My blog posts have been far and few between over these last couple of years, but today I would like to share a featured piece in the “Sugar & Strength” blog which highlights overcoming my liver transplant and brain surgeries back in 2012. Thank you to Annie Lake for this blog, and please check out her blog “Sugar & Strength!”
Click here to read the blog: http://www.sugarandstrength.com/?p=423
All of my medical friends will probably find this article interesting–
If you didn’t know already, I’m one of less than a handful of known survivors world-wide to overcome Invasive Aspergillus while on transplant immunosuppression medication. Due to the severe shortage of patients to survive this infection, my transplant doctor and and my transplant surgeon, Dr. Schilsky and Dr. Manuel Rodriguez Davalos, wrote an article that was recently published in the American Journal of Transplantation to assist other doctors and medical staff better understand the complications, risk factors, and symptoms of transplant patients. This article will hopefully facilitate transplant doctors to recognize abnormal symptoms of post-transplant patients so they can make a timely and educated diagnostic evaluation and possibly save more patient’s lives affected by Invasive Aspergillus. Thank you to Dr. Rodriguez, Dr. Schilsky, and the medical staff at Yale-New Haven hospital for everything they have done to save my life 🙂
“You were born with the ability to change someone’s life. Don’t ever waste it.” ~Unknown
April is Donate Life Awareness Month, so for the month of April I will be raising awareness and sharing stories about organ donation and how it has saved my life, and the lives of millions of others.
On May 3, 2012, I received my life-saving liver transplant from an anonymous donor, forever changing my life. I am not only beyond grateful for this second chance at life, but I am also thrilled at the opportunity to make a difference in other people’s lives by inspiring others to become registered organ donors.
Since my liver transplant, which occurred two-years ago (this May 3rd), I have run in five 5Ks and broken 80 several times on the golf course. I’ve gone to see Justin Timberlake, Bon Jovi, Taylor Swift, Jason Aldean, and FL/GA Line perform live. I had the honor of meeting Mr. Shark Tank, Mark Cuban, at my best friend’s wedding to NHL Dallas Super “Star” Mike Modano. I have also proudly been the American Liver Foundation’s Liver Life Champion in which I have given several public speeches about my story and also filmed a Public Service Announcement in efforts to raise awareness about the life-saving benefits of registering to be an organ/tissue/blood donor.
This summer, I will be competing nationally in my first Transplant Games of America, against other transplant recipients and donors in golf, 5K, and two other sporting events of my choice! Also this summer, my childhood dreams will finally come true when I get to see Justin Timberlake perform live at the Mohegan Sun Arena, in Uncasville, CT 🙂
None of this would be possible if it wasn’t for an anonymous donor who decided one day to check “yes,” yes, I will be a registered organ donor. That is it, one simple, effortless “yes” which at the time meant probably nothing to him/her, but that one little “yes” has allowed me to do all of the great things that I have mentioned above.
Growing up, I was very determined, hard-working, and had a relentless passion to succeed. The drive I innately had as a youngster began to fade and transform into uncertainty and doubt mid-way through my collegiate career. After I graduated from college, I felt very lost in direction and in purpose. My purpose in life was nothing but unclear, habitually wreaking havoc within my soul. Somewhere along the round I had fallen into a repetitive routine of nothingness. “What am I doing with my life?” I wasn’t pursuing my dreams, and I was not engaging or a part of anything that felt fulfilling and made the heart and core of myself smile. Maybe perhaps it was no coincidence that I became fatally ill, because honestly, my soul had felt dead for years.
In March of 2012 I diagnosed with stage-4 Liver Cirrhosis, with the initial diagnosis due to Budd Chiari and Factor V Leiden. I oddly didn’t see my diagnosis as a misfortune, rather, I saw it as an opportunity–an opportunity to change my life, an opportunity to regain my purpose, and an opportunity to impact the lives of others. My illness resparked my drive and passion to succeed; it lit a fire under my inner competitor, and my inner competitor perceived my illness as a challenge. This wasn’t your routine challenge though, I was facing undoubtedly one of the toughest and most fierce competitors l have ever had to face: I was up against death.
During my liver biopsy at Yale, my liver was accidentally “nicked” which caused unnoticed internally bleeding until one evening on the way to the bathroom, I just collapsed. “Code Blue! Code Blue!” I could faintly hear as my eyes shut. Several episodes of cardiac arrest ensued with the likelihood that my last days were behind me if a liver match was not found in the next 24 hours. With the National Average wait-time for a liver match being 361 days, it seemed like I was going to need a miracle to survive. You may not believe in miracles, but You might want to start.
Within 24-hours of my death-defying experience, my medical team at Yale-New Haven started prepping me for liver transplant–word had gotten out there was a potential matching donor for me. The stars aligned in my favor, and on May 3, 2012, I was a recipient of a last-minute, life-saving liver transplant from an anonymous organ donor.
While it was amazing when I had finally awoken from the anesthesia to find out that I had a liver transplant, I did not have much time to be grateful before complications from the transplant unfolded. A fungal infection, known as invasive aspergillosis, had manifested within my respiratory system, travelled into my bloodstream, up to my brain, and manifested into a serious and highly fatal infection. My body was too weak from surgery and immunosuppressive medication to battle the infection at its infancy stages like a “normal” person’s immune system would have, and so it aggressively started to cause destruction in the occipital lobe of my brain.
Invasive aspergillosis in immunosuppressed patients has a an extremely high mortality rate, approaching near 100%. Despite these odds, my medical team worked very hard at keeping me alive. I underwent two extremely risky brain surgeries combined with intensive six-seven hours of invasive anti-fungal treatment every night for several months.
Whether the brain surgeries and anti-fungal treatment would save my life was a question that even the top medical surgeons in the country at Yale didn’t know the answer to. All we could do was give it our best shot, pray for a miracle, and sit back and see how my destiny would unfold.
According to medical statistics and previous transplant patients who have acquired invasive aspergillosis in their brain, it is utterly unjustifiable as to why I am alive today. While the statistics and my doctors may not be able to explain why or how I became so ill, so quickly, or even how or why I have survived these several life-threatening illnesses and surgeries all back-to-back-to-back in such a short time, all I do know for certain is that I am thankful. Thankful for my family, thankful for my friends, and most importantly thankful for my donor, their family, and their generous donation. The whys and hows of my survival really don’t matter; what matters is that I am alive, I am doing fantastic, and I am ready to change the lives of others.
My story of survival is one that I believe all throughout the world need to hear. I am living-proof of the life-saving benefits of organ donation. Because my anonymous donor was registered as an organ/tissue donor, his/her selfless act saved my life along with saving or enhancing the lives of 14 others on that third day of May. Currently, 18 people die each day because there is a shortage of registered donors on the list. Eighteen people every day, thousands each year, could be saved and have a second chance like I did, if we all checked “Yes, I want to become a registered organ donor.” One organ donor can save up to eight lives and enhance the lives of up to 50 people! A swift check of “yes” is all it takes to saves lives and be a hero to someone and someone’s loved ones.
You might be supportive of organ donation, but are you a registered donor? As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Don’t put off tomorrow what you can do today.” Don’t wait, donate.
For more information about organ donation and becoming a registered donor, please visit these websites:
Watch my video and see exactly how organ donation has saved my life “The MOtivational MOvie” which shows my two-year journey of having a life-saving liver transplant, brain surgeries, and my life as a survivor.
As you may already know, it is my dream to get on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and raise awareness about organ/tissue donation. I have made a short-movie called the “MOtivational MOvie” about my journey of overcoming a life-saving liver transplant and a fatal fungal infection in my brain that I acquired post-transplant (which has nearly a 100% mortality rate in transplant patients).
Organ Donation Month happens to be right around the corner during the month of April, so there is no better time to share this video than now : ) Please help me share “The MOtivational MOvie” so it can get into the hands of Ellen, and also raise awareness about the power of organ donation! Thank you so much for your support and helping me make my dreams come true!
“Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.” ~William James
Two-years ago around this time I was diagnosed with Stage-4 Liver Cirrhosis initially diagnosed due to Budd Chiari and Factor V Leiden and told I needed a liver transplant in the next few months if I was going to survive. Shortly after getting a transplant by the skin of my teeth, I barely escaped with my life again as I battled a rare and extremely fatal fungal infection in my brain called “Aspergillus Fumigatus.”
Let me give you a little background information. I was living in Greenville, SC at the time when I first got this news that I needed a liver transplant to survive. There are no transplant centers in Greenville, so it was looking like I was going to have move near a transplant hospital. I guess you could say, “luckily” for me, I was already packed, because I was in the midst of packing to move to Florida for a new career. What I did not know, was that my fate would point me back up to the Northeast, to Connecticut, where my life began, and might unfortunately end, if I didn’t get a transplant, soon.
