The evening of Friday, July 28th, the last day of my summer externship at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, I flew to the Rockies. I consider the Rockies my home because I LOVE the mountains. That feeling is why I chose to attend Montana State over Johns Hopkins and Georgetown for my graduate degree.
The next day, I ran through the foothills of the Boise National Forest for the first time.
Then I went to see the dark knight rises; an epic event for me because Batman is my hero.
In Batman they discuss how to use the force and strength of pain, fear, and the loneliness of deep alienation for the good of all. Earlier that week, another medical student on my team, a guy from Nigeria who had run track in college at Columbia asked if one day I just woke up and could run really fast. And I replied yeah, pretty much, the day before they removed my mom’s breathing tube and two weeks after I put my cat to sleep I woke up and suddenly I could run really fast.
When I gave up the Rockies and my PhD/schooling to move back home, I was not met with open arms. My presence symbolized that my mom was dying. My dad may love me, but he most certainly hated and resented me being there and made that well known. I also (like cat woman) have a long list of youthful 'indiscretions' to rise above in my parents eyes.
One day in March, I was sitting still for a second holding my mom in her hospital bed, watching “Kitchen Nightmares” (which my sister had put on earlier with my mom). I had been running around the previous few days because my mom was finally getting discharged after her first seizure. She had been in the hospital for a month because it took over three weeks to get back the results of the biopsy. She couldn’t be released until the cause of illness was determined i.e. cancer, not meningitis/viral encephalopathy/etc. Once cancer was determined as the cause of her seizures, I contacted neurooncologists throughout the world. Saturday, four days earlier I drove 5.5 hours down and 5.5 hours back to consult with Dr. Friedman at Duke about my mom’s treatment. I had also had phone meetings that Monday with people from Sloan Kettering and Johns Hopkins. In touch with more neurooncologists and researchers by e-mail, I was exploring whether to get her treated in Germany or Italy, where the most research on gliomatosis cerebri (my mom’s form of cancer) was being done.
The neurooncologists at the National Cancer Institute would not meet with just me without my mom present. But if she was discharged from the hospital to a rehabilitation facility, she could not leave the rehab center and return. According to the insurance company, if my mother was adequately healthy to make a doctor’s appointment for treatment options, then this woman who could not walk, was on seizure precautions, and living in a house with stairs and no safety features, was perfectly safe to go home. So my role that day was to arrange that she be discharged early in the morning, make it to Bethesda Md in time for an appointment with the head of neurooncology at NCI, then make it to the rehab facility before the close of business so the insurance would never know she was ‘healthy’ enough to be evaluated by a doctor.
To do this I had to have the appointment set up by 10 a.m. at NCI (not an easy task). I had to have the approval of the busy physiatrist at the rehab center, which I did not get until after six the night before the appointment. I had to have the approval for release from the hospital from the oncologist team, the neurology team, the internal medicine team, the primary care team, the social worker, and the psychologist from Fairfax hospital. None of which I had at that time. My family had also been worried about which rehab center, so the day before (Monday) I had spent driving around the rehab centers in DC and VA trying to make sure we picked the best one for my mother’s condition and for my dad to be able to visit her.
So as I sat there, still for a minute, watching a brief bit of Kitchen Nightmares, the guy owning the restaurant had every excuse in the book handy for why the restaurant was failing. My mom looked at me and struggled to get out the words “that’s like you.” I said “what mom?” She repeated “like you” and added “always excuses, you always make excuses.” And I thought for a second about how I was in the hospital, watching TV with my mom, not working on my PhD, not gainfully employed, making another excuse. During the visit the next day to NCI, which the insurance company never learned about, the head of radiation oncology, Kevin Camphausen, offered me a job and took care of me.
But still every night home I was alone, worried that my mom was dying, having a seizure no one would see, unable to breathe, falling out of bed hitting her head. I was worried that I was doing the wrong thing making excuses, not accomplishing anything. Every night I barely slept and every night my heart broke as I faced my mom’s death and my new life not as a graduate student nerd living and playing in the rockies, but as the person responsible for my mother’s life in the busy metropolis of DC. I listened to the Eminem song “Superman” to remind myself that no one was going to save me from the pain I felt. I had to rise to the occasion. I had no Superman. It was only me.
I identify with what it means to be alone and to work to transform that utter alienation into some sort of strength, some sort of character. Despite the fact that the world will always know you for your weaknesses, no matter how hard you try. I identify with and admire the Dark Knight. But it can be hard as Robin says because people get frustrated that you always have that pain, it will always be a part of you. Like Batman, I can’t just go to a party on a Saturday night and feel at peace. So I try my hardest to channel that pain into strength and commitment whether as a runner or as a medical student. And every once in a while when I think of having my mom and my cat with me and the strength of the pain I have experienced, I feel as though I may one day be able to be a superhero and save another person's life.