In my Statistics class we were studying DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man, perfectly ordered and symmetrical. So we measured ourselves—arm span and height—and graphed the data. As we compared notes, curious to discover who amongst us fit the Renaissance ideal, the room grew quieter, and then awkwardly silent. According to our scattergram, I was the most symmetrical. But everyone’s dropped eyes seemed to ask the same question, “How can that be?”
We all have 12 cranial nerves. Except me—I was born with only 11 intact facial nerves. If there is damage to the first nerve, you can’t smell. Problems with the eighth nerve cause vertigo. My seventh cranial nerve was damaged, or not fully developed, so one side of my face droops, one eye blinks on a schedule all its own, and one side of my body is out of tune with the other. People often stare at me, or ask if I had a stroke. I’m many things—but I’m not symmetrical.
When I was born, my mom was presented with two options: I could either be a hospital patient and participate in intensive physical therapy to increase my bilateral muscle strength, or she could be my full-time coach in extracurricular activities to make my body symmetrically strong. The latter choice would not be the financially easier path, but she chose it instantaneously. She quit her job and exposed me to everything from tae kwon do to ice skating, tennis to basketball, swimming to gymnastics, piano to guitar, violin to singing. Other kids would come into practice to make some new friends, while I came in to make sure my right foot could move symmetrically with my left to “swizzle.”
Growing up, I struggled with tasks that others took for granted, from raising my eyebrows to smiling on picture day. With an extremely strong support system, I incrementally acquired the confidence to confront the prejudices of others and instead worked hard on improving my muscle strength. My arduous regimen resulted in considerable progress, although still not completely normal. If I laugh, one half of my face looks full of vitality and the other half is still permanently asleep.
As I entered high school I focused on the violin as a means of escaping myself, as a way of privileging listening over looking. For 12 years I led and played with the New Jersey Youth Symphony and taught violin. My favorite student named Frank had a complex learning disability, so his enthusiasm for violin was punctuated by sudden bouts of silence and difficulties in processing the music. While other peer tutors found teaching him to be too chaotic, I found myself seeing his potential and strength. Teaching Frank was definitely a struggle at first but eventually I discovered a pattern—he could focus on about five notes and play them beautifully before losing concentration. So I broke up the music by measure, perfecting each section with him before moving on. Within a few weeks, Frank got the hang of it. The first time that he made it through Lindsey Stirling’s haunting Lord of the Rings he shrieked with excitement, having turned a jumble of notes into a melody he recognized from his favorite movie.
Lots of situations look like chaos, at first. In high school I decided to become a certified Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). During my first call, I reported to a motor vehicle accident on my volunteer rescue squad’s ambulance. Everyone on the crew was in a tumultuous debate about the type of transport required for the patient. Still fresh out of training, I thought through the flowchart for assessing a mechanism of injury—what if the patient’s spine was affected? We had to take C-spine precautions. I stabilized her cervical spine, a precaution that was incredibly important and played a role in the treatment for the patient’s whiplash later on. Emergency medical services drew me deep into the field of medicine, and I loved how fast-paced it was. Once I came to college at Northwestern, I knew that I wanted to give back to this community so I started and co-instructed an EMS training course and volunteer student squad. Being on a squad as well as teaching these skills showed me that when people are in their most vulnerable and fearful state, awareness, tenacity, and organization are essential traits for optimizing treatment.
Volunteering in the medical community pushed me to ask bigger and tougher questions about improving treatments in medicine. After my great-uncle passed away due to liver cirrhosis, I became disheartened that the organ allocation process was not systematic and fair all over the world—in fact it was quite chaotic. I developed an interest in pursuing research to help liver transplant candidates on the waiting list. Throughout college I worked in Northwestern’s Transplant Outcomes Research Collaborative on projects related to readability of patient education materials, exercise on the waiting list, and machine learning for optimizing allocation. Pursuing research in organ transplantation made me realize that there will always be disorganization in health systems—improvement is only possible if you can visualize the big picture and appreciate the potential for order.
Many moments in my family’s life have been unanticipated—they do not follow a rational pattern or have a reasonable explanation. My dad came to America with only $20, ready for a new beginning but his ride did not show at the airport. This resulted in him calling numbers in a Yellow Pages and lodging with a stranger until he could find work. My mom, a healthy working woman, had an extremely high-risk pregnancy resulting in a child with nerve paralysis and a sudden career change. During this past year of school I had an eye surgery for my condition which, despite my dad’s savings and my income from three jobs, was an unanticipated financial burden to my family. But as we reflect on each milestone in my life with gratitude, we would have never speculated that a case of high-risk pregnancy might find her rhythm as a violin-playing, commencement-speech-delivering girl who ventures into the very field that gave her life. With support from the WCI scholarship, I can support my parents, who gave me the financial beginnings, physical therapy, and moral support to become as strong as I am today. I can also support myself as I take on loans to pursue a medical and public health (MD/MPH) dual degree at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine.
A few months ago I encountered a book by James Gleick called Chaos Theory that suggested, curiously, that non-linear mathematics could discern order in systems that otherwise look chaotic—a dripping faucet or global weather, for instance. Viewed in the right way, we can see order and even beauty in things that appear disordered. The teacher who recommended it suggested it was an important, but rather abstract concept. But to me, it felt familiar, even intuitive. It is something I hear every day in my music, something I see every time I look in the mirror, and something I dream of creating in the future of healthcare.