My liver was accidentally “nicked” during my liver biopsy which went undiscovered until I collapsed on the floor one night in an attempt to go to the restroom. I almost bled to death from substantial amounts of internal bleeding, followed by four episodes of cardiac arrest; things were not looking too good at all. Miraculously, my doctors were able to stabilize me without being invasive and officially get me on the transplant list. Within two days of officially getting on “The List”, I officially received the greatest miracle of all, a second chance at life!
Shortly after my transplant, I exhibited some serious cognitive dysfunction. I was in-and-out of a “coma-like” state, and other times I was only able to say “yes ma’am” repeatedly over-and-over again. I began experiencing painful and distracting visual sensations, such as: colorful lights flashing, hearing voices, and a headache so bad, I would trade it for the worst migraine you think you’ve ever had, any day. I mentally checked-out for several days to one day awake to the comment, “You had brain surgery!” Excuse me? What did you say? “You had brain surgery!” I palmed the back of my head, and sure-enough, there was a line of staples going down the middle of my scalp. There was absolutely no other thought in my head at the time except, you’ve got to be effin’ kidding me?
Not even three-weeks after barely squeaking away with my life with a last-minute liver transplant, and now they’re telling me I had brain surgery? What for?I wondered. Well those headaches, flashing lights, and voices were being caused by a rare fungal-infection that had manifested in my brain somehow since first being on immunosuppression in Greenville.
It is unfathomable to express everything going on inside my head (literally and figuratively) at this time, but I couldn’t focus on any of that. My brain surgeon at Yale, Dr. Matouk, was unable to get all of the infection out in the first shot because there was great fear of leaving me completely blind, paralyzed, or possibly killing me due to its location in my brain. This monster of a fungal-infection had a name, and it was called aspergillus fumigatus; all I knew is that the aspergillus had to get-going, or it was going to be me that would be going….and never returning.
The following week I was hooked-up to an IV of this antifungal medication called Amphotericin B for six or more hours per night. Amphotericin B is highly toxic and it’s side-effects are what I would imagine are somewhat similar to chemotherapy; god-awful. Ampho wreaks havoc both internally and externally to the point where my various medical teams had to come to a consensus as to whether my body could tolerate the medication any longer before it would cause my kidneys to fail; yet, I needed enough of the medication to zap the fungal infection in brain or that’s another (even worse) kind of trouble we’d be dealing with. A week following the Ampho treatment, my MRI showed no improvement in terminating the remainder of the infection, therefore, a second craniotomy was immediately scheduled. Brain surgery numero dos went down on June 11, 2012, but whether I would make it out of surgery alive and not paralyzed or completely blind, was something no one could answer.
When I came back to consciousness the next day, there were doctors and family standing all-around me. “What is your name?” I was asked to write. My Aunt Caryn told me that my neurosurgeon thought there was an issue with me when I wrote down “Mo” because he only knew me by Monique. He asked me to read something from across the room and write it down, so I did, without any problems. My Aunt Caryn recalls him almost falling over in disbelief and excitement that I could read. Next, my sister asked me her name and I wrote down, “Punkass” a nickname I have loved calling her since she was a teenager, (that she doesn’t appreciate as much as I do J). Hey, well at least they knew they didn’t cut out my sense of humor during surgery!
Flash forward to 20 months later, which happened to be yesterday, March 13, 2014. I am the polar-opposite of a “morning person,” but at 6:15 am yesterday I flew out of bed, hopped in the shower, and excitedly got ready to head to Yale-New Haven for my three doctor’s appointments. You’re probably thinking, wait you got excited to go to a doctor’s appointment? Well when are taking this medication that consists of 12 pills/day, costs $4400/month, and makes you really sensitive to the sun and light, you would thrilled to go to your doctor if you thought he was taking you off of that medication today, wouldn’t you?
Following my Transplant Dermatology appointment and MRI of my brain. I met with Dr. Topal, my Infectious Disease doctor. Dr. Topal, reviewed by MRI of my brain with me, and just as I had anticipated, I can come off of the Voriconazole (anti-fungal for my brain infection). As long as the Aspergillus doesn’t come back, I will not have to take it, but the next three months they are going to watch me very carefully hoping it doesn’t come back. The thing about fungus is it usually grows very slowly, but because I’m on medication to weaken my immune system (so I don’t reject my transplanted liver), I can get ill and catch diseases that “normal” people’s immune systems can usually fend-off quite easily. The Voriconazole increased the potency of my anti-rejection drugs, so now that I am getting off the Vori, my doctors will be increasing my anti-rejection meds, which means my immune system will be weaker, and the risk of the aspergillus (if it is microscopically still present in my body at all) can try to attack my brain again.
That sounds pretty serious, but I’m not scared at all. This June will be two-years since I survived my brain surgeries to remove the aspergillus. People have brain surgeries every day across the world, but for a transplant patient to have brain surgery, twice, to remove aspergillus fumigatus, which has almost a 100% mortality rate in transplant patients, is unbelievable. Not to mention, just three very short weeks after battling for my life and having a new organ transplanted into my body, there is no other word for it besides it is a miracle!
I am so blessed to be a miracle, but it is not because of what I did, it is because I have the most incredible medical team constantly looking out for my well-being, the most wonderful friends and family constantly motivating me with their love and encouragement to do great things, and finally, because I have embraced a belief system that anything in the world is possible if you set your mind to it. My mind is set on achieving these great-big dreams of mine, like winning the Gold Medal in Golf at the Transplant Games of America and being on the Ellen DeGeneres Show to raise awareness about organ/tissue donation. I know I am a miracle, and I am beyond thankful to have been given this gift of life, and a chance to change my life for the better and inspire others along the way.
One thing I want you know is that you don’t have to have a liver transplant or have a huge hole in your head to do great things in your life. For me, it took me as sick I became to finally listen to that voice inside my head telling me take care of myself, and not just my body, but my mind, and my soul as well. If I didn’t get sick, I probably would have never changed my ways. The matter of the fact is, getting sick and being on my death-bed was the eye-opener I needed to make the changes I needed to make in myself so that I could be the best person that I can possibly be and reach my highest potential in life.
In result of my experiences, I have been given a story, a story in which I share in hopes to invigorate your childhood dreams, inspire you to make choices that fulfil your inner passions, and to believe that you are indeed capable of doing anything in life that you so desire. My sickness wasn’t a curse; it was a blessing in disguise. It saved me from own worst enemy: myself. I hope to make you guys proud as my journey continues, but most importantly I am on the path to make myself proud, a self that had been lost for years, but is finally found 🙂
“If you don’t get lost, there’s a chance you may never be found.” ~Unknown
As you may already know, I belong to the internationally recognized club, Toastmasters. From speech #4, “How to Say It’, here is my fifth speech, “Lessons Learned in the ICU” given on February 5, 2013. For more info on our club, please go tohttp://www.westconntoastmasters.org.
“The greatest wealth is health.” ~Virgil, Ancient Roman Poet
Good evening Mr. Toastmaster, fellow Toastmasters and honored guests.
As many of you already know, in May of 2012 I was fatally ill; I spent a total of 71 days in the hospital or ICU. I survived a life-saving liver transplant, and two life-saving brain surgeries to remove a fatal fungal infection in my brain, called invasive aspergillosis. While spending as much time in the ICU as I did is not something that I wish upon anybody, I did learn three very valuable life lessons from my experiences in the ICU that I’d like to share with you tonight.
The first lesson I learned in the ICU, is that you might not always be able to change your circumstances, but you can always change your attitude, and a positive attitude almost always preserves over a negative attitude. When you are as sick as I was in the ICU, you can’t always take care of yourself, and when you can’t take care of yourself, that means someone else has to. Initially, it made me feel uncomfortable to have all of the nurses and doctors poking and prodding at every nook and cranny of my body. One time in the ICU, I was with my aunt Caryn, and cupping one side over my mouth with my hand I leaned over and whispered to her, “Aunt Caryn, I’m embarrassed they have to wipe my butt.” Aunt Caryn started laughing. I was shocked! “Are you seriously laughing? I just told you that I’m embarrassed about them wiping my butt, and you’re laughing?!” While chuckling she responded, “If it makes you feel any better, you will be wiping mine in 20 years!” At this time we both started laughing uncontrollably! While I was humiliated at first by my lack of privacy, it was something that had to be done for my greater well-being. By being surrounded by my hilarious family, I was able to laugh and make light of the very heavy situation going on, which made things appear to not be as severe as they actually were. Instead of dwelling on all of the negative that surrounded me, I was able to focus on positive energy, and I think that played a huge part in my survival.
