to return at 8:30 a.m. the next day to deliver the twins through induced labour.

She and her mother had set the alarm on their cell phones for 6:30 a.m., but, by the time the alarms went off, Arrubla had already delivered.

Arrubla said she started feeling consistent pains around 4:30 a.m. on New Year’s Day and immediatley woke up her mother, realizing the twins simply couldn’t wait for another four hours.

“We knew we got to go. We didn’t even have time to grab our jackets,” recalled Arrubla, 28, who left home with just a thin blue sweater, striped pyjama pants and pink flats. “I could feel the head of the baby coming out and I told Junior to get mom right away.”

With her Honda Odyssey outside still running, Liliana rushed into the lobby and looked in horror at Elian’s head emerging from under her daughter, who was bending over with her legs apart.

“Her pants were pulled down and I saw the head of the baby,” said the still-emotional grandmother. “I just grabbed the baby inside her pants and started rubbing his head to make sure he’s breathing. He had blood all over and was slimey and slippery. I told my son to get my husband to bring us towels and blankets to keep the baby warm.”

With one arm holding the baby boy — still with his umbiblical cord attached to the mother, Liliana spoke to the dispatcher while waiting for the ambulance to arrive.

“My daughter is having twins and we are in the lobby,” the 49-year-old grandmother remembered telling the dispatcher. “We have no scissors, nothing to cut the cord.”

Assignment Editor Amber Shortt explains how reporters found Melissa Arrubla and her twin boys, which were delivered in a Toronto apartment lobby. All three are doing fine.

With the help of her son and husband, Liliana sat Arrubla down beside the bench while she tried to calm everyone’s nerves.

Then they saw Elena’s tiny feet and her legs emerging from under Arrubla.

“Elena was half way out. She wasn’t showing her arms and we were afraid to do anything in case she got her cord around her neck. I told Melissa don’t push no more. We didn’t know what to do and must wait for the paramedics,” said Liliana, still shaken. “The paramedics arrived within five, six minutes, but that felt an eternity for us.”

Three ambulances and one fire truck showed up and took over. One pair of paramedics attended Elian as the other pair tried to rescue Elena who was still stuck.

Jesse McArthur, one of four paramedics attending the call, said time is crucial in delivering a breech birth.

Grandmother Liliana Arrubla looks over her newest grandchildren Elian and Elena.
Grandmother Liliana Arrubla looks over her newest grandchildren Elian and Elena.  (Steve Russell/Toronto Star)

“It’s the kind of scenario that we are trained for, but they don’t happen often. The fact that we had a breech baby upped the urgency of the call,” said McArthur, who arrived with his partner, Ross Thomas, minutes after the call and had not been involved in a delivery in his five-and-a-half years’ experience as a paramedic.

“This was unique, because we were not delivering a baby in our truck or at home, but in the lobby of an apartment building. This was far from what we had expected at 5 a.m. on New Year’s day.”

McArthur credited his two colleagues, Sara Richard and Lyndsay Piper, who safely delivered the breech birth, as well as Arrubla’s mother for keeping everyone’s nerves in check. When Elena finally came into the world, the paramedics passed Liliana the scissors to cut the baby girl’s cord.

“That was so perfect. Everything was so beautiful,” said Liliana, looking at her granddaughter as she held her at the hospital.

On her way to hospital with her twins, Arrubla called and broke the news of the births to her husband, Sebastian Cuartas, a welder. He was at work and supposed to meet her at the hospital at 8 a.m. for the planned induced delivery. “He’s had twins on his side of the family and he was just overwhelmed,” Arrubla said.

Elena, who was born 6 pounds 5 ounces, was put on a respirator for oxygen briefly and her brother, 6 pounds 8 ounces, had to stay in hospital for treatment of his high red blood cell count. Despite the commotion, the family did manage to track down the twins’ times of birth through cell phone records to one another and the authorities.

Both Arrubla and her mother said they were grateful to the paramedics and the dispatcher who helped bring the twins into the world safely.

Mother and grandmother were happy that Elian and Elena were a quick labour amounting to just 45 minutes, compared to the nine-hour labour for their big brother, Anderson, now 7, and seven hours for big sister, Cataleya, now 6.

“Thank you for getting it so fast. They did an amazing job,” said Arrubla, who just started her University of Guelph-Humber online degree program in early childhood education in September and is set to start her new semester on Monday.

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung

Jason Miller is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Reach him on email: jasonmiller@thestar.ca

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Ecology

What if a jolt of electricity could make you happy?

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Scientists found a way to literally spark joy using joly of electricity. (Credit: icon99/shutterstock)

Scientists found a way to literally spark joy using jolts of electricity. (Credit: icon99/shutterstock)

People all around the world (or at least where Netflix is available) have been exhausting themselves of late trying to “spark joy” in their lives. The urge comes from cleaning guru Marie Kondo, whose philosophy rests on the principle that we should rid our homes and minds of things that don’t inspire bursts of pleasure.

The message resonates, in part, because it ties positivity to the world of material things. Happiness is in our minds. So having a tangible mechanism for producing joy is understandably comforting.

