Updated: Apr 25, 2020
I just finished reading (actually listening) a memoir called ‘The Unraveling of the Miracle’ by Julie Yip-Williams. A beautiful collection of blog posts by a truly heroic mother. She wrote the posts as a memoir of her thoughts, struggles and her life journey to leave for her daughters.
As a synopsis, she was born into a Chinese family in Vietnam. She suffered from congenital cateracts. Her grandmother instructed her parents take her to an herbalist to purchase herbs to end her life. Obviously, this did not happen, but it could have and that would have ended her life long potential. After a difficult journey to the United States with her family, she went on to have eye surgery. She was left legally blind due to the years of reduced vision caused by the cataracts.
This major obstacle of legal blindness did not stop her! She traveled the world alone. She attended college and graduated from Harvard Law School. She married and had 2 beautiful daughters. Then, the unthinkable occurred. She was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. A death sentence was ultimately placed upon her not by a grandmother, but by an ever growing cancer inside her body. She fought. She researched. She did every thinkable treatment, but the miracle of her life unraveled. She ultimately succumb to her disease. A touching story of true grit, persistence and the loss of a battle waged to recapture the life that had been planned and earned. The life that had so very much more to live, experience and share.
Why do I share this? It gave me a lot of food for thought about my own life. My life that was interrupted by an unknown enemy that grew slowly within a chamber of my heart. Unlike Julie‘s tumor, mine was benign, but its location gave it the potential to end my life.
On January 31, 2013, I had been at work for a short time. My usual routine was to first see the sickest babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). I was only a few months into my time as an attending neonatologist. To become a neonatologist, one much complete a 4 year bachelor’s degree, 4 years of medical school, 3 years of general pediatrics training and 3 years of neonatal-perinatal medicine fellowship. I had spent 10 years of my life to get to this point. I had given birth to a baby in medical school, one in residency and one in fellowship. I had a young family that I wanted to spend more time with. My job search ultimately lead us to leave California, where I had completed my fellowship, and to return to Georgia. I accepted a job that would require me to be in charge of the NICU 10-11 days a month. It was a perfect setup for me and my family. I would be able to take call from home. I would have lots of time off, and I would be doing what I loved... being an intensive care baby doctor. What more could I ask for?
On that morning in January, it seemed like any other day. It was my first day on service in the NICU, meaning that I had been off for a few days. I stood up from my chair and walked over to a patient’s room. The rooms in this part of the NICU were reserved for the sickest babies. This particular room was in the corner, and so there was a little lip of wall on the right side like a small entry way that led into a large ICU room.
As I enter the room, I heard a loud mechanical swooshing sound in my ears, which I would later learn was caused by a distraction of blood flow. As I looked toward the patient’s monitor that showed the infant’s vital signsheart rate, the monitor was doubled. It was hard to keep my eyes open. I shut my eyes and placed my head on the wall. I could hear the infant’s nurse talking to me, but I could not respond. I felt trapped in my head. It took what felt like an enormous amount of energy to reopen my eyes and to look at her. When I did, she proclaimed that my eyes were going in 2 different directions. She called for help. At some point a wheelchair was brought into the room, and I was instructed to sit down.
I was quickly wheeled to the emergency department for evaluation by one of the NICU nurse managers. She told them that she thought that I was having a stroke. Little did I know that the evaluation that would follow that day would be incomplete and would set me on a trajectory that would take half of my vision and ultimately my career. This day was a sentinel day in my life because the misdiagnosis would not be caught or even further investigated by the medical providers who would follow. This was the day that the unraveling of my own miracle and path to everything that I had accomplished stated to unravel. A path that would lead to a malpractice trial to where my belief in not only our medical system, but the legal system were shattered. Where I saw the absense of moral fiber from the heart surgery who had stopped my heart for an hour and picked the tumor out, to the lawyers who falsified medical documents in their attempts to protect physicians who had stolen my career and literally my vision by not doing the cheapest test in the evaluation of a mini-stoke (transient ischemic attack) - the echocardiogram.
Through my blog posts, I want to share my story. I want to share the stories of others. And, while I may have endured a whole host of medical procedures, therapies and just my own stuborness to return my life to the one I had planned, I know that lives and careers unravel all the time due to incurable illness and injury. Oftentimes, we never find our way back to the planned path. It is the things of grief and pain. It is a journey of acceptance. Ultimately, it is the recognition that the new path is worthy of our best effort.