The Hand of God

[Now that the kids are back in school and the Cleary fundraiser is over (which was an incredibly special experience for which I do not yet have the words to share with you), I hope to be writing a lot more again. This is the long-anticipated – I’m being facetious – part 2 of the story of my cancer diagnosis, continued from A Nightmare. This post begins with some weighty, philosophical thoughts, but bear with me – you will soon know the next part of the story.  Part 3, the final part of this story which should be closely read with this piece, will be forthcoming soon.]

I follow no institutionalized religion and have no patience for proselytizing, but I do have faith in a higher power – most of the time anyhow. In my elusive moments of faith, when I am alone and still and no one asks me to verbalize or justify that faith, I know with a certainty that I could never explain that the hand of God has touched my life. It was that hand of God that allowed me to live when I should have died at two months of age. It was that hand of God that took me out of the desolation of Communist Vietnam (made even more desolate by the very fact of my congenital blindness) to this greatest country in the world where everything is possible. It was the hand of God that led my mother (who spoke no English and knew no one in this new country) to take me to one of the finest eye institutes in the world where sight would be given to me (more sight than anyone would have expected after four years of blindness and optic nerve damage). It was the hand of God that gave me the innate tenacity, intelligence and drive to overcome the often times demoralizing aspects of seeing the world so imperfectly with my embarrassing large print books and magnifying glasses and constant sense of humiliating dependency and incapacity. It was the hand of God that, despite the utter absence of guidance and expectation both at home and at school and the other crippling effects of poverty and cultural ignorance, led me to make decisions and take action quickly based on intuition alone, resulting in me attending the top ranked liberal arts college in the country (where I paid virtually nothing for that education) and then Harvard Law School, where I lived and studied with people much, much richer, smarter, more articulate and more accomplished than I, but who, despite intimidating me, drove me to be more than I ever dreamed possible.

By the time I was diagnosed with cancer, I felt like I could recognize the hand of God in my life, that invisible force of goodness that I cannot begin to comprehend intellectually or explain rationally, but that I can feel in my heart and soul in my rare moments of stillness, when I am moved by unearthly beauty or a profound truth or struck unwillingly by a sense that some happenstance was actually meant to be. As incredible as it may seem, I believed then, even in the depths of my nightmare – as I still do today – that the hand of God led me to Los Angeles in July 2013 when I was so sick, that Providence intervened once again as it had on other occasions in my life to put me in the best place possible to weather the traumatic storm of being diagnosed with cancer, where during the month that I stayed in Los Angeles, I would come to know exquisite and humbling compassion and love I never knew was possible. Even as the memories of that period of diagnosis continue to traumatize me, I also recall that time with a certain fondness. It was a magical period full of beauty and incomparable love; and it is that sense of magic and wonder that also resonates for me of Providence. While what happened 14 months ago marked the commencement of the most challenging and heartbreaking journey of my life that may very well take me to my final days on this earth, it also hailed the beginning of the most important, gratifying and enriching journey of my life on which my mind and soul have truly begun to understand the most penetrating universal truths about what it is to be human, what it is to live fully and even the very meaning of life.

Those truths will be the subjects of future posts, but suffice it to say for now, that those truths began to reveal themselves to me in those darkest days, even as I mourned the loss of my old life of innocence, even as I thought I would suffocate from the fear of dying too young, even as I sobbed into the lonely darkness of that horrid hospital room at Garfield Medical Center at 4 the thought of my daughters growing up without their mother.

Atheists would challenge my assertions that God’s hand has ever touched my life by asking, if indeed the story of my cancer diagnosis had Providential elements, why did providence not intercede to prevent my cancer in the first instance? Why couldn’t this journey have begun later in my life when my children were older? They would say that nothing happens for a reason, that everything is coincidence and plain old bad luck, that shit happens all the time to good and bad people, that any sense of magic or meaning I derive from my experience is solely a mental contortion to bring order to chaos, to make myself feel better about having such profound misfortune as to have cancer at age 37. I have no convincing response; this is why I say that I have faith in a higher power most of the time, when I am not asked to explain or justify my faith. I will reiterate, however, that I believe God to be a concept that cannot be understood by the limited human mind. I’d also ask those atheists how they can have such faith that there is no higher power or reason or meaning; how can they rule out the possibility? And then, I’d ask them to hear the second part of the story of my diagnosis.

