Conjoined Twins

Chang and Eng Bunker. Born 1811. Thailand.

 

One might wonder how conjoined twins manage to survive – physiologically, mentally, and emotionally – after surgical separation. While some sets of conjoined twins, for medical reasons, cannot be separated, as in the somewhat famous case of Brittany and Abby Hensel, since 1987 several have been successfully separated. In some cases, conjoined twins, who are old enough to make thoughtful choices, have refused to be separated. Lupita and Carmen Andrade, who were expected to live only three days after they were born, not only defied the odds, but are now living together, literally. Both refused the option to be separated. According to the Deccan Chroniclethe twins say “it would be like cutting them in half.”

The decision to surgically separate conjoined twins is not one to be taken lightly. Inevitably, ethics comes into play. The most urgent question of all: What if one twin must be sacrificed? Do we allow one twin to die to save the other? Which twin’s life matters more? The questions are endless, questions I can’t imagine having to face if I were the parent of conjoined twins.

You might be wondering why I’m writing about conjoined twins, why I’m sharing with you this extremely rare and mind-blowing phenomenon. I’m sharing all this with you because I cared for a set of conjoined twins as a neonatal intensive care nurse. Though decades have passed since I held all *fourteen pounds of sweetness in my arms, fed them, changed their diapers, and held my breath as I waited for the then eight-month-old twins to come out of the hours-long surgery, I’m still awestruck. So what does a writer do with all that awe? Naturally, she writes about it. Which is exactly what I have done in my essay, “After,” published today at Intima, a literary Journal dedicated to promoting the theory and practice of Narrative Medicine. Created in 2010 by graduate students in the Master of Science program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, Intima has featured writers in the literary and medical fields from around the world.

Thank you for reading “After,” and feel free to follow-up with thoughts, questions, and, of course, your own awestruck moments.

 

*fourteen pounds is a guesstimate.

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Pain Woman Takes Your Keys

Though I’ve already written a blog post about pain, I’m here writing about it again. Why? Because I’ve been thinking a lot about pain after recent emergency surgery to have my appendix removed. During the first week of my recovery, I spent a lot of time hanging out on the couch, either sleeping or reading. You’d think I would have treated myself to a few light reads, but, like I said, pain was (and is) very much on my mind. So the first book I picked up from the pile next to me was Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from A Nervous System by Sonya Huber.

In lyrical wit-filled prose, Huber writes about living with rheumatoid arthritis. She invites us into her pain, and all that goes with it: the anger, fatigue, and frustrations; the slump into poor self-image and self-critical talk, as in “Sometimes I berate myself for not being up to the level of other bodies … Sometimes I feel that in writing and revealing pain I am revealing wrongness (33, 85).” Though she writes to understand her own pain, she also writes for all of us. I mean, who has not suffered pain? More so, she writes for women in chronic pain. It is Huber’s sense of “wrongness” with which women in chronic pain are marked. Sadly, even centuries after women were labeled “hysterical” for expressing pain, not much has changed. When it comes to pain, women are still misunderstood.

Because chronic pain is not like a missing limb or a gaping wound, it’s what Huber calls “invisible suffering (25).” Thus, women are often forced to explain their pain to others, as she openly attests to in her letter to a feminist scholar (Yes, a woman!): “Thank you for making me articulate exactly what it means to live with a disease that is both painful and energy sapping … Thank you for making me detail the obstacles, which include the fact that any lengthy travel … will make me sick and thus destroy weeks of lucid work and family time. (117).”

As much as Huber’s book is about pain, she does bring relief to the page at just the right moments. For example, she shares with us how she reaches out to Facebook friends for stickers to decorate her cane, creating a “joyful explosion of adhesives that … brings more joy than an anonymous metal pole (96).”

Sometimes I wonder if pain ever gets tired of its role – always making us cranky and unpleasant to be around. Maybe the pain we experience is not always an indicator of illness or injury, and instead sometimes it’s trying to tell us, “I’m hurting too, and want you to have fun with me so we can both feel better.” Who knows?

What I know is how I feel about the pain scale. I dread it. Because I’m not good at making decisions, asking me to assign a number to my pain only creates additional pain. Instead of numbers, I prefer using real life language, the language of what it means to be a human being in pain. That’s why I’m on Huber’s side when she tells it to us straight: in place of a seven on the pain scale, she says, “Don’t fucking touch me (156).”

What about you? What “real life” language describes your pain?