The second lesson I learned while being sick in the ICU, is that life really is about the “little things.” I learned that we should learn to appreciate the “little things” while we are fortunate to have them, because you just never know when they will no longer be available to you. When I was in the ICU, there were many things I couldn’t do on my own. I couldn’t walk on my own, shower on my own; at times I couldn’t even breathe on my own. I was also restricted on what I could and couldn’t eat, and sometimes I couldn’t eat or drink at all. When I was discharged from the hospital, I was instructed no restaurants, no movie theaters, and no shopping malls for six months. This meant no Cheesecake Factory, no Loews to catch a movie, and no Target for six months. I am on a life-time restriction of no gluten, no alcohol, no sushi, no salad bars, and, as of now, no driving. I guess that means no more driving to Ruby Tuesday and hitting up the salad bar before the 6:00 showing of “Lone Survivor” and then driving my friends to go grab an ice cold beer and some sushi after the movie. I was restricted from common, day-to-day things that we don’t even think twice about; we just do them. My entire lifestyle has had to change, and I didn’t realize how important some of the “little things” were to me until now, that I can no longer enjoy them. I wish I had appreciated these “little things” that I was so privileged to experience and enjoy before my illnesses.
The third and final lesson I have learned from my time in the ICU, is that your family is the most important thing you have in your life. Being sick is a burden. There’s no way to say it besides it “sucks”. It sucks for you and it sucks for anyone around you, because as I mentioned before, when you can no longer take care of yourself, that means someone else has to. While I was sick in the ICU, I learned that some people just couldn’t be bothered. Those same people who couldn’t be bothered, are sometimes the people you needed the most. My sickness brought out the best in some people, and it also brought out the absolute worst in others. I’m only going to talk about the best though. One of the best things that could have happened to me is when my aunt Caryn and cousin Rocco got on a plane, flew down to SC, picked me up and drove me up here to Connecticut. One week later I was admitted to Yale receiving the best medical attention I could receive. Without a doubt in my mind, I wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for my aunt Caryn and cousin Rocco coming to get me and bring me closer to some of the most reputable medical facilities in the country. I learned family is something you should never take for granted. When all else fails, for me it was my health, my vision, my strength, and my hope, I always had my family. Because of my family’s love and support, I was able to get my strength, my health, and my hope back and I am making a fantastic recovery, despite the horrific odds against me!
After being ill, I have learned that no matter what circumstances you are given in life, a positive attitude almost always perseveres over a negative attitude. I have learned that life really is about all of the “little things,” and that your family are the most important people in your life, and with their love and support you can rise above any challenges or adversity that you are faced. I will leave you with this:
“Some lessons can’t be taught; they simply have to be learned.” ~Jodi Picoult
“If you think you can do a thing, or you think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.” ~Henry Ford, American Industrialist, Founder of Ford Motor Company
If you are a follower of mine, you probably already know that 20 months ago after my miraculous liver transplant and two brain surgeries, I lost about half of my visual field out of both of my eyes. There is a fancy name for this symmetrical cut in the right hemisphere of both of my eyes, and it is called Homonymous Hemianopia (HH for short).
Upon being officially diagnosed with HH back in July of 2012, I soon realized I was going to have a difficult road ahead of me. Dr. Walsh, my neuro-ophthalmologist at Yale-New Haven Hospital, was one of the first people to tell me that I wasn’t going to be able to drive, and he said probably never again. I was initially having some issues with bumping into people and the occasional wall, table, and counter when I lost my visual field. I had quickly learned to adapt by turning my head, scanning more effectively, and by simply walking more carefully. I had assumed my vision would come back once some time passed after my surgeries and my medications were lowered, but my assumptions were apparently on the very optimistic side. I was unaware that patients diagnosed with HH hardly never see significant improvement in their visual field, and will most likely never have their vision fully restored.
The British Journal of Ophthalmology contains an article called, “Can Visual Function be Restored in Patients with Homonymous Hemianopia?” An excerpt from the article reads,
“Regarding field defects of vascular origin, the prognosis for spontaneous recovery is poor. Any recovery of a complete hemianopia occurs in the first 10 days after which further recovery is unlikely. Recovery of a partial defect is usually maximal within the first 48 hours. Less than 10% of patients recover their full field, and a proportion of these will, nevertheless, continue to complain about their visual function because of coexisting parietal lobe involvement. Up to 50% show spontaneous regression of varying degrees. The pattern of recovery largely depends on the extent of cerebral damage that is reversible and this, in turn, relies on the state of the collateral circulation. Further recovery is negligible after 10–12 weeks. The extent of visual recovery correlates negatively with age, a history of diabetes or hypertension, and the presence of cognitive, language, or memory impairment. Vision returns to the perimetrically blind field in definite temporal stages starting with the perception of light, motion, form, colour and, finally, stereognosis. Traumatic hemianopia behaves somewhat differently. Large areas of the visual field frequently recover, although the functions regained are unstable and often limited to the perception of light. The body of evidence would therefore suggest hemianopia is not always an absolute and permanent visual loss. This raises the question as to whether the natural course of a hemianopia can be advantageously manipulated by therapeutic intervention.”
The first three months passed after my diagnosis–no improvement; then six months, then a year, and still, nothing. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t become somewhat discouraged that my vision didn’t start coming back after about six months, I so desperately needed even the slightest sign to keep my hope afloat.
I was 27 years old at the time when I first told I would never be able to drive again. This was completely self-defeating to hear. I never realized how crucial driving had become to my everyday life. Once I was discharged from the hospital I was quick to learn that my independence and freedom relied heavily on getting around on my own. When I no longer had the luxury of hopping in my Kia Sportage and driving off, I searched for my next viable option.
What about public transportation? The public transportation offered in Danbury, CT isn’t accessible from where I live. I can’t walk to or from a bus safely in a decent amount of time from where I live either. But you’re on Disability, can’t Disability help you? The SweetHart bus–public transportation offered to disabled people, great! I was approved, and taken to one appointment. I tried to call again the following week for another appointment. I was calling nine days prior to the appointment inquiring a ride. I was told there were “no available drivers” and to call the next day to see if there was a cancellation. I called for the next four days, and still the SweetHart company had no openings to take me to my therapy appointment.
I called the SweetHart bus another time, on a Friday, to see if I could get a ride to the mall. The lady on the phone from the SweetHart company informed me, (with an unfriendly attitude) that last-minute rides are reserved for emergencies like if someone has a “toothache” and needs a ride to the doctor. She literally said “toothache.” I tried to tell her my situation that I am unable to drive and I wasn’t trying to take advantage of the service. I had been stuck at home for days with no way of leaving, I just wanted to get out of the house and I thought this service was to help people like me. This lady was reserving my requested ride for a possible “toothache” call, and wasn’t going to budge.
At that moment I decided that the SweetHart bus was not interested in helping me with my situation. I almost felt somewhat discriminated against for not being “disabled” enough. I had also been denied of services from the Bureau of Education and Services for the Blind (BESB) as they have decided I am essentially not blind enough according to their definition of “legally blind.” So what you’re saying is I’m not blind enough? I’m too blind to see anything directly to my right and I’m too blind to legally drive a car, yet I’m not blind enough to be helped by the Bureau of Education and Services for the Blind?? That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
Not being able to drive restricts freedom, independence, and quality of life. When you can’t drive and you are nowhere near decent public transportation, then what are you supposed to do? Find a way, because I’ll tell you now, being stuck in Danbury, CT without reliable transportation is not an ideal situation to be in.
Check-up after check-up, my visual field reports have remained “status quo”. Time and time again I have heard, “Your vision probably isn’t going to get better…You won’t be able to drive. Move to where there is good public transportation..I don’t know what to tell you.” At first I honestly let those negative comments get to me. It was a natural instinct for me to believe my doctor, I mean he’s the one who has gone to medical school and all, not me. I immediately became discouraged.
My aunt attempted to bring up my spirits by reminding me that as much as doctors and statistics may be something you trust, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are always 100% right. If that were the case I should have been easily dead 20 months ago. With an infection that has only allowed less than five immunosuppressant survivors EVER, it is quite the miracle that I am alive and well enough to be typing this. The fact of the matter is I am alive, not only defying the odds themselves, but I am doing far more incredible than anyone could have every projected. I am living proof that the odds were not entirely impossible of overcoming, so doesn’t that mean there are other odds out there that are ready for me to defy? You’re damn right there is.
