Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Returning from the Dead (Literally)

It is my birthday this week. Instead of "happy birthday" cheers, I am hearing, "Wow, you almost didn't make it to this birthday...ya, happy birthday, forreals." It gives me pause, and I am reminded, indeed, I almost did not make it to this particular birthday. Let me share with you my harrowing tale as to why.

I was going through a very public tenure battle starting 2011 that ended two years later. For some of you that do not understand tenure, it is the most important promotion given to professors in the academy. It is when your colleagues, the university, and those in your field deem your work valuable. It also means lifetime employment and safeguarding ones intellectual freedom. It is a big deal.

Though I met all the qualifications and more, I was denied tenure. Keep in mind, I was the only Vietnamese Professor in the Sciences, Social Sciences and Humanities at a university with 44% Asian Americans and Vietnamese represent the second largest population in this group. Subsequently, it was the students with allies from cross ethnic groups that mobilized and fought for my tenure. Their saveVnow campaign, as well as support from scholars, politicians, and community leaders across the nation, factored into me receiving my promotion.

However, this victory did not altogether have a happy ending. Under the stresses of the tenure battle, including, sadly enough, assaults within my own Asian American Studies department – shortly after turning in my successful tenure appeal, my body crashed! I had been five months pregnant but lost my child. I then hemorrhaged nearly all my blood supply requiring 14 rounds of transfusion. Almost immediately afterwards, I went into cardiac arrest. The team of doctors and nurses lead by a young Sikh physician worked on resuscitating me. After 30 minutes, she announced that protocol was over, meaning, the team could stop, but she would move forward and asked who would join her. They all said YES!

They aggressively tried to revive me (breaking a few ribs in the process I may add) telling each other that I was a mother of very young children, then 3 and 1. They proceeded to try to revive me for another 30 minutes, then an hour before finding a faint pulse. I was clinically dead for a total of 90 minutes before that point – I had no oxygen to my brain for that duration!

Still I was not out of the woods. With most of my organs not working, I fell into a coma and I kept alive only by machines. In this condition, I even underwent emergency surgery to decrease likelihood of dying from a blood clots. I was in such a delicate state that moving me for surgery proved life threatening. In general, prognosis for survival was slim. Family and friends traveled from everywhere to be by what they thought would be my deathbed. At the slight chance of survival, doctors predicted that I would not be whole and that it would take a year of in-patient care for me to learn to partially talk and walk again. Even so, my husband, who never left my side, remained vigilant and hopeful for a full recovery.

Miraculously I survived and was able to talk and walk within a week. Hospital staff dubbed me the "hospital miracle," a "modern medical wonder." They regularly visited me while in recovery with teary eyes. They said they had never seen a case like mine, "one in a million," they claimed. The confessed they prayed for me and had their families pray for me. Similarly, my family and friends looked at me like I was a ghost. Having seen me completely unconscious with tubes everywhere, they could not stop crying and hugging me, in disbelief I was remotely responsive. All this attention was overwhelming because I was not aware of their experiences in the living world as I was busy dying.

In fact, when I was in a coma for over a week, I knew I was dead. I knew every day that if I did not return to the living soon, it would be more difficult to even try. But, in spite of knowing I was already in the other world, I willed myself to keep fighting. My only thought was not about tenure or anything related to work; it was my children.

I imagined them as adults sitting together viewing old images of themselves as toddlers with their adoring mother looking on. I could not allow myself to die and leave my children without a mother to protect and guide them through lives. I had one wish and that was to hold my children again, to simply enjoy being in their presence. So, I fought against all odds to be back with the living, to be with them. Now every moment I spend with my children is like a dream come true.

My fantastic journey to the after world and back taught me a few things: first, that a parent’s love has no bounds; and that our children can bring us back from the dead. I thank my family's love for fueling my miraculous return to life. I understand I almost did not make it to this birthday and appreciate the Universe for giving me this precious gift. This has been the most meaningful birthday yet.