Sunday, March 16, 2014

Real life medical drama

I'll admit to watching reality TV in part for the shock value, like most people. But I'm also quick to point out that nonfiction stories have the potential to be more inspiring than stereotyped fictitious writing and canned laughter. As I mentioned before, one show I find particularly uplifting is Too Fat For Fifteen, where teenagers learn to take control of their appetites and weight with many life-changing revelations along the way. A special I recently watched on TLC, The Man With the Two Hundred Pound Tumor, also proved to be more than the everyday sensationalist trash.

Hai Nguyen, who initially developed a tumor at age 16, was essentially paralyzed by the growth, which was not stopped by the amputation of his leg as a teenager. By age 31, the Vietnamese man's tumor was as large as he was, keeping him confined to bed. It was so large that it routinely tore the very skin holding it together. Such a person would be expected to suffer crippling depression and to have a bitter or irritable disposition. Instead, Hai took his situation lightly, smiled at the cameras, and talked about how excited he is for the chance that a doctor from Chicago might be able to remove his growth. He isn't desperate or angry and isn't ashamed of having to rely on his family to feed him and even bathe him.

I was surprised by Hai's demeanor, but contributed it to his hope that his condition would soon improve. However I was proven wrong. Halfway through the show, after the doctor has arrived and Hai has traveled hundreds of uncomfortable miles in the back of an ambulance, he's told that the hospital he was brought to won't host the surgery. It's too risky, they claim, and the hospital doesn't want to be liable for it. Dr. McKinnon argues that the procedure is a matter of life and death, but to no avail. Afterward, the doctor goes to apologize to Hai and explain that there is nothing he can do.

Hai replies that he understands. He says he regrets the situation, but is grateful that the doctor has traveled all the way to Vietnam. Then he asks Dr. McKinnon to continue to do his work and save someone else's life in place of Hai's own. Hai was distraught, but wasn't panicked or even afraid. He sadly smiled and had clearly accepted his unfair fate, but still didn't sink into despair. Physically immobile and without influence over the doctors deciding his fate, Hai seizes the only opportunity to take control. He refuses to hit rock bottom.

I find Hai's refusal to let misery win very inspiring. On the contrary, I think that many people react to stories like this with guilt. They will respond with things like, "Compared to that, my life isn't so bad," or, "What do I really have to complain about?" But I don't think that's a particularly useful lesson to take away from this courageous man's attitude. When we are in the midst of our private woes and are experiencing hurt, does it really help to think of others who are even worse off than we are? To punish ourselves for feeling bad? Comparing yourself to someone worse off won't make your disappointments or burdens disappear.

On the other hand, I think that taking away the more positive message that we should never lose hope is much more valuable. Hai doesn't give in to despair. He retains his dignity and resolve that there must be good in the world; in doing this he is then able to do what little he can, in asking the doctor who cannot save him to not give up. We are all connected because we are part of this world, whether you believe it's because we're all made by God or all made of star stuff (or if you believe both, as I do). We make choices every day in whether to attend to our fellow creatures and give them positive words and uplifting interactions or to focus on ourselves, eventually crawling deeper and deeper within our own psyche until we're surrounded by only our wants and needs. If Hai had succumbed to death at that point, he would have been remembered positively; his family wouldn't have the additional burden of mourning his spirit as well as his body. Through his request, he also released Dr. McKinnon from the guilt of not being able to save him. Hai was not indifferent to life, but accepted it in the most dignified and inspiring manner I've seen in a long time.

After a short time, another hospital in Vietnam agreed to host Hai's surgery. Dr. McKinnon returned and lead a team of doctors and nurses, who removed the tumor. Hai recovered and was able to begin learning to move on his own again. After such a prolonged ordeal, it's certain that Hai's circumstances had nowhere to go but up. Then again, imagine how much higher he started out than if he had given up.

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