The Friendly Cyclops

January 31, 2012

She stares at me from her seat on the bus. This stare is different from the stares I’ve grown accustomed to. My presence doesn’t repulse her, rather it drives her curiosity. She cocks her head and stares at me, baffled by the mysteries my appearance present to her. I meet her curious stares with a warm smile. She smiles back and nods as she deboards the bus, confirming that she has received my telepathic message, “It’s ok. I’m a friendly cyclops.”

Born in 1898, Dr. Helen Taussig, a late deafened physician scientist, pioneered the medical specialty of pediatric cardiology with her role in the development of the surgical technique known as the Blalock-Thomas-Taussig shunt. Dr. Taussig, being profoundly deaf, employed lip reading in order to communicate with her patients and used only her fingers to assess heart rhythms. In addition to being deaf, Dr. Taussig was dyslexic and had extraordinary difficulty reading. Despite her handicaps, Dr. Taussig earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley before pursuing graduate studies at Harvard School of Medicine and Boston University. Dr. Taussig completed her postgraduate research in cardiology at Johns Hopkins where she also played vital roles in the first successful heart surgery ever performed and the surgical palliation of Tetrology of Fallot (Blue Baby Syndrome) with her involvement in the development of the surgical technique, Blalock-Thomas-Taussig shunt. Dr. Taussig became deaf midway through her postgraduate work. In 1944, Dr. Helen B. Taussig, along with Drs. Alfred Blalock and Vivien Thomas, performed the first Blalock-Thomas-Taussig shunt on an Eleven month old infant suffering from Blue Baby Syndrome, successfully saving the infant’s life.

In 1954, Dr. Taussig was awarded the prestigious Lasker Award for her involvement in the groundbreaking Blue Baby operation. By 1959, Dr. Taussig became one of the first women and the first deaf person to be granted a full professorship at Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Taussig became both the first woman president and the first deaf president of the American Heart Association. The year prior to her election as president of the AHA in 1965, Dr. Taussig was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. In 2005, Johns Hopkins University named one of its four colleges in her honor. The Helen B. Taussig Children’s Pediatric Cardiac Center was also named in her honor by Johns Hopkins years prior.

In 1963, Dr. Taussig retired from her work in the medical profession at the age of sixty-four before passing away thirteen years later on May 20th, 1986 at the age of eighty-seven. Dr. Taussig died on impact in an automotive collision only days before what would have been her eighty-eighth birthday.

Dr. Taussig’s portrait remains hung on the walls of Johns Hopkins University to this day and her legacy and lifework continues to inspire many.

Life: Through One Eye

January 18, 2012

It never fails. I find something in each new day that carries my mind back to my childhood. I cry inside, sometimes even outside, longing for an old friend I’ll never see again. I had a pretty normal childhood despite it being the most abnormal childhood one can have.

I was only five years of age when I woke up on a cold steel table, my life forever changed. I knew I just had surgery of the eye, but understood little more than that. My surgeon handed me a mirror and I looked at my new face. This one only had one eye. I stared at myself, strangely unaffected by what I was seeing. I was only five. Five year-olds are not developed enough to understand any of this, yet there it was.

“What happened to your eye?” I’ve been asked that question more times than I’ve been asked my name. Somehow my eye became more important than who I was. As a child, I always tried to answer the question patiently, using words, symbolism and analogies my peers could understand. Sometimes, though, I just wanted to be left alone. I wanted my eye to not be the center of attention. When moments such as those arose, I’d lie, claiming a spider bit me, to explain the limpness of my face. I tried to hide it. Eye patches, surgical bandages, ophthalmic bandages, glasses with the right lens fogged and even a prosthetic eye. Nothing worked for me. One by one, they all failed. I was cursed, unable to mask that which hurt my self esteem the most.

I suppose it’s good that I wanted to be alone at times, because I was alone a lot. I was tolerated by most and shunned by only a few, but looking back, it seems I was alone most of the time by choice. I had few I could relate to. I searched for so long, but I always came up empty handed. There was no one out there for me. No one who had seen what I see everyday.

I became the lone wolf, but like the lone wolf, I became stronger.

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