After years and years of searching for explication to my poor health, this past fall, following an extended stay in the hospital I decided enough was enough and called it quits. I didn’t do the curl up in a ball and cry version of quitting on life; it was more akin to a quintessential teenage relationship approach of “taking a break”. Except, minus the “it’s not you, it’s me” speech because I knew it wasn’t me; it was them—the 90+ doctors who had seemingly failed me, to be precise! It quite simply wasn’t working out…with any of them.
My solution was to take a hiatus, during which I did not visit a hospital (nearly) all semester. I focused on me-time more than ever, taking care of myself every way I knew how. Barely ever overdoing it, keeping myself busy with schoolwork, and basking in cuddle sessions with Paddy. My symptoms persisted, but I did my best not to stoke the flame so that the fire could remain isolated to the back burner. I even had a great couple of weeks leading up to my arrival back home at the end of my most successful round of college exams yet. I was relishing the semblance of normalcy and perhaps let out a sigh of relief, when I should have been holding my breathe for the next ball to drop…
And it did, far harder than anyone ever could have expected. It wasn’t a ball that dropped—it was a BOMB! Right around Christmas I started waking up with horrific migraines that would linger all day and started to wake me up increasingly throughout the night. The first sign that things were about to blow up in my face, though, wasn’t until the morning of my family’s flight to Arizona to watch Notre Dame play in the Fiesta Bowl. It was a wonder I made it onto the plane as I was combatting the “turbulence” of pre-syncope episodes and gastrointestinal chaos before we even boarded. Nevertheless, I made the most of my time in the South West and enjoyed seeing such a spectacular part of the country.
Paddy and I made our way back to Notre Dame for the start of the spring semester. Over the course of a week and a half my pain levels shot off the charts and my fatigue became more debilitating than ever. Showing dermatological and gastrointestinal signs consistent with an autoimmune flare-up, my doctor convinced me to subscribe to a three-day steroid trial. My response was severe and perhaps the most unnerving thing I’ve ever encountered. The medication-induced-psychosis left me petrified and helpless, necessitating my mom make an emergency trip to South Bend.
A battery of blood-tests helped us determine an acute, active infection that was causing encephalitis, or inflammation of my brain. I was switched over to high doses of antibiotics and within a few days I had my wits’ about me again. Anyone who has ever lost them can appreciate how valuable they are! Once things settled down my mom, painstakingly, left me to return home. The migraines and nerve pain were demanding so much attention that my doctors and parents both confronted me about the possibility of pulling the plug on the semester. However, I couldn’t oblige their caring counsel because I knew my friends here were the main thing holding me together and school was the only thing forcing me to continue putting one foot in front of the other.
The physical torment had me strapped to an emotional rollercoaster far worse than anything offered at any amusement park (not to mention, it was anything but amusing!). Last Thursday, the pain was tolerable, which made Friday, when it came back with a vengeance, tip me over the edge. I came home from my first class of the day and had a really ugly cry. I found myself on the ground sobbing with the gnawing thought that I couldn’t find hope anywhere within me. I was faced with the reality that I was waking up and going through the motions every single day for everyone around me because I felt unworthy of giving up on myself when no one else had given up on me yet. Yet, in the process, I had lost any will to live for myself. In sheer desperation I literally begged God to increase my faith in Him because I knew that when I felt it least, I needed it most. I petitioned for enough courage, patience, and strength to make it until spring break, during which I was scheduled to meet with a new team of doctors. This thought made me cry even harder though because of how unbearably daunting it sounded to hold out until the beginning of March, despite the fact it was only a month away.
Just minutes later I received a call from my dad saying the internationally respected and, arguably, most revered doctor of Functional Medicine—whose research and publications I have followed religiously for years—agreed to give me the only available new-patient appointment he had left in 2016 the following Wednesday at his brand-new department at the Cleveland Clinic, just a four hour drive from South Bend, IN. All I could do was drop to my knees to pray with the fullest and deepest gratitude for that sign straight from above.
I arrived in Cleveland on Tuesday night before my appointment riddled and drained. My heart was instantaneously filled with joy upon the warm embrace of my best friend, Kyushik, who drove up from Kenyon College to join us for dinner and to spend the night with my dad and me. I slept peacefully and deeply for the first time in weeks, comforted by the security of being reunited with two of the most important men in my life. That consolation was compounded when my usual nightmares were replaced with beautiful dreams about my Pop-Pop who sadly passed, at the age of 81, last month. He will forever epitomize strength in the face of ceaseless and overwhelming suffering in my fond memories of him. I walked into the hospital the next morning sure of the fact he was with me.
Admittedly, I hadn’t pursued seeing this very public figure of a doctor earlier because I had preconceived, albeit unfounded, notions of what type of ego he must have after publishing multiple New York Times best-sellers and garnering such fame and success. While I will be the first to argue how wrong this assumption was to make ahead of time about any person, I have had my fair share of run-ins with HUGE EGOS in white coats. My long-standing predetermination that a doctor who had a waitlist 1,500 sick, sick people long wouldn’t have the time of day or care in the world for me could not have been more emphatically overturned! Dr. Mark Hyman is one of the most incredible humans I’ve encountered and the trait which puts him heads over heels above so many in the profession is his profound humility. He had no idea what he was walking into this morning because of a mishap with my electronic medical records getting lost. By the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit though, the patient after me cancelled their appointment and we were gifted with three hours of this brilliant man’s undivided attention. Sitting in front of us and all the while asking questions and giving small insights he reviewed my history and sifted through 700+ pages of labs. He was transiently fraught over the complexity of my case and was frank about how rare it was, even for him, to see someone whose picture of health was as multifarious as mine. The challenge didn’t seem to discourage him too dramatically, though, because if anything it resonated with him and reminded him of his convoluted and lengthy road to health after dealing with a chronic and confounding constellation of symptoms as a result of multiple causes.
Dr. Mark Hyman is THE GREAT COMMUNICATOR of modern medicine and for that reason he has been able to touch the lives of so many people. He is patient and thoughtful and compassionate. I can now say, from first hand experience, he isn’t successful because he is in the business of selling anything, he is solely concerned with helping this patients heal so each individual he treats can get back on their own road to individual and collective success. I was in awe of his eagerness to collaborate with my other doctors; something that is very hard to come by in a world of highly specialized and strictly segregated medicine. When he mentioned calling up two of my other physicians to tag team this, my dad and I looked at each other with our jaws to the floor. He noticed how dumbfounded we were by his comment and promptly asserted with a rare confidence, “I know better than anyone, it takes a village.”
I must confess that thanks to Dr. Hyman my love affair with medicine has been reinvigorated and back in full force. I feel heads over heels for this physician who didn’t promise me anything except that he would never give up on me. Who knows, perhaps I finally found my knight in shining armor…
I will forever be grateful to Dr. Hyman for his determination and willingness to catch my Hail Mary pass, for, if nothing else, he restored my hope and ignited by spirit to get back in the game.