To be diagnosed with colon cancer while on vacation is by itself a crazy thing to happen. Anyone would have to agree with that statement. What other word could I use to describe the unlikelihood of that occurrence, first that I should have cancer at all at age 37 from a statistical perspective and then to have the shit hit the fan so to speak while in Los Angeles for a family wedding and reunion. Crazy definitely, but not Providential, not by that fact alone anyhow.

Even as I and my immediate family were trying to process the fact that I had cancer and fighting through the paralyzing shock in my tiny half of the hospital room that Sunday morning of July 7 – I don’t think we had quite made it to the point of thinking about what had to happen next for I think it was literally minutes after Josh had handed me the colonoscopy report and my brother was still sitting by my bedside – my cell phone rang. A caller from New York with a phone number that was vaguely familiar. Automatically, I answered, “Hello?”

“This is Dr. F. We spoke the other day when I advised you to go to the ER. I’m just calling to check in and see what happened,” the voice on the other end said. It was Dr. F., the doctor covering for my internist, Dr. N.L., during the 4th of July weekend, calling me on a Sunday and minutes after I had received this devastating news. Did he have a sixth sense that something had happened?

I was just so happy to hear a medical voice from “home”, at least the place I considered my adult home, where my life was, where my trusted doctors were. My response to Dr. F. was immediate, even if it was somewhat panicky and tearful. “I’m so glad you called Dr. F. I just received the results of my colonoscopy. I have a mass blocking 75-99% of my transverse colon and it’s suspicious for cancer!”

The briefest moment of silence, and then Dr. F. said, “I’ll call you right back.” My phone rang again a moment later. “I just spoke to Dr. N.L. and we both agree that you need to get out of that hospital and get yourself to a reputable facility in Los Angeles and you need to find a colorectal surgeon immediately.”

A colorectal surgeon? What was a colorectal surgeon? I’d never ever heard the word “colorectal” in my life. And how the hell was I going to find a colorectal surgeon and how was I going to get to a reputable facility? I was hooked up to an IV, that was giving me food and pain and anti-nausea meds, and I was severely uncomfortable with a distended stomach that made me look like I was four months pregnant. It wasn’t like I could just walk out of the hospital. All those thoughts hit my brain at once. I knew one thing for certain though, even in my shocked state — there was no way in hell the idiot, drunk and incoherent surgeon at Garfield Medical Center who had said that he’d seen nothing in my x-rays and that the blockage would just clear on its own was ever going to touch me. I hated him and that Podunk hospital and I wanted to leave immediately, but not to another facility in Los Angeles. I wanted to go back to New York, to doctors I knew. “Coming back to New York for surgery is not a good idea,” Dr. F. stated firmly when I told him I wanted to go home. Dr. F. and Dr. N.L. knew of no colorectal surgeons in Los Angeles. I would have to find one myself.

True, I had grown up in Los Angeles but I’d left 20 years earlier. I had never lived there as an adult. I knew the big hospitals were Cedar Sinai – that’s where all the celebrities seemed to go – and UCLA, but I certainly knew no doctors in Los Angeles. So Josh and my siblings started alerting my cousins, first to let them know what was happening and then to ask them for any leads on colorectal surgeons. No doubt my mother, true to traditional Chinese values, would have been horrified that we were publicizing the shameful details of my diagnosis, but it’s a good thing we did because within the hour my Cousin C called me – she had also come back to Los Angeles for the wedding.

Cousin C, who I grew up with and who is like a sister to me, wasted no time with the emotional stuff – there would be plenty of time for that later. She was all business with me on the phone, as was I. We are Chinese. We are immigrants. Our ancestors escaped poverty and war by fleeing to Vietnam and we and our parents did the same by fleeing to America “on a sinking boat” no less, as my cousin N likes to say. Pragmatism flows through our veins. Cousin C lives in Westport, Connecticut now but for years she lived in Maplewood, New Jersey, next to a very renown gastroenterologist whose practice is Manhattan-based. She hadn’t been in touch with him for years but she would email him to see if he had any recommendations. Paolo was his name. I never learned what his last name was. Paolo responded promptly to Cousin C’s email even though they hadn’t communicated in so long, on a Sunday over 4th of July weekend. Yes, one of his actor patients had gotten surgery last year from a Dr. James Y. at UCLA and he’d been quite happy with that surgeon. Could Cousin C please provide him with Josh’s cell phone number and he would reach out to Dr. Y?