But there’s a simpler way to spark joy, if we really want to get literal about it. Any emotion we feel has a physical cause inside our brains. Electrical charges pass from neuron to neuron, spreading ripples of thought and feeling. What we call happiness is just electricity. And now researchers say they’ve found a remarkably specific means of triggering the electrical fireworks that add up to happiness in our brains. By electrically stimulating a brain region known as the cingulum, scientists created spontaneous laughter and a sense of calm and joy in three different patients.

The find could lead to treatments for anxiety and depression, and it hints at insights into the very roots of our emotions themselves.

An artist's illustration shows how an electrode tapped into the cingulum. (Credit: From Bijanki et al, J. Clin. Invest. (2019). Courtesy of American Society for Clinical Investigation)

An artist’s illustration shows how an electrode tapped into the cingulum. (Courtesy of American Society for Clinical Investigation)

Unexpected Bliss

The young woman is clad in hospital garb, sitting upright in a bed. A white hospital cap mushrooms above her head, wires splay from its rear. She’s due for brain surgery in a few days to treat a difficult, disruptive kind of epilepsy. She’s been worried and anxious.

She breaks into a radiant smile, laughter flowing uninhibited.

“I’m kind of like smiling because I can’t help it,” she says. A bit later, “Sorry, that’s just a really good feeling. That’s awesome.”

Neuroscientists just administered a tiny jolt of electricity to wires threaded through her skull and into her brain. The wires are there to guide surgeons to the source of her seizures. But before the procedure, she’s agreed to play guinea pig to a team of Emory University researchers.

Patients like her offer an unprecedented opportunity for researchers to test the workings of various brain regions with unparalleled specificity. By delivering targeted bursts of electricity through the electrodes, they can watch what happens when specific neural circuits are activated.

The team was sending small bursts of electricity to her cingulum, a horseshoe of brain matter that links to regions associated with emotion, self-assessment, social interaction and motivation, among other things. It’s also known to regulate anxiety and depression.

This kind of research, though hardly common, is not new. The patient’s reaction is.

“It was really exciting,” says Kelly Bijanki, a neuroscientist at Emory University who studies behavioral neuromodulation. She was one of the scientists working with the young woman, whose name was not given for privacy reasons, that day. She says the kind of spontaneous joy she saw was unprecedented.

Experiments with brain stimulation have elicited laughter and smiles before. But those responses seemed mechanical. Bijanki says the patients usually described it as a purely motor response. “Their body has laughed, but there’s no content to it.”

This case was different. There was real warmth behind the laughter; true happiness in her voice. At one point, the patient reported she was “so happy she could cry,” the researchers write in their paper.

“The way she was laughing was really infectious,” Bijanki says. “The whole room felt different: she was laughing, she was having a good time, and not afraid. Just that social, emotional contagion took over.”

Further tests confirmed the response. They conducted sham trials, telling the patient that they were providing stimulation when they weren’t. She didn’t react. They tested various levels of stimulation and saw that the more electricity they delivered, the stronger the joyous reaction was. The pattern remained the same: An initial burst of exultation faded into a state of happy relaxation after several seconds.

The researchers found no drawbacks to the treatment, either, they report in a paper in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. Her language skills and memory remained perfectly intact, and they saw no ill aftereffects of the stimulation.

In a screengrab from the scientists' experiment, the patient feels overwhelming joy even while pondering her dog dying. (Credit:)

In a screengrab from the scientists’ experiment, the patient feels overwhelming joy even while pondering her dog dying. (Credit: Bijanki et al, Journal of Clinical Investigation)

Put to the Test

The woman’s impending surgery would require her to remain awake while surgeons probed inside her skull. Their goal was to cut out the tissue responsible for her epilepsy, but it’s a game of millimeters. Doctors must remove enough to ensure that seizures don’t recur, but without causing permanent harm. The patient’s seizures appeared to emanate from a region near to language processing centers. Her job was to stay awake while surgeons worked, reading and talking to ensure they wouldn’t excise anything important.

The brain stimulation turned out to work so well that doctors were able to cut out completely the drugs used to manage anxiety during this type of brain surgery. Those medications can make patients sleepy and unresponsive, so the anesthesiologist decided to stop them midway through. The young woman, her skull opened to surgical tools, breezed through.

“During the surgery … she was telling me jokes about her dad, where prior to turning on the stimulation she had been crying and hyperventilating and right on the edge of panic,” Bijanki says.

To confirm their findings, the researchers performed the same tests with two more epilepsy patients with electrodes similarly implanted in their skulls. They got the same results. Jabs of electricity literally sparking joy inside their heads.

Putting Happiness to Work

It’s too simplistic to say the researchers have stumbled upon the place where joy hides within us. The brain is complex, and emotions well up from more than just a single place. Multiple brain regions are involved, and each contributes a facet to the emotion that we come to know as happiness.

In fact, researchers have found joy in another place in the brain as well. Sameer Sheth, a neurosurgeon at the Baylor College of Medicine, says that he’s had patients report feelings of euphoria during the course of his own work with brain stimulation as well. He was working with the ventral striatum, a region separate from the cingulum, though the two are tightly connected.