If you remember correctly, I told you my doc said if my vision didn’t come back in the first three-six months, that it most likely will never come back, right? Well part of me just can’t seem to accept that. I’m back to optimal physical, mental, and emotional health, not to mention I am only 28 years old. I am far more flexible and adaptable than say a 70-year-old with the same visual impairment as me. I am much stronger, I am far less medicated than I was even a year ago, and you’re still going to tell me you don’t think I am ever going to be able to drive again?! Don’t you agree that is a rather closed-minded way of thinking, especially with all of the technological developments over the past decade? Soon cars will driving themselves for crying out loud! If that is what you truly believe–that I will never be operating a motor vehicle from the driver’s position again, legally–then I regret to inform you that you are wrong! I may have had two brain surgeries but I am not soft, I still have one of the hardest heads you’ll come to find and being told “no” doesn’t come easy to me!
Yes, I have come across a couple of road blocks. That doesn’t mean give up and turn around, it means find another way to get around the damn obstacle! I don’t care if it is under, over, to the side, or through it, I will get by this road block! It may not be tomorrow, this month, or this year, but it will happen, believe me.
You may or may not be doubting me, but you’re probably still wondering how are you going to do that Mo? While I would love to be able to give you a detailed and mistake-free strategy of how I plan to accomplish this, I don’t have one. What I do have are some goals that I am currently in the midst of pursuing.
Since this past November (2013) I started going to visual therapy in Southport, CT at Eye Care Associates. I heard about Dr. Schulman in Southport and visual therapy from one of my old college roommates from Furman, who now happens to be an optometrist. Once a week, on Mondays at 11:00 am, I have visual therapy with my visual therapist, April.
My sessions with April started small with April giving me an eye patch to wear, and her moving a pencil around in air as I follow it with my eyes. Each week I have had to do more and add-on to the previous week. Now I am up to wearing 3D glasses, prism flippers, all while walking back-and-forth trying to maintain my balance across a wooden balance beam while reading numbers and letters on the wall.
I often look silly and was at times skeptical about the visual exercises I had to perform thinking to myself, “This is stupid. How is this going to make me see more? I’m not wasting my time….” I was very close to calling it quits, deciding that I had a better way to spend anymore of the very little money I have. I rationalized with myself, weighed the pros and cons of visual therapy, and decided to give myself a little more time in visual therapy, at least until I saw my progress report.
Last week I had my most recent visual field exam taken by my neuro-ophthalmologist at Yale. Once again, Dr. Walsh prefaced the appointment by telling me that my previous appointments have shown I have Homonymous Hemianopia. He is very much aware of my desire to be able to drive again, but he never hesitates to inform me that he still doesn’t think it will ever be safe to drive, therefore if I do ever drive it will never be under his authorization. Not exactly what I want to hear, especially since I had yet to take my visual field exam that day. Alright, let’s take the test already, before you start discouraging me even more than you already have Mr. Scrooge.
Finally, I get directed to the room where my visual field is going to be taken. I was handed my “clicker” and had to click every time I saw a light, dull or bright, shine anywhere on the screen. I finished, and I asked the lady who administered the exam if she could print out my results for me. Even though she seemed extremely shorthanded and busy, she was still very kind to me, agreed, and handed me my print out upon completion of my exam. The print out showed my previous visual field exam results from July 2013, and the one I just took, six months later, January 23, 2014.
I looked at the results and my mouth quickly dropped to the ground. After what seemed like several moments of my jaw hanging from my face, I was able to reel it in, produce a smile and excitedly yell while simultaneously asking, “It got better didn’t it?!?” The lady who administered the visual field said, “Looks like it, good luck with your driving,” in a way that she too hopes I will be able to drive again one day.
At this point my excitement can hardly be contained! I am so thrilled just that my vision got a tad, somewhat, any bit better at all! I know it is not enough to drive, but considering the fact that there is improvement, to me, is a sign that I might have one more miracle left in me! I have been told by various people and sources that if visual field in HH patients doesn’t return in the first three-six months, it most likely will not. For my visual field to have shown no improvement over my past four visits, but then suddenly there is unexpected improvement after the fourth follow-up, that is a major thing!
The only thing different I have been doing since my previous visual field exam six months ago, is that I started going to visual therapy once a week and doing daily practice visual therapy homework exercises. That has apparently been the difference, despite being told it wouldn’t make a difference, and that it wasn’t worth my time or money.
So I bet you guessed it, you will find my ass at visual therapy in Southport, CT at Eye Care Associates every Monday at 11 until they kick me out! I will also be doing my practice exercises throughout the week, because this girl has more work to do! I can’t, I can, I will drive again, just watch me!
“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson, American Poet, Champion of Individualism, leader of Transcendentalism movement.
Resolution (n.) The state or quality of being resolute; firm determination. A resolving to do something. A course of action determined or decided on.
2013 was a great year for me. I can easily say it was better than 2012, but my 2012 wasn’t too hard for anyone to top. The end result of 2012 was definitely favorable, but the process to get there was one that was hardly envious. Having a successful liver transplant by the skin of my teeth, with not even a full 48 hours to spare was a life-changing event in itself. Then throw on-top of that an extremely rare and fatal fungal infection in my brain and you don’t have to say much else to already know that 2012 was a hell-of-a-year for me. When I look back, I am often puzzled as to why or how I am alive today. You might be thinking, “That was 2012? We’re about to be in 2014!?” True, but most of my 2012-2013 was spent either ill or recovering from illness, so for the purpose of this blog, I am grouping 2012 and 2013 together as one-big healing time period.
While those questions of how or why I am still alive will never be answered, the matter of the fact is that I managed to persevere and triumph over the impeccable odds against me. It is crazy to think that almost 100% of people who inquire invasive aspergillosis in their brain while being immunosuppressed, die. I am one of very, very few people to somehow escape the burden of those devastating odds. Somehow, I, Monique Gesualdi, am still alive. To experience what I have experienced and to overcome what I have overcome, is a huge deal for me, and it has forever changed my outlook on life and how I treat myself. Not like you can easily put yourself in my shoes, nor would I want you to, but it is hard for me to genuinely convey to you how greatly this has affected my life in so many different ways.
For someone in my shoes, “Grateful” doesn’t even begin to describe your appreciation for life and the little things we take for granted each and every day. Things like walking without assistance, showering in a shower by yourself, breathing on your own, wiping your own ass, things like this we do every single day and we don’t think twice about. If asked prior to my 2012 what if those “little things” were taken away from me, could I do it? Could I live for two months of my life in the hospital, in-and-out of consciousness, having back-to-back-back surgeries that resulted in life-or-death? If I was asked that, I would have probably looked at whoever asked me very confidently answered, “Well that’s never going to happen, and even if it did, I can’t imagine spending one night in the hospital let alone two months.” When you are a kid, some of you have visions of yourself growing up, getting married, buying a house, having kids, grand kids, and so on. Never does anyone say, “I’m going to get fatally ill at age 26 and go from there.” But it was happening to me, and I had no choice but to face my illnesses head on.
I was up against the two most feared opponents of all: I was up against time and I was up against death. I have no way of changing time, and once you are “dead,” that’s it, you can’t go back in time and make yourself “undead.” When you are in the hospital and ICU and the doctor’s are doing everything in their power to save their life, you basically have no physical control of the outcome. All you can do is hope and pray and whatever happens, happens right? To one degree yes. To another, I’d say no. You have control of your attitude. For me, attitude was EVERYTHING. My attitude partially attributed to me being alive, able to write this blog (my medical team at Yale and my family and friends’ love and support were also the reason).
I would be lying if I said I had a positive attitude the entire time I was in the hospital. Luckily for me though, I had one of the best medical proxies you could imagine. My medical proxy also happened to be my motivator, my positive encouragement, my strength, and one of my reason for surviving; my Aunt Caryn. Some days were tough, really tough. My recovery once I got out of the hospital was especially rough on me just trying to get back to “myself” and nothing more. Physically, mentally, and emotionally I was being challenged to the extreme. Every single thing in my life had changed, where I lived, who I lived with, what I could do, what I couldn’t do. Just about everything. It was far from easy, but I knew what I wanted. I knew I didn’t want to die. I wasn’t ready, I was only 26 and I had so much left to accomplish. Deep down I didn’t want to just “make it out alive,” I wanted come out swinging. I felt like the previous two or three years of my life were wasted, lost searching for a purpose, MY purpose in life.
In my opinion, “happy” people wake up each morning because they have a purpose and they are on a mission to completing the next step of their purpose, whether they realize it or not. It could be something small, it could be something of greater magnitude, but it doesn’t matter what it is, as long as they have something inside that gives them drive. I call these people “happy” people, because they are at one with themselves, they know who they are, what they want in life, and they are continually moving forward with their lives in one way or another.