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Autobiography of my hungers: Rigoberto González

“Like many Mexican children, I cleaned the piedritas out of the uncooked beans before they went into the pot – my meal-prep duty to help my overwhelmed mother as she spun around in the kitchen. The process was simple, but time-consuming: a pile of beans was placed at the edge of the table. I’d hold a bowl just below the edge to drop in the clean pieces, and I’d pick off the debris – dried-up seeds, miniature twigs, tiny stones – all the undesirable, inedible stowaways. These would be set aside in a pile of their own, to be tossed at the conclusion of the cleaning.

“I refused to dispense with my pile of detritus too soon since these were the fruits of my labor, the nuggets minded out of the sack. They were much more interesting than the beans which huddled in the bowl, boring as clones.”


Award winning author, poet, fiction writer, memoirist, editor, professor of English, and more, Rigoberto González, who identifies himself as a gay Chicano, delivers that compelling narrative in the opening chapter of his book, autobiography of my hungers. The chapter, “allegory,” could not be better titled, for it’s the peidritas, or stones, that are emblematic of Rigoberto: He sees himself as the “debris,” the “undesirable,” “the dried-up seed.” But he refuses to “dispense” with himself, to give in, to give up. Through breath-halting poetry and affecting prose, each vignette in this slim yet lasting memoir portrays Rigoberto’s tumultuous journey through his childhood and beyond. His literal hunger growing up poor morphs into other kinds of hungers – hunger for love, and a lover, for acceptance and recognition, for an attractive body, and a healthy body, for quiet comfort, and for sustained empathy and understanding. Along the way, though, Rigoberto fills the “uninhabited rooms” of his existence with refreshing self-awareness and enduring vision.

Autobiography of my hungers will leave you sated, yet craving more – more of Rigoberto’s “gallery of tiny gems, colorful and edible as gumdrops.”

 

 

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Medical Literary Messenger

I’m happy to share with you that my essay, “A Faded Scar with Palpable Edges,” is now available to read in The Medical Literary Messenger, a web-based journal associated with Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, and whose aim is “to promote humanism and the healing arts through prose, poetry, and photography.” The essay is about my struggle to overcome Anorexia Nervosa, an eating disorder affecting between one and five percent of female adolescents and young girls. The deeply contemplative and inspiring creative works published in the journal can’t help but make one pause to reflect on health, illness, and the human condition. So, while I hope you take a moment to read my essay, I also encourage you to read, and view, the other “voice[s] for the healing arts (Medical Literary Messenger).”

“A Faded Scar with Palpable Edges” was previously published in Humanthology, website devoted to real life chronicles connecting writers and readers to causes they embrace. Though I’m sad to share that Humanthology is no longer in publication, you can still access my essay, and others, on the website.

 

 

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Cranial Sacral Therapy

cranial_sacral_therapy

Our bodies deserve to be treated with kindness. Right? If you are looking to do just that, whether you are living with post-traumatic stress disorder, a traumatic brain injury, chronic neck and back pain, migraines, or any other emotional or physical ailment, why not give cranial sacral therapy (CST) a try? Discovered in 1970 by osteopathic physician John E Upledger, CST is not as new-age as you might think.

I know, “cranial sacral” sounds nothing like new-age. You might cringe at the notion of someone messing with your neck and spinal column. But, with CST, there is no mess involved: back cracking, neck manipulation, muscle tugging. To help understand CST, I’ll interrupt here with a very brief lesson in Anatomy 101. More than most other parts of the body, the brain and spinal cord, which make up the central nervous system (CNS), influence the ability of the body to function properly. In turn, for the CNS to  function up to par, it relies heavily on a healthy craniosacral system: the membranes and fluid that surround, protect and nourish the brain, spinal cord, and the attached bones.

Since we endure stress every day – sitting at a desk for long hours, dragging a whining toddler through the grocery store, driving through bumper-to-bumper traffic – the body’s tissues tighten and create havoc in the craniosacral system. This can cause increased tension around the brain and spinal cord, interfering with the healthy functioning of the CNS, and even other systems it  interacts with.

With CST, the therapist uses her hands to evaluate the craniosacral system by gently feeling various parts of the body to assess for ease of motion, and for the flow of cerebrospinal fluid around the brain and spinal cord. Using soft-touch, she releases restrictions in the tissues, and mobilizes fluids around the spinal cord.