Stimulation to the ventral striatum has also produced the same sort of laughter and mood elevation that Bijanki saw, Sheth says.

But just because emotions are neurologically complex doesn’t mean there’s no value to understanding their origins.

“The more we understand this circuitry, the more we can fine tune how to harness that capability within an individual and the better we’ll be able to treat patients with mood disorders,” Sheth says.

Bijanki sees a range of applications for brain stimulation aimed at specific targets, beginning with the kind of surgeries the young epileptic was undergoing. By precluding the use of sedatives, the find might give brain surgeons new options when performing the kind of procedures the young woman went through. Allowing patients to give more feedback could make brain surgeries more targeted. It might also expand the scope of neurosurgery.

“The definition of what is an inoperable tumor is in some circumstances related to what is the surgeon reasonably comfortable with removing that isn’t going to ruin the patients life,” Bijanki says. “If the surgeon could know that in real time, then the surgery could proceed a little bit differently.”

More broadly, it could also find use as a treatment for mental disorders like depression, anxiety and PTSD. Bijanki imagines electrodes powered by a pacemaker battery delivering continuous, low-grade stimulation to patients with depressive disorders.

In the future, we may not even need wires to spark such emotions. Scientists are developing means of activating brain regions with pulses of light, or with ultrasound. Flashes and vibrations could one day deliver ease to the afflicted.

There are drugs that accomplish similar things today, of course, but those often have side effects, and the treatment isn’t always as direct. Brain stimulation could offer a better path.

Banish the Sadness

Bijanki was also struck by an odd side-effect of the stimulation. Though patients had no trouble recalling sad memories during treatment, the recollections were wholly powerless to make them feel unhappy.

“I remember my dog dying, and I remember that it was a sad memory, but I don’t feel sad about it right now,” the young woman said, as reported by the researchers in their paper. Another patient concurred, unable to recollect a tragic memory without smiling. The effect is slightly jarring, but it could provide a shield of sorts to those overcoming trauma.

Those suffering from PTSD often go through what’s called exposure therapy, where they are asked to repeatedly sift through memories of a traumatic event. The goal is to drain those memories of their fearsome power over time, but it is difficult, frightening work.

Paired with temporary brain stimulation that elides sadness, Bijanki thinks PTSD patients might be far better equipped to tread through painful memories.

Finding Balance

Ultimately, however, the goal of therapies involving brain stimulation isn’t to wipe out negative emotions.

Anger, sadness and fear are not without their merits, and banishing them could have unintended consequences. Sadness sits at the other end of the spectrum from happiness, for example. Taking away any of our emotions would be removing an aspect of our humanity. What’s more, we have emotions for a reason.

“Our emotions exist for a very specific purpose, to help us understand our world, and they’ve evolved to help us have a cognitive shortcut for what’s good for us and what’s bad for us,” Bijanki says.

That’s not the goal here, of course, though discussions about the ethical use of such technologies in the future is certainly warranted. Bijanki says that we’d need to be careful about applying things like brain stimulation that could be abused.

But, she’s not very worried about electrodes and electric shocks becoming the next designer drug. It’s just too technically demanding, she says. And the potential benefits for those with depression and other conditions are great.

Sometimes the bad can outweigh the good. In those cases, sparking a little joy might be what we need.

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NASA Picks Science Experiments to Send to the Moon This Year

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Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Just Made its Second Trip to Space

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SpaceShipTwo under rocket power

SpaceShipTwo is carried into the air on the back of a plane, but then takes off into space under its own power. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

On Friday, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo flew in space for the second time, taking off from Mojave, California after days of weather delay. SpaceShipTwo took off at 8:07 a.m. PST carrying two pilots, a crewmember, and a nearly full weight of science projects from NASA.

Unlike most spaceflights that fire rockets from the ground, SpaceShipTwo is carried on the belly of a plane named WhiteKnightTwo before being released to propel itself into the upper atmosphere. After being carried 45,000 feet into the air, SpaceShipTwo successfully fired its rocket engine and reached suborbital space at approximately 8:55 a.m. PST. It coasted there for only a few minutes before heading back toward the ground, where it landed much like any other plane, roughly an hour after takeoff. Like all of SpaceShipTwo’s planned flights, this one was suborbital, meaning it does not reach orbit, and attains weightlessness for only a few minutes during its trip.

SpaceShipTwo made its maiden space voyage in December 2018, and today was its fifth powered flight in total. Unlike other private spaceflight companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic has made their main goal ferrying private citizens into space, and have been taking reservations for years.

The third crewmember today was Virgin Galactic’s Chief Astronaut Instructor and cabin evaluation lead. Her job today was to see how SpaceShipTwo feels from the cabin. Eventually, Virgin Galactic hopes to seat six passengers in place of the science payloads – or alongside them.

The spacecraft today also carried research projects from NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, which pairs research institutions with private companies who can fly their projects into space. The combined weight of the payloads put SpaceShipTwo at close to, but just under, the requirements for the commercial launch weight that NASA has specified. One of Virgin Galactic’s goals during this flight was testing how the vehicle flies with a greater weight distribution. Details will likely come later, but the flight was successful, which bodes well for the craft’s future in ferrying cargo as well as passengers.

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