Next you have what I call the “complacent” people, they wake up each morning coasting through life. They don’t really have goals or anything that they are truly passionate about, challenging them to enhance their life in one way or another. They are complacent, and that is fine for them because they don’t want to actually put in the time or effort to get the results they “wish” for.
Then there are the “unhappy” people. These people don’t necessarily walk around with a frown on their face kicking the dirt, but what I mean is that their soul is not happy. I’ve seen these people and they don’t truly know who they are as a person, and they are not at one with themselves. Who they are and what they want to be are not the same person and this dissimilarity causes an internal tug-of-war with oneself. Eventually these “unhappy” people become frustrated with life, are typically not accountable for themselves, blame anything they can, and bring down anyone in arm’s reach of them. We have all heard the expression that, “misery loves company.” These people become toxic to themselves, and toxic to others. I’m sure we’ve all met a few of these people along the way or have even had a period of time where we ourselves were guilty of a time of self-pity. As my Aunt would say, these people “can’t get out of their own way,” and that couldn’t be any more well said.
I have floated between my three levels of “happiness,” “complacency” and “unhappiness” throughout my life, but post college, I was a resident in “Cluelessville” which is a suburb of “Complacent City.” I was clueless as to what to do with my life and how to get there, and this often times made me a frequent visitor of “Unhappy Ave.” I knew I was becoming complacent and it scared the living shit out of me (excuse my french). Since I was ten years old, golf was my entire life. Golf was my sport, it was my childhood, it was my heart, and I was certain it was going to be my future. I loved the challenge, the honor, and the prestige associated with golf. Later, golf wasn’t just a game, it was my “in” to greater things in life, particularly my education.
I attended Nease High School in St. Augustine, FL, and Furman University in Greenville, SC solely because of golf. My world was golf, and no matter whether I made it as a touring or teaching pro, all that mattered was golf was my past, it is my present, and it would certainly be my future. My second half of college, my love and passion for the game of golf, something since age 10, I planned on being my career, my future, was now something I “hated” doing due to a very bad two-year coaching experience. So I decided I “hated” golf for a while, quit, threw in the towel and let my clubs get dusty sitting in the garage. What I didn’t realize until recently was that I had let the game of golf define who I was. When you heard the name, “Mo Gesualdi” you automatically associated something with golf, and now, at this time in my life, all I kept hearing from family and friends was, “You’re not playing at all?” or if they asked me to play I always had an excuse as to why I couldn’t play, some legit, others just so I wouldn’t have to play. While it never felt right in my heart to “give up” golf, it had this guilt attached to it for some reason, I did it anyway, against my own instinct. One of many terrible decisions I’ve made in my life, but it was the decision I made, and one I can’t go back and change. I always knew I would get back to playing golf, but it would be on my own terms, when I was ready.
Along with throwing in the “golf towel,” I basically threw in the towel altogether. I had a horrible attitude about myself, about people, and about life for a long while. I was rather depressed my final two years of college and had to go to therapy, for the second time since I started college, one of four times total in my life. I kept it pretty quiet, mostly because I was embarrassed to go to therapy, and I was embarrassed about how I was feeling. I got it together so I wasn’t completely unglued, but the way I was put back together it was like using a cheap glue stick, barely enough to get me through as I was on the verge of “ungluing” at any point in time.
What was my problem? I didn’t realize it at the time, but I now realize I feared responsibility, I feared success, and above all, I feared failure. As a kid I was determined I was going to be a professional golfer of some magnitude when I grew up. Fast-forward to 2012 and I wasn’t on that path at all and it terrified me. Each year I was getting older and not any closer to the person I wanted to be. I was happy and smiling on the outside, taking pictures, having fun, partying, but deep down I was miserable. I was so disappointed in myself. I had no purpose, and the haphazard style life I was leading was proof of that.
Does that make me a bad person? I think not, because I was still kind and friendly and always have the best intentions for others. What it did make me was off-my-beaten path. I made a wrong-turn somewhere in my life and instead of slamming the breaks and turning around, I just kept driving not knowing where the road would take me.
Somehow I failed to accept that traveling 90 mph toward the ledge of a cliff wouldn’t have any repercussions. Well I know now, that certainly isn’t the case. Depression led to drinking. It was the only “solution” to not having to deal with my lack of purpose in life and for a while it felt fine because it opened up my social horizons and I became much less introverted and more easily extroverted. I also met a lot of people, and I was having a great time being constantly social. Every event or birthday party, I was there. If I made to one person’s invitation, I had to go to every invitation I encountered. I had a very hard time saying “no.” Then months passed, and then a year, and then several years, and I wasn’t making any progress in my goals or myself, and it began to eat away heavily at me. Not just emotionally, but physically too. I wasn’t taking care of myself the way I should have been, and just like a plant that isn’t properly watered and fed, I began to internally wilt until I was practically dried up and dead.
Thankfully I had always been an athlete and exercised, because I think that greatly contributed to my strength and ability to endure those three, major, life-saving surgeries in a few weeks time. Was my need for a liver transplant due entirely to eating and drinking lots of glutinous foods and beer over a few years? No, but it certainly didn’t help and surely it expedited my illness to the severity that it was. Is what I put into my body something I can control? Yes. Do I have much better control of my self in terms of how I nourish my body? Yes. Does it feel better? The answer is absolutely.
I feel people who binge themselves in booze, drugs, or food (or whatever superficial and temporary form of fulfillment that is their own personal weakness), is because they are trying mask the feelings that come with having no purpose in life. I not only observed this in myself, but some other people I was surrounding myself with. Not my true friends that I love with all of my heart, (you know who you are), but I encountered many other people over the years. I was “stuck” for a long time, but I finally had the strength and the courage to step away from this toxic environment and this undignified person that I was becoming.
I decided it was best for me to pack it up and move. But by the time I had decided that, it was too late. It was too late. I started feeling sick, and then I fell ill, and then I fell even more ill. It is a horrible feeling to feel hopeless, like you don’t mean anything, like you are a waste of a human being. I sadly had to hit my “rock bottom” before I realized that I was worthy of life, my life. But by then, it was just about too late.
“Just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do. I have learned that life is like hour-glass sand. Sooner or later, everything hits rock bottom, but all you have to do is be patient and wait for something to turn back around.” ~Unknown
I am so lucky, so grateful, so extremely blessed to have not let my rock bottom be the ultimate end-all. Why wasn’t it? Like I said, I will never know why I am still alive and how almost all of the other transplant patients who had a fungal infection in their brain don’t survive, but whatever the medical reasoning is, I know it is because I had a lot of unfinished business to attend to.
I was beyond the point of repair, but the one and only thing I could control was my attitude, and for some unknown reason to me, I managed to have a very positive, a very patient, and very determined attitude when I was diagnosed with stage-4 liver failure. I think that is because I knew it was my chance to make my life better, a chance to “start fresh” and lead a much more fulfilling life. With the love of my friends, family, and top-notch medical attention in my corner, I was determined to live. My MOtivation had been restored. The vision in my head of previously living scared with no destination was now replaced by a vision of living, a vision of overcoming this illness, and not only coming out with a new liver, but with a new mind-set, a new respect for myself, and a new “life.”
The new, transplanted self that I wanted to be is something I am trying and working at each and every day. It is a life-long commitment of hard work, dedication, and self-respect, that will always be a work-in-progress. So far, I am quite proud of myself and how far I have come mentally, physically, and emotionally in the past year-and-a-half. I have found my purpose in life, and that is comforting to my soul. All I will say is that my purpose has been revived and it is taken me back to where I started; back to to golf. I will get into that in another blog, but for now I want to leave you with this.
We are approaching the New Year, a time when people reflect on the past year, and make resolutions for the upcoming one. According to the University of Scranton, Journal of Clinical Psychology, 2012, 45% of you will make New Years Resolutions for next year, but only 8% of you will be successful in achieving that resolution. Those resolution odds are against you, just like the odds were against me, but with the right attitude, combined with determination, I believe you are capable of defying the odds and doing just about anything your little resolution-setting heart desires. My resolution, or my firm determination you could say, is to lead a happy, healthy, and inspirational life.