A couple hours later while Josh was in the car with my brother, on their way to pick up some lunch and considering some unpromising leads for a colorectal surgeon, Josh’s phone rang. “Hi Josh. This is Jim. Paolo told me about your situation. How can I help you?” A top surgeon at UCLA calling Josh on his cell phone on a Sunday during a holiday weekend and being so incredibly friendly and helpful – it absolutely defied all of our preconceived notions about arrogant, aloof surgeons. Dr. Y. told Josh that he would operate immediately before seeing any biopsy results because in almost all cases, something like this was definitely cancer. He told Josh he would be glad to take me as a patient and that he would serve as the accepting doctor in the hospital transfer process. Josh and I were relieved and ecstatic. This was the first step in me getting out of that hell hole of a hospital.

A worsening obstruction with increasing pain and nausea, combined with the frantic desperation of knowing that I had a malignant growth inside me, made the few hours that had elapsed feel like days and weeks, and so we quickly moved (or at least we tried to quickly move) onto the next step in the process – getting through the hospital and insurance company bureaucracy to effectuate the hospital-to-hospital transfer, and by “we” I really mean Josh because he was the only one capable of dealing with such matters at that point. Josh is not one of those people who likes dealing with the details of life (e.g., paying bills, buying soap, planning vacations, arranging for the fixing of broken appliances). He also hates talking on the phone, whether to order a food delivery or resolving the faulty cable. When there’s an issue of any sort, I’m the one who calls to complain and demand (usually while Josh is ranting in my other ear). During the more than 24 hours it would take for me to be transferred, I would witness a new side to my husband as he extended himself to do what did not come naturally to him. He would call and harass the various parties involved as we waited and waited and waited – the staff at Garfield Medical Center, the staff at UCLA and the insurance company – as UCLA sought to convince itself that my insurance company (unfamiliar to west coast medical providers) would pay the medical bills.

I was lying there forlornly late Sunday afternoon, starting to realize that a transfer that same day was looking less and less likely given the nonresponsiveness of my insurance company when my hospital room phone rang. It was someone calling from UCLA for me. The guy on the other end wanted to verify my identity. “Mrs. Yip-Williams, our records indicate that the name associated with your social security number is Ly Thanh Diep…our records indicate that your address is 911 West College Street, Los Angeles, CA…our records indicate that your phone number is (213) 250-0580.” My name was at one point Ly Thanh Diep – it’s another story for another time – and my address and phone number 33 years ago had been exactly as the man said. Thirty-three years ago I had received my eye surgeries at UCLA, the surgeries that would give me sight. That was the only possible reason why this man was rattling all of this outdated information about me. A blast from the past, indeed. And yet somehow, realizing that I was going back to the place where I had received my first surgery ever, which had in a certain respect saved my life, after all these years made me feel like I was coming full circle, like there was a certain comforting rightness about what had happened and what was about to happen, like the nudge of God’s hand.

Josh was on the phone with the insurance company at 5 a.m. local time the next day, Monday, trying valiantly to push the bureaucracy along. With the start of regular business hours and the return of a full staff (as opposed to the skeletal personnel on duty over the holiday weekend), my insurance company moved much more quickly. By late morning, we received word that UCLA had financially cleared me for the transfer. Josh and I were ecstatic – another hurdle crossed. However, there was to be yet another.

