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Of Ambition and Challenge(r)

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

I sat alone on the green flowed couch in our family room looking at my college acceptance letter. I was going to college. Emotions of disbelief washed over me. I was going to college. Calling my grandmother in Phoenix, I relayed the delivery of the acceptance packet. She congratulated me. I do not remember the conversation being long. I just remember my disbelief and sharing the news with her. I was going to college. Why was I shocked? An application had been submitted displaying my educational performance worthy of acceptance. Reflecting back 27 years later, I could not comprehend or even grasp the tip of the iceberg of the educational journey that lay ahead of me. The horizon of my educational pursuits was too far in the distance. It would take the next 19 years to complete my education.

Academics were always effortless for me. Math and science presented no obstacles. As a child, I would play school with a laundry list of imaginary students in my class. But, the first profession that I remember stating that I wanted to pursue was becoming an astronaut. I was absorbed with the universe and living in our Milky Way galaxy. During the age of the space shuttle flights, the launch and eventual landing of the white beacon of science and the pursuit of knowledge of things outside of Earth was captivating. Now I ponder how I would have tolerated the space travel. I refused to ride rollercoasters and had to be bribed to sit on the bench during the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland with its short declines on the boat into the lower reaches of the ride. How would I have flown to space and back? Perhaps, the mind of a child could not grasp the nuances of space travel. I craved the wonder of the unknown and beyond. Then, there was the Space Camp movie. The story of a group of kids accidentally launched into space and have to return to Earth on their own. I wanted to go to Space Camp. I wanted to sore high into the heavens above.

I know exactly when me yearning to travel to space came to an abrupt termination. It was a sunny, winter day in Phoenix, Arizona. The date was January 28, 1986 - the day the Challenger blew up. I was a 5th grader. The launch of the shuttle carrying a teacher to space was a highly anticipated event. Christa McAuliffe had been selected as the first Teacher in Space The nation knew her name as she had achieved a celebrity status as a civilian who would travel with NASA. I recall photos of the crew in their blue jump suits as they waived to the cameras in pre-launch publicity. She had a beaming smile and a head full of brown curls. The nation eagerly anticipated the launch. But, the excitement and anticipation of the launch, and what was to come during the mission, dramatically ended on live television when the Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch at an altitude of 46,000 feet. The images of the explosion followed by the plums of white smoke and debris raining back to Earth shocked a nation. The catastrophic event was announced over the loud speaker at my elementary school as we played at recess in the warm winter sun. That was the instant that my desire to travel to space came to standstill and would never be revisited. There would have to be a new career to dream about for my future.

Matriculation to a large California university was daunting. Classes of over 300 people filled the seats of the large lecture auditoriums where, depending on where you sat, the professor looked like a small moving figure at the base of the hall. Chemistry, physics, neuroscience, biochemistry - classes and knowledge filled my mind. As the first women in my family to attend university, I was on my own expedition. My maternal-grandmother had been raised in the South and had only received an 8th grade education. She had worked in clothing factories and could sew a pair of men’s boxers that looked like they have been purchased in a department store. My paternal grandmother had graduated from high school and spent her life dutifully fulfilling her responsibilities as a housewife. She had read to me as a child and instilled in me a love of reading and books – a love of learning and going on adventures with each new literary conquest. My mother, smart and capable, had attended a community college nursing program with four children and achieved an Associate’s Degree with a GPA of 4.0. I know held the torch to travel further than they had before me.

By the time I had entered university, the desire to attend medical school had flourished in me. It had first budded in my teens. A noble profession where lives could be saved and people helped; a profession of service. I had dawned a candy stripper uniform and volunteered in the local hospital during high school- the working of the hospital and medical profession beguiled me. One the one hand, it seemed like an unattainable goal, but on the other hand, it held my sincere desire. There was no road map of how to travel to my desired career destination, and there were no physicians in my family. I had to research the requirements to apply to medical school and planned my college schedule accordingly. The entrance test, the MCAT, that I needed to sit for, and the application process became clearer to me through my inquiries.

Recently, I found a letter of recommendation from a microbiology teacher. The only details that I remember about the class were that it was difficult and required firm dedication during the quarter. The copy of the letter filled me with delight as I read that I had finished in the top of the class. How could I not remember? Maybe it was because so much time has passed since I sat for the class. Or, maybe it was just another stepping stone in achieving my goals. It now serves to remind me of the commitment that I had to achieve my goals. I wanted to be a doctor.

While striving for educational excellence, my undergraduate journey was not that of a typical college student. I was the oldest of 6 children when I started college, and would have 2 more siblings added to the pack before I graduated. My father was an attorney, but had started practicing law when I was in the 8th grade. My mother worked part time as a nurse. My parents relayed on me to help with the household duties and childcare. I remember readying my toddler siblings for daycare and dropping them off to the babysitters before driving the 30 minutes to my university campus for class. I learned to balance my home responsibilities with my educational pursuits, skills that would serve me well in my future life.

My educational journey would take me far beyond the classrooms of my undergraduate university. My bachelor’s degree was followed by a Master’s Degree in Public Health with an emphasis in Epidemiology at a prestigious university, which was then followed by acceptance to a competitive research fellowship at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, GA. From there I would gain acceptable to medical school, followed by a Pediatrics residency and Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine Fellowship. But, on September 16, 2013, my own personal Challenger blew up. Not in a dramatic fashion as witnessed by millions on live television, but in the sudden blindness of a stroke as I stood in my blue jeans and Kelly-green colored blouse on the edge of a football field - my educational pursuits and career ended as I stood with my eyes open in pitch darkness. The hopes, aspirations, countless hours of study and sacrifice were over. The future was now forever changed. My desires to sore higher in education that any of the females in my family now grounded.

A collection of framed diplomas sits in the corner of my home office. I look at them sometimes sitting there collecting dust. My husband will periodically ask me, if I want to hand them on the wall. But, they would hang over my desk and service as a continuous reminder of what I had achieved and what was lost. I am not ready for that yet. I am sure the time will come when the grief has subsided enough to hand them on display. Each one symbolizing goals and experiences that are far more valuable that the off-white paper they are printed on.

The Challenger catastrophe now has new meaning in my life as I view it in my mind’s eye through the lenses of an adult. How excited Crista must have been to be the first teacher in space who would launch into the heavens and educate children on Earth with the hopes of inspiring leaning in science. What devastation at her loss her young children must have felt. What would it have been like to watch the shuttle launch into space, and a little over a minute later, to watch it explode in the sky. How long did it take them to get over the shock of that sentinel moment in their life caused by the malfunction of a rubber ring damaged by cold and ice that lead to the explosion of the fuel tanks? How much they must have missed her in the past 36 years. No other civilian teacher would ever be launched into the heavens on a space shuttle. What about all of the children that would have been inspired by their journeys? A program that was supposed to inspire science education, now remember for the tragic losses.

As I overlay those feelings onto my own life and my personal catastrophes, I understand the gratitude that I should feel that when the piece of tumor exploded out of my heart and into my brain, that it did not cause more catastrophic damage or result in my demise. My children still have a mother who is here to raise them. Filled with the aspiration that through our continued family journey of exploring the space where tragedy is endured well and turned into a strength, I hope that it leads to new realms of discovery for them. They carry with them the knowledge of what happened to their mother. They may not understand the experience or the feelings of loss, but I want them to sore and to know that no matter their challenges, their challengers or just their uncertainty and fears, that they can accomplish whatever they set their minds to as they travel on their own personal explorations. It is the striving for the goal and the planning of the expedition that are important too, even if the final destination is not what they intended.

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