“The changes in our life must come from the impossibility to live otherwise than according to the demands of our conscience not from our mental resolution to try a new form of life.” Leo Tolstoy
“Don’t give up before the miracle happens.” ~Fannie Flag
It is hard to believe that eighteen months ago I was bed-ridden in the ICU on life-support. Tubes in-and-out of my throat, surgery after surgery, no one knowing whether each day if it would be my last. Living in uncertainty unwilling to even produce a thought for yourself while your body instinctively telling you that your only job for the day is “to survive,” leaves a lasting impression in your head. What I endured and have overcome in all 71 total days in the hospital last year was not only a game-changer, it has forever impacted my life. For the better.
Since my transplant, multiple brain surgeries, extensive physical, occupational, speech, psycho, and now visual therapy–I have since made great strides from the depths of ground zero, essentially. In all honesty, I feel the healthiest I have ever been in my entire life. My strength and endurance are coming around quite nicely as well. I have been working on myself, and making the best “me” that I could possibly be. I have a feeling, almost a knowingness, that I am on the right track and great things are just around the corner for me.
As I mentioned before, recovering from three very major surgeries in a five-week time span, takes quite an enormous toll; not on just my body, but my emotions as well. I can proudly say I have been seeing a psychotherapist for the past four months. My therapist, Susan, has helped me with dealing with the emotional aspect of having a transplant as well as dealing with some of the permanent life changes I have had to make. I have come a long way in the past four months. I used to cry for hours upon hours, locked away in my room. I had no idea why I was crying or how to stop. I was told it was okay to cry. It was okay to let it out. I had so much emotional grief built up from what happened to me, that it all just eventually started coming out in the form of uncontrollable tears down my face. Still, to this moment, tears well up in my eyes just writing and reflecting on my experience.
The tears are not always exactly sadness though. They are all sorts of emotions wrapped into one colossal meltdown. Happiness. Frustration. Triumph. Anger. Anticipation. Discouragement. Wonder. Hope. Appreciation. Dissatisfaction. Confusion. Gratitude. While I am still working to overcome all of these emotions, I am in a much better place than I was several months ago.
Since my transplant, I have often felt guilty. Guilty because I now have life, while my donor doesn’t. My donor is another human being, someone’s daughter, son, brother, sister, cousin, and they are dead. The only reason I am alive is because they are not. I know they are not dead because of me, I am alive because of them. It has been very tough on me, and I imagine this feeling of guilt is going to stay with me forever. I will never be able to repay my donor for their ultimate act of gratitude, but what I can do is give back in the form of being involved in organizations that raise awareness about organ donation, liver disease, and/or other topics that I desire to be a part of.
Since my transplant I have involved myself in several groups, as well as volunteer for several organizations. Donate Life Connecticut and the American Liver Foundation are just two of them, but one of the first groups I became involved with was COPE (Community Outreach for Purpose and Empowerment). COPE, formed by my aunt, aims to empower girls and young women. Members of COPE learn and improve their goal-setting techniques, engage in active plan to achieve their goals, and learn to overcome obstacles and interference that may be holding them back. Overall, the members of COPE learn how to live their life with a purpose. I created the website for COPE and update it regularly. I have really enjoyed doing this, because it allows me to get my creative juices flowing and keeps my mind sharp.
Another way I keep sharp, is through attending and participating in Toastmasters. Toastmasters is a well-recognized, international organization, that is focused on enhancing people’s public speaking, communication, and leadership skills. My aunt Caryn had a feeling I would be speaking publicly about my story one day and
encouraged me to join. If you aren’t a member yet, I strongly encourage you to find one in your area and get involved. I went from being completely incapable of speaking in front of a small crowd, to confidently giving a speech in front of hundreds in a short few months. I began attending the meetings last winter and have since given two prepared speeches. I won “best speech” for both of my speeches, and even won the club’s “Kalley Award” (most impact on the meeting) after my “Icebreaker” speech! My aunt was certainly right when she told me Toastmasters was going to be helpful in my future. I never anticipated how quickly though.
This year I was selected as one of the American Liver Foundation‘s LIVEr Life Champions. As the LIVEr Champion, I served as “the face” for the Liver Life Walk this past September in Stamford, CT. Leading up the event, I filmed a :30 sec PSA for the ALF, was featured on The Liver Life Walk’s regional brochure. Not only that, but I had to be one of the faces at the walk, and give a speech about my survival in front of several hundred people.
I continue to utilize my communication skills while serving as a volunteer ambassador for Donate Life Connecticut. In the past year I have been a part of the Danbury AAA donor program, attended several Donate Life events. I have also shared my survival story to the medical and ER staff at Danbury hospital, raising awareness about organ/tissue donation (through the New England Organ Bank and Donate Life CT). Just last week I was in Greenville, SC and had the privilege to shared my story with the Furman Women’s golf team. That was amazing experience, because I could see that I really touched those girl’s lives. The more speeches I do, the more confident and easier it is to speak in front of people. Hopefully it only gets better from here on out.
I have also occupied my time by returning to the game I hate to love the most, golf. Last January, my grandfather, Emilio, took me to the driving range to see if I could hit; I couldn’t even make one complete swing. I had so much pain in my elbows from being so weak and suffered from severe joint pain, a side-effect of several of my medications. I continued trying to workout and get stronger. By April I was hitting at the driving range with elbow braces trying to minimize the pain. About a month after that I played 18 holes. Shortly after, I was able to walk 18 holes with a pull-cart. I spent a lot of my time practicing and even played in a couple of captain’s choice tournaments in the area. In one of the tournaments, I won $100 for lowest gross score (-11) with my team. At another tournament I also won $100 for longest drive (from the red tees, don’t get too excited!). By the end of the summer I was able to shoot in the the low 80s from the white tees. As of now, I have only broken 80 once since my illnesses; a 73 at Candlewood CC (fairly easy par 71 course). This summer you better believe I am going to get my scoring average down in the 70s!
Now I am currently in St. Augustine, Florida visiting my mom and stepfather. Just a few days ago I was in Greenville, SC for a wonderful nine days catching up with my bestest of friends. I will be spending the next three weeks here in Florida soaking up the sun (while of course wearing my SPF 50), playing lots of golf, attending my 10-year high school reunion (Nease High School, Ponte Vedra Beach, FL), and doing other fun activities with my mom and step dad. Once this trip is over it is back to the grind per-say of my routine of visual therapy, other various doctor appointments, follow-ups, blood work, and daily exercise.
My transplant doctor at Yale informed me that by my next infectious disease appointment in February, there was a good possibility I would be taken off Voriconazole, my anti-fungal medication, Voriconazole. Fingers crossed, I would love to be off this medication; not only because it would be 12 less pills/day to take, but also because the medication is $4,400 a month (no that is not a typo, it is $4,440/month). Even though the price is covered by my insurance, my insurance is such a pain my ass. Each and every month I have to battle with them to get me my medication on-time, simply because my insurance does not want pay for it. Oh well, it could be worse right? Eighteen months ago I was on life-support. Battling insurance inconveniences and other minor hassles are insignificant in comparison to battling to be healthy, battling to breath, battling to to be alive.
In the last eighteen months I have learned so much about myself, about life, about death, and about the inbetween. I will never be able to fully express, in detail, the emotion or meaning of what I have been through. I would never wish it upon my worst enemy to experience what I experienced last spring, but at the same time, I prefer it happen to me rather than someone else. As crazy as it sounds, I would do it again if it meant someone else wouldn’t have to go through it because I know I can handle it. Knowing you knocked “death” on it’s ass after looking it square in the eyes, is one of the most satisfying feelings in the world. I was meant to survive. Before you survive you must endure struggle. That is what gives it meaning. So many people go along just cruising through life. When they coast, they forget about what is really important. I was one of those people.
I have a purpose and I am just now finding out what my purpose is. It begins by being able to share my personal medical journey with you so you can learn from me. What do I hope you learn? I hope you learn that giving back is one of the greatest things you can do. I hope you learn that a positive attitude is the most powerful and infectious attributes that you can have. Lastly, I hope you learn to believe in yourself, and have faith that everything is going to fall in place one day.
Eighteen months down, so many more to go….
“I have come to accept the feeling of not knowing where I am going. And I have trained myself to love it. Because it is only when we are suspended in mid-air with no landing in sight, that we force our wings to unravel and alas begin our flight. And as we fly, we still may not know where we are going to. But the miracle is in the unfolding of the wings. You may not know where you’re going, but you know that so long as you spread your wings, the winds will carry you.” ~C, JoyBell C.
Last month I had my check-up with my infectious disease doctor at Yale-New Haven, Dr. Topal. While all of my doctors are very important to me and my health, I consider my check-ups with my infectious disease doc to be one of my most important because the appointments with him are in regards to the life-threatening abscess I had in my brain in 2012, called “aspergillus fumigatus”. While that infection is no longer present due to the aggressive anti-fungal treatment I was on, I am still currently taking 12 pills/day of a very, very expensive medication ($4,400 a month) just to ensure that it does not return.
