“Hey Doc, will I ever be able to read without my eyes bouncing off every word and having to redirect them to the page? When will I gain control of the thoughts that pass through my mind?”
“I can’t answer those questions, Sam, but I’m sure you will be fine sooner rather than later.”
“Doc, it’s been two months, and it still feels like someone is scraping needles across my brain.”
That was the conversation I had during my senior year of high school with my doctor at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, a few months after I sustained my first concussion. I’ve had three more concussions since then, each one accompanied with gloomy feelings of uncertainty. Each time my brain wages war upon itself. I become angry—not angry at someone or something—just angry for no apparent reason. Other instances I become sad and cry. I’m seemingly a helpless bystander.
That all started four years ago. Fast forward to the present and you’ll find a different story. I just became the first member of my immediate family to graduate from a four-year college/university. I’m preparing to visit a laboratory at the National Institutes of Health, the largest biomedical research entity in the U.S., to conduct biomedical research for one year. I’m accepted to the University of Cambridge’s (U.K.) Department of Medicine to pursue a research master’s degree for one year, and I’m applying to medical school to pursue an MD/PhD degree.
I often wonder how I’ve reached this fortunate point in my life. How did I flee the dark abyss in which subconscious thoughts of suicide crept into my mind and scared the Hell out of me? How in the world am I still in position to pursue my dreams?
While this is “my story,” read this entire article, and you will find that it’s more so a story of how great people have picked up my pen and helped me continue to write without falling off the page. This is, in a way, our story, and it focuses on the last four(ish) years of my life.
I entered college as “damaged goods” you could say. I was retraining myself to read and remember effectively. I doubted that my brain would ever reach full capacity again. I struggled through the first wave of exams and papers, but I met a beacon of hope in my freshman organic chemistry class—my professor.
He and I had a lot more in common than I ever would have imagined, so he understood the problems I faced. He taught me how to better approach studying. He convinced me to get involved in research. Without his guidance, I would have bombed my sophomore spring semester final exams after I received my third concussion in less than as many years because I refused to admit that my brain was still not capable of coping with hits to the head. I wouldn’t have had a ride home to see my doctors in Pittsburgh either. If not for him, I would have dropped out.
A few weeks before the start of my junior year, I returned home from my first research stint in St. Louis. I was shocked to see that my mother’s health had not improved since before I left for the summer, and I felt somewhat to blame. To be clear, my mom has been rendered disabled by leg ailments that still have no official prognosis. She’s the strongest individual you will ever meet; when I was fourteen my mom, my brother, and I were escorted by police out of our home. Shortly thereafter, my brother moved out of my mother’s house. She remained strong and assured me that we would be okay. Her leg ailments, however, are different. Daily activities are a struggle. She now faces the same uncertainties that affected me, but hers are more concrete and serious.
I turned to my professor and my best friends at Juniata College to decide what to do. I said I was considering dropping out. Indeed, I dialed the enrollment office number and had rehearsed what I would say. But, I couldn’t follow through. Not until I spoke in person with those closest to me. I spoke with my professor and best friend to weigh all my options. I spoke with my mom, and I made a plan to stay in school and provide more support at home.
It’s ironic that I have relied so heavily on those whom I’ve met at Juniata to make the most important decisions of my life, considering I wasn’t convinced it was the place for me until one day before the (high school) senior student deposit deadline. I was set on attending the University of Pittsburgh, but I had an itch to visit Juniata one last time. My story would have been quite different without that last-minute visit.
I write of personal stories because I can testify to both the hardships and triumphs of those experiences. I write of my time at Juniata because it is the dearest to me, as are my mentors and friends. They have guided me to where I am today, and for that, there are many people I need to repeatedly thank. I hope this serves as a good start.
As for me, I am pursuing a career as a physician-scientist in order to harness the power of translational biomedical research to provide solutions to unknown biomedical questions that affect people’s lives. I hope to alleviate the medical uncertainties that plague people’s lives. In writing this, I smile because I realize the number of people that made this career path possible. Simply amazing.
I have many more stories to tell, but I risk writing a novel, not an article. My lasting point is everyone has a story, but the key to a good story is to surround yourself with good co-authors so that regardless of your position, you continue to put constructive words on the page.