I’ve been curious about CST for a long time now, and, when I attended a workshop on CST at Vermont’s annual brain injury conference this past October, Kate Kennedy, the speaker, and veteran practitioner of the method, convinced me to consider it as an adjunct to alleviating my PTSD symptoms (hyper-vigilance, hyper-startle, nightmares) and a TBI (foggy-headedness, fatigue, poor concentration).

During the workshop, I learned, for CST to help heal our physical ailments, we need to let go of our emotions. Kate called them the “stuck places,” when she referred to the “emotions that take up space in our bodies” – in our muscles, tissues, bones. Vital to treating her clients, she asks them to talk about their individual traumas, as she feels for tight places, the places she senses being “over-charged.”  With the letting go of emotions, those tight areas also literarily let go.

Kate also reminded us that compensatory mechanisms influence the experience of the trauma. In other words, we possess layers upon layers of compensation before the trauma, and, for instance, how a migraine associated with a TBI heals depends a lot on what our past compensatory mechanisms were like. It’s not uncommon for people to hold onto the force of the injury – for example, neck tension.

The memory of trauma, pain, or any acute or chronic condition might very well be wrapped-up in your body. It’s true, our bodies hold our personal narratives. If we want to rid them of the upsetting narratives, or as Kate says, “The waste products of our central nervous system,” CST, with its gentle, listening approach can find those mucked-up places. I think of CST as empowering, as allowing you to gain access to your own body – the entire container of the self.

Are you ready to be empowered?

To find a CST therapist click here.

 

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Benefits of Gratitude

gratitude

Every year, on the last Thursday of November, American families, friends, neighbors, and the otherwise lonely, gather together to celebrate Thanksgiving. For many of us, this year will be no different, and we’ll engage in yet another gastronomic extravaganza. We’ll gnaw on spiced and tenderized turkey wings, eat forkfuls of oven-baked stuffing, scoopfuls of buttered mash potatoes, cleanse the palate with a slice or two of cranberry sauce, and slip into our sweatpants to make room for the must-have dessert: pumpkin pie. We will likely eat ourselves into a tryptophan daze.

Some of us may even dress up in native American costumes, or as Pilgrims, recalling what we learned in history class, how the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians indulged in a three-day affair of eating, fishing, and hunting in November 1621, celebrating what is acknowledged as the first Thanksgiving. In the winter of 1620, after much of the Pilgrim population was killed, the colonists requested help from the native Indians, who taught them how to hunt, fish and plant crops. In return, the Pilgrims invited the Wampanoag to feast on their bounty of ripe food to celebrate their first successful autumn harvest.

While the narrative of Thanksgiving is partly about how varying cultures and races can gather together and actually get along, the holiday is a time to reflect upon what we are thankful for – in other words, gratitude.

A few weeks ago, while engaging in meditation during a yoga class, the instructor spoke in a melodic chant, with the goal of centering our thoughts on self-appreciation and appreciation for others. She encouraged us to hold onto equanimity and to release ourselves from attachment and aversion, then asked us to imagine sharing that peace of mind with others – loved ones, friends, strangers, even those with whom we are experiencing a somewhat challenged relationship.

As I focused on my breath, filling my lungs with the sweetness of a Sunday morning, I thought about the once-upon-a-time gratitude journal in which I wrote daily statements of thanks each day. I couldn’t recall how long it had been since I had written in that journal. As the yoga instructor had encouraged, I carried my mindful practice into the rest of my day, also bringing with me the theme of gratitude. I told myself I would start a new gratitude journal, in which I would jot down brief observations, thoughts, anything that reminds me I have a lot to be grateful for: the hand-knit afghan my mother-in-law gave me, hot water, a refrigerator full of food, socks with no holes.

In my research about the benefits of gratitude, I learned that keeping a gratitude journal does more than remind me I have a lot to be thankful for. Studies have shown that gratitude improves our emotional, mental, and physical health. It makes us happier, helps us sleep better, inspires us to exercise more, keeps us connected, increases our social capital, makes us more productive and less envious, motivates us to make decisions.

If it’s that easy, writing in a gratitude journal five minutes each day as a means to improve our long-term well being, by more than ten percent researchers say, then I’m in, hook, line, and sinker. Are you? I can’t think of a better time than now, November, National Gratitude Month, to start penciling the page with, “I’m grateful for …”

“This a wonderful day. I’ve never seen this one before.” ~ Maya Angelou

 

 

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