I really love my infectious disease doctor, Dr. Topal. Besides being so kind, you can tell he truly cares about his patients and seems to take the extra steps necessary to ensuring his patients are well-taken care of. For instance, each time I’ve had an appointment, Dr. Topal is the one himself typing up the summary of my visit, not just relaying information to the nurse for her to type it up. Dr. Schilsky, Dr. Rodriquez, and Dr. Assis, I have seen do this for me as well, and it is something I definitely notice and admire about them and their commitment to their profession.
The morning prior to meeting with Dr. Topal, I had an MRI taken of my brain to see if there had been any changes since my last MRI, taken five months beforehand. We unfortunately had to deal with some insurance issues, and my scheduled 9 am MRI wasn’t actually taken until much later. I finally had my MRI taken a little after noon, barely in time to get to Dr. Topal’s office located a couple of miles away at the Yale-New Haven Physicians Building.
After getting my vitals checked and sitting and waiting with my grandmother, Dr. Topal strolled in with another young doctor, I assume an attending. He briefly asks the basics, “How are you doing? How are you feeling?…..” I respond, “I’m great, I feel great”, because I did; and I do. “Well you look amazing.” “Thank you….”
Then Dr.Topal and I get into talking about how he had so much trouble with getting the MRI approved, and how he had to personally call and speak to my insurance to tell them how important the MRI is. I mean, it is an MRI of my brain. On-top of that, it is to make sure I still don’t have any remnants of a fatalinfection in there. No big deal right? I’m pretty sure that it is the most important MRI that I can possibly get at this point in time, so I do not know why the insurance always has to be an ass and make it so difficult each and every time to approve what is clearly without a doubt a very important MRI.
Sometimes, I really don’t understand insurance companies. Every single month, I have a very difficult time getting my medication on-time or approved without a hassle and having to make two or three different trips to Walgreens, because they my insurance only approved “partial” amounts. I take 12 Voriconazole pills/day. There are 30 pills in the bottle. Do the math, I go through the bottles like crazy. My pharmacy is approximately 10-15 minutes away, I don’t drive, it’s just a monthly pain-in-the-ass that my family and I have to deal with. But why? It’s not like I want to take a medication that costs nearly $4,500 a month? It’s not like I enjoy having to swallow an additional 12 pills/day on top of all of my anti-rejection medications and vitamins I now have to take after having my transplant. I don’t know many docs that would personally speak to the insurance, especially so promptly, but Dr.Topal did, got everything straightened out with my MRI, and I was highly impressed.
Anyway, after dealing with that inconvenience, Dr. Topal reminded me of my last visit several months ago, and my last MRI showing the aspergillus was no longer there, but there had still been lots of swelling. In comparison, this most current MRI (that I took earlier that morning) showed no abscess, and that the abscess, (the size of two finger-nails), had filled with fluid, with no edema (swelling) around it. I asked if that was normal, to have fluid fill where the abscess was, and he said yes, completely normal.
Dr. Topal went on to say I used to be anything but boring, I’m truly a “miracle child”, and that today my results were “boring,” which is a very good thing, and that he couldn’t be any happier with the results! Doc also said I’m one of only a handful of people since the early 2000’s to have survived and doing well with that type of fungal infection in their brain (invasive aspergillus) and post-surgery treatment. Most people don’t make it out of the hospital because the infection is so aggressive if not recognized and treated very aggressively immediately. With that being said, there is not much research to serve as a guideline as to how much medicine or for how long to treat me with. As long as my body is tolerating the Voriconazole, (which it is currently tolerating extremely well), I will continue my treatment of Voriconazole for an unknown period of time as a preventative measure so the aspergillus doesn’t return. Dr. Topal then went on to say he “doesn’t want to worry about me,” and so that is why they are keeping me on the Voriconazole for an extended period of time. That’s fine by me, because I surely don’t want to worry about me either, and if the aspergillus came back in my brain, that would be something very worrisome to not just me, but my doctors as well. Invasive aspergillus is a vicious monster that hopefully I have slain forever and ever.
I will be on Voriconazole for at least another year just to ensure that the infection does not return. Currently, I take a total of 27 pills/day which Is significantly less than the 46 pills/day I was taking at one point. When I do finally get off the Voriconazole it will be only about 15 pills a day for the rest of my life, and if I can kick some of these vitamins, maybe even less. The very, very least amount of pills I can ever take per day since my transplant is nine pills, which really isn’t that much to swallow, no pun intended.
The following week after seeing Dr. Topal, I had an appointment with my neuro-ophthalmologist at Yale-New Haven, Dr. Walsh. I have seen Dr. Walsh every few months since my transplant because my vision started to cause me problems back in the hospital following my liver transplant. I started having the worst pounding head-aches you could imagine. It felt like my head was being slammed against a concrete wall. That wasn’t all, I would also see bright flashing, moving, colored lights in the right hand corner of my visual field. I was in so much pain and extremely tormented by the flashing lights and voices I was hearing, I just wanted it to end. It felt like there was a painful disco going on in my head and I would have done anything in the world to make it stop. It got really bad and it didn’t take long for my doctors to realize something was really wrong, especially after once again during my hospital visit I was unconscious. I honestly don’t know how I got through it, all I know is I just wanted it to end; anyway, anyhow.
At first my medical team tried to put a patch over my right eye to see if that would make the flashing lights go away. I felt like all that did was block-out some of the brightness from the room. I was still in pain and annoyed by the pounding in my head the flashes I saw. Then my condition started to get really bad and I was in-and-out of a state of awareness. I vaguely recall one time when they were attempting to perform an MRI on my brain. I couldn’t even get through sitting still long enough for them to get an MRI it because my head hurt so excruciatingly bad and I was screaming for them to stop. Other times I kept trying to hold my head and squeeze it to put pressure on certain points to decrease the pain in any way I could. The whole not being able to tolerate pain is extremely unlikely for me. I can usually I can endure the utmost pain without letting anyone know something hurts me if that is any indicator to you how painful it was.
My doctors eventually discovered an extremely rare, and very aggressive fungal infection in my brain called aspergillus. Immunosuppressed patients with aspergillus in their brain is very rare. What is even more is them surviving. My doctor’s only option was to operate, but the likelihood that I could come out with any vision, able to speak, or not paralyzed were not very good at all. That’s even if I survived at all, which was extremely unlikely anyway, and even more so when considering what my body had already went through weeks prior (seizures, cardiac arrest, liver transplant, massive blood transfusion).
Once I had my first brain surgery, I lost my sight to the right in both of my eyes. If you drew a line down the center of each of my eyes, the right half of each of my eyes can no longer produce an image in my brain for me to see. The fungal infection in my brain, located in the left occipital lobe of my brain The occipital lobe is responsible for your visual and speech output. As you may or may not have learned in biology class, the left side of your brain affects the right side of your body, and the right side of your brain affects the left side of your body. Due to the location of my infection (on the left side of my brain), it caused a visual cut to the right side. This field cut is called Homonymous Hemianopia. I can hardly say that correctly, so I, like many others just refer to my visual deficit as HH.
With this type of visual cut in both of my eyes, I was highly prone to word blindness with writing and reading impairments. I am extremely lucky in that I was spared about 3 degrees in my central-right peripheral vision, and because of this I am able to read and write with no difficulty at all. Initially, I did have some reading issues and episodes of dyslexic letters, but after a short time of exercising my brain I was able to resume reading and writing without any problems at all. I had some speech difficulties when I was first discharged and talked very, very slowly, and slurred often. I would avoid certain words just because I couldn’t say them confidently. It didn’t take long for my speech to resume to normalcy after speech therapy, while I do notice I do still tend to slur when I get very tired and sometimes I still chose to avoid using certain words when I am on the tired side.
The first couple of weeks after my brain surgeries, I had to shut-one eye and squint to text and read because it was very hard to see, things were not aligned. That definitely corrected itself or I have learned to compensate better than expected so I am very, very grateful for that. One thing I have noticed, is that while working on the computer, I can’t see things on the right side of my computer screen. Also, when I am watching TV, I can’t I see the whole screen. I have to constantly shift my eyes to the right side of the screen just to see what’s over there, as whatever is in my right peripheral has just “disappeared”. I can’t imagine not being able to read and write, since those are two of my outlets that I now turn to while being confided to the house so often.
I was discharged from the hospital in June 2012 and from then until this March 2013 I have gone to three appointments with my neuro-opthamologist, Dr. Walsh, and once with my optometrist at Opticare locally, here in Danbury, CT. I have taken three visual tests during that time all with Dr. Walsh at Yale in New-Haven, CT.