There were no available beds at UCLA and there likely wouldn’t be a bed until Wednesday or Thursday, we were told. I was horrified – Wednesday or Thursday? I felt certain with the worsening pain in my gut that I would be dead by Wednesday or Thursday. We briefly considered ripping the IVs out of my arm so that Josh could drive me to the ER at UCLA – that would surely get us a bed. Reason prevailed, however, as that strategy held a certain amount of medical risk and uncertainty, not to mention uncontrolled pain and nausea. In desperation, Josh called Dr. Y on his cell phone and begged him for help. Dr. Y. made a few phone calls and informed us that there were in fact 28 people ahead of me in line for a bed at UCLA Ronald Reagan, and that he could do nothing about moving me up in that line, notwithstanding my desperate physical condition. However, UCLA Santa Monica – a branch of the main Ronald Reagan facility – had a “favorable” bed situation; Dr. Y. himself did not operate at Santa Monica but he would get me to the best at Santa Monica. My financial clearance would be good for either UCLA facility so there would be no further delay in that regard. Josh and I were desperate – yes, whatever; we need to get out of here we told him! I could feel myself closer to death with every minute that I remained at Garfield Medical Center; at this point, we were just holding on to the hope offered to us by this faceless surgeon we had never met (and indeed would never meet) and about whom we knew nothing (other than the limited information discoverable through Google).

An hour later, as I was shuffling down the dreary hallway with Josh by my side in an effort to escape the claustrophobia of my hospital room, someone came to tell me that the ambulance was on the way. Within minutes two EMTs were wheeling a gurney into my room and I happily albeit very awkwardly climbed aboard as they fastened a belt around my middle; I was so careful to hold the strap away from my distended stomach to avoid more pain and discomfort. They hoisted the gurney up and pushed me down the hallway, onto the elevator and out the double doors into a waiting ambulance. I’d never been on a gurney or an ambulance. Perhaps, it was adrenaline pumping through my veins at finally getting out of that hell hole, but I felt a bit of euphoria lying in that gurney, seeing the world from an unnaturally high but completely new and exciting perspective.

During the summer before I started law school in 1999, I spent five weeks studying Spanish in Sevilla and then another five weeks backpacking alone through much of Europe. I was a little nervous about traveling alone; most people would be; but then add to that my visual limitations, and I was more than a little nervous. It was one of those things I had to do to prove to the world (but mostly myself) that I could. I never booked accommodations in advance. I’d just jump off the train at whatever new city, having just read the chapter on that city in my trusty guidebook, and look for a cheap youth hostel using whatever maps I could get my hands on. One warm summer night with many more weeks to go in my travels, I was lying on a train platform, with my beloved purple backpack as a pillow, somewhere in the South of France waiting for the next train that would take me to Rome. I was surrounded by a handful of other backpackers, yet entirely alone. I will never forget as I looked up at the starlit sky thinking that I had no idea where I would be sleeping, or doing for that matter, the next night or the night after that or the night after that. And while there was a tinge of fear at the thought, I felt an overwhelming excitement for what lay ahead. There was a certain carefree joy in the not knowing, a freedom in not having to be anywhere or with anyone, in the promise of limitless possibilities. And then, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace that chased away whatever trepidation I had, for I knew that everything would be okay, that I would find my way.

I felt that same way as I lay in the hoisted gurney, looking down at Josh as he walked beside me – yes down at my 6’3” Josh for a change. I had no idea what would be the next day or the day after that or the day after that. And even though the sentiments would wax and wane over the next weeks and months, in that moment I was smiling with anticipation, excitement and peace, off to the next adventure in my life. I bombarded the EMTs with questions, about where they came from, about whether they would turn on the sirens for me, about the most harrowing rescue they’d been involved in. The thought of riding in an ambulance was thrilling. I knew that this new adventure, although not of my choosing, would enrich my soul just as all the other adventures of my life had enriched my soul.

As the ambulance whisked me away onto the 10-West freeway towards the ocean, I began to wake from my nightmare and move away from its darkness towards the light. And so began what I call the golden and magical part of my story of diagnosis.

[Continued in A Love Story]

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: A Nightmare | Julie Yip-Williams
  2. Debbie whitmore
    Sep 15, 2014 @ 19:21:09

    I love your story and I’m eager to hear the rest of it. It’s like reading a great novel and now I can’t wait to turn the page and hear the rest of your journey.


  3. Trackback: A Love Story | Julie Yip-Williams
  4. Trackback: Julie Fruit Flies And Julie Mice | Julie Yip-Williams
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