Dr. Walsh has been around a very long time, and has a lot of credibility under his belt. On the Yale website, the little blurb about Dr. Walsh says, “ Dr. Walsh was named Distinguished Graduate by Bowman-Gray School of Medicine in 1983, and received an honorary degree from Bejing University in 2004. He is the author of two textbooks related to Neuro-ophthalmology, including Visual Fields, published by the Academy of Ophthalmology and now in its third edition. He serves on the Telemedicine Board of Orbis International, and has more than 20 articles online. He is a frequent lecturer at other universities, and a frequent contributor to the literature.” Sounds impressive and credible.
After my most recent visual field test, Dr. Walsh reported to me the words I did not really want to hear. His exact words in regards to my visual field exam were, “Status quo.” Status quo? I’m an athlete, and hearing anything besides “better” or there is “improvement”is not what I want to hear, ever. Dr. Walsh went on to say, “The good news is, nothing worse. Nothing is better, but it is exactly the same. It is not worse so that is good.” Okay, well I’m glad it’s not worse, but honestly I was never thinking in that direction! I was actually hoping that it may have gotten slightly better, since Dr. Topal told me the week before that the swelling was gone in my brain. I thought perhaps, less pressure on my optic nerve may mean there was a miracle chance that some of my vision would gradually return and eventually I could drive? I know that is a stretch, but I am all about wishful thinking. I mean, it’s a miracle I’m alive, on more than one occasion already, so I’m pretty sure another “miracle” isn’t that much more to ask for, right? Apparently my ambitious expectations were a long-shot and what I thought was completely wrong, according to how I interpreted Dr. Walsh’s report to me.
So my next question was, “I’ve looked up prism glasses online and how they can expand your visual field, can I get those and would they assist me in being able to drive?” Dr. Walsh, said, well, no, because I have homonymous hemianopia. I pretty much only see what is to my left or directly in-front of me, almost nothing to the right, at all. You could be standing to my right with your middle-finger directed right at me if your’e standing on my right side and I wouldn’t have a clue that you were even there. Go ahead, you can get your free shot haha.
I was fortunately spared a few slight degrees to the right of central (3 degrees), which is an enormous help me with reading. For the most part in the books I have read, I have been able to see the entire page of the book and have learned to scan better so I can shift my eyes to make sure I have read all of the words on the page. Some HH patients only see half of the page and so they may skip half the words on the page simply because they do not see it.
I can only see directly in-front of me, which is obviously a safety issue for driving. “It is illegal to drive, ” Dr. Walsh says in a which came off to me as a not-so pleasant, slightly condescending tone, assuming as-if had been cruising around illegally, (which I certainly have not excluding once in a parking lot, and on the quad (4-wheeler) in our backyard). The other doctor in my exam room, much younger, (and very handsome I might add), chirps in and says that, “Legally to be able to drive in the state of Connecticut you need to have 140 degrees in your visual field to legally drive.”
Originally when I lost my vision while I was in the ICU at Yale, I just thought I had an issue with my right eye since I can’t see to the right, It took a visual field exam and neuro-opthamologist to tell me that I had a field cut in both eyes to the right side. Apparently there is a name for this “disability” as I have been labelled by the government. I can never say it correctly, but I did read up on it (which I found here: http://www.eyeassociates.com/hemianopsia_article_blue.htm and http://www.hemianopsia.net/).
In-order to drive in Connecticut you need to pass the visual field test which is set for 140 degrees peripheral vision. My doc said I have about three degrees right of central, so around 93 degrees, I’m assuming that is. Prism glasses can give you about 20-30 extra degrees, so if I could get those, that would put me at about 120 degrees, at best, still short of what I need legally to drive in Connecticut. Maybe I can move to Iowa or somewhere in the Midwest, I bet their laws are less strict. If worst comes to worst maybe I can live there and ride a cow for transportation, lol. MOOOOOOOve, biatch, get out the way!
I think my heart broke into a million pieces when I heard this. He totally made me feel like it’s nothing at all to never be able to drive again. The thought of having your driving privileges taken away for the rest of your life, in my opinion, is one of the worst things has happened to me during this whole transplant experience. It has taken away my entire independence and freedom, two things that I took for granted prior to my transplant. Yes, my family is plentiful and very loving, caring, and self-sacrificing for the most part. While I am so grateful and fortunate to have the amazing family I have, it does not eliminate the fact that I so desperately crave my independence back, and there is not anything else in the world I want that to one day be able to drive again.
That crushing news a few weeks ago was one of the biggest disappointments I have been told thus far. I was balancing fighting back the tears and being so extremely mad at the same moment. I bottled up that frustration for a good few days while my family kept assuring me the world is not over and that one day, I will be driving again. At first, I really did lose hope for several days. I let that negative diagnosis said consume my mind with the worst possible thoughts and drained my head with misery and limited self-worth. Then, something my family said finally got me thinking. They said, “Well the doctors also said you wouldn’t be alive, and you are. They also said you might be paralyzed, or completely blind, and you aren’t, so the doctors aren’t always right, Mo. You gotta stay positive, one day there is going to be something, there will be some sort of technology and you will be able to drive again Mo.”
I just needed to hear it, and that triggered a “you’re right” moment in my head and I started daydreaming like I normally do thinking of me driving again one-day, and my back-up plan of having a personal driver named Gesualdo that we would call “Waldo” for short for the specific purpose of when I had to call him, I could say, “Where’s Waldo?” Haha.
While my vision may not ever come back, that does not mean some brilliant, ingenious scientist will create some sort of visual assistance gear that will be able to expand my visual field where I can eventually see to the right, and perhaps, maybe even be able to drive. Years ago, people with amputated legs were told they were never able to run again, and now I’ve read an article where a man had not one, but two prosthetic legs, and has run over 9 half-marathons! That is crazy and so bad-ass all at the same time! If they think they are going to tell me I can’t drive, and I am just going to let that be it, then they are very, very wrong. I just have to figure out how to get there, but it is written-down on my long-term goal list, my journal, and hangs on my vision wall. I will have that checked off if it is the last thing I do in this life, and if you know me at all, if I say I’m going to do something, it gets done.
I may not be able to see anywhere near what you see, but you wouldn’t know it. I have learned to compensate pretty well. I did walk in New York City alone on New Years Eve, and even though it was slightly overwhelming, I only bumped into a few people, and tripped only once, so that is pretty good if you ask me considering how mad swarmed the city is on that particular day. I still am having a little trouble though. I went again to NYC with my sister this year, and somehow I managed to get my foot stuck underneath the wheel of a baby stroller that I collided with head on that I failed to see. My sister still won’t let that one go.
A few weeks ago at the grocery, I was walking down the central aisle, with my head turned 90 degrees to the left looking down the aisles and there was a random “sale box” of items that I did not see at all and I totally slammed into that. The other day I went to pick up something off of the floor and I slammed my head hard into the table because I couldn’t see it when I went to bend over. I do walk into the side of the door-frames from time-to-time from cutting the corners too sharp, and I definitely still do bump into people at the store. Overall though, I have learned coping mechanisms such as siting in certain places around the table, and walking along-side people on my left so I can see them and stay close to the wall or edge as a guide.
As of November 2013 I started going to visual therapy at Eye Care Associates, an hour away in Southport, CT. I will write an updated blog in regards to that when that has concluded. What is written below is dated from March 2013.
As I mentioned, I am going to two eye doctors, and my optometrist at Opticare said let’s wait a year and see if my vision has changed at all and see if we can look into prism glasses eventually. I will try to be more patient and hopefully my next visits to the eye doctor will be more optimistic. “Dream lofty dreams, and as you dream, so shall you become. Your vision is the promise of what you shall one day be. Your ideal is the prophecy of what you shall at last unveil.” ~James Allen
In the meantime, I will continue my blogging and on my gluten-free recipe blog that I created which I really have enjoyed trying to create delicious gluten-free recipes (www.glutenfreegesualdi.wordpress.com). I also enjoy my involvement in our young leadership group, COPE and plan on participating in Donate Life New Connecticut events and the American Liver Foundation’s “Liver Life Walk” each year annually. I have also joined Toastmasters International and after my first speech I won the “Kalley Award” for most impact on the speech and voted “best speech” of the night by the club! That felt pretty rewarding and things that like keep me motivated to keep going. You can also keep tabs on me and check my full story and pictures on my own personal website www.justsaymo.org!
I leave with this quote for myself, and for you as well. “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours.” ~Henry David Thoreau