The Beauty of Death

If we’ve met, I’ve probably pictured what you look like on the inside. Hope that doesn’t make you too uncomfortable. It’s just how my mind works. If I’m with someone that is smoking, I’m picturing the black discoloration of their lungs. If I’m with a pregnant woman, I’m picturing a fetus expanding her uterus and displacing her other organs out of the way. If someone I know is sick, I visualize what is happening to their organs to cause them to have symptoms.

I’m a veterinary pathologist. I have a degree in veterinary medicine, am a licensed vet, but further specialized in pathology, the study of disease. My work primarily involves dead animals and performing autopsies on them. As you can imagine, after explaining this, most people think that sounds absolutely disgusting and wonder why I’d ever possibly want such a job. Honestly though, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I love what I do. I feel lucky to be able to study the body so closely. There’s true beauty in my work and beauty in a death. This is what made me fall in love with pathology when I was first introduced in veterinary school.

Consider a beloved pet in your life that has since passed away. She lived, was loved, and all the while her body grew, changed, endured hardships and wounds. Her organs aged and deteriorated. Perhaps an aggressive cancer developed, spread throughout her body, ravaged her organs, and ultimately led to her demise. After this precious being exits this world, all that remains is the vessel that supported her on this journey: her body. And this is where I come into the equation.

I can remove an animals brain, and hold in my hand the organ that was responsible for every thought she ever had. I can examine a heart that beat one billion times, supplying a lifetime’s worth of oxygenated blood to a body. A man can love his best canine friend in a way that nobody else does, but I get to see things even he cannot.

After observing everything possible with on an organ level, I select pieces of organs to inspect on a cellular level. To me, there is nothing more beautiful than visualizing cross sections of tumor cells, kidney tubules that filter the urine, or degenerating heart valves. Some of these findings are normal and expected, others are surprising and significant. There are few better feelings in the world than combining all of this information together to figure out why an animal was sick or died when nobody else could.

People commonly ask, “Doesn’t your job make you sad? All of your patients are dead or sick.” Yes, sometimes, of course! But, I believe that best way to respect and cherish life is to study death. Postmortem examinations can and do save lives. The knowledge that we gather when we study an animal after its death is used to modify treatments and improve future surgical techniques. Animal models of human disease allow us to test and perfect innovative treatments for horrific human diseases such as pancreatic cancer or incurable genetic diseases such as ALS. I’ve actually seen my work save lives, both animal and human.

When asked about my career, there was a time in my life that I would either pretend to be a small animal vet or make up another more pleasant-sounding job. But no longer. I will continue to proudly state that I’m a veterinary pathologist, and I do, indeed, cut up dead animals for a living. I will continue picturing what people look like on the inside. And I will continue saving lives, one dead animal at a time.

This is me performing a cow autopsy with one of my pathology mentors (Dr. Perry Habecker) during my residency training.

37 Years is not Enough

On Nov 12, 1987, I skipped home from my bus stop after an exciting day of 2nd grade and slammed the door on my way in.

“Mommy? Moooomy! Where are you?”

There was a man on the phone in the kitchen. I ran right past him on my way up the stairs to find my mom. “Probably just a repair man,” I thought.

“Lora?” He yelled back. “I’ve got to go. She’s home.” It was my Papa Al. This was strange. Why would he be here? “Lora, sweetie, your mom was in an accident. She’s in the hospital right now.”

“Can we go see her?” I asked. “I need to tell her what I did at school today. I always tell her what I did after school.”

“No, I’m sorry sweetie. We can’t go see her right now.”

I never saw my mom again. She had been in a head on collision in her car hours earlier and died at the hospital. She was 37 years old.

The next day I sat in the front row at her funeral. I remember the rabbi talking about how young she was. I remember staring at a plain wooden box. I remember hearing that my mommy was in that box. I remember my Grandma Ida squeezing my hand so hard that it hurt. I remember hearing my dad cry so loudly that it echoed through the room. I had never heard him cry before. I didn’t like it. They lowered that box into the ground and everyone shoveled some dirt on top of it. A man asked me if I wanted to shovel a little dirt. No, I did not.

Over the next several days, we had numerous people come to our house. In the morning, men from synagogue came over to pray with my dad, grandpas, and uncles. They told me we were Sitting Shiva. All of the mirrors in the house were covered with sheets, and we wore torn shirts. I wanted things to be back the way they were. My Grandma Ida stayed with us for a little while. She held my hand and told me that she loved me. I remember her lying in bed with me one night quietly crying. I hated seeing her sad like that.

A few days later, my cousin Jeff, in an attempt to cheer me up, told me that maybe my mom would come back some day. Wait, what? He had heard a story about a time that someone had been buried when they weren’t really dead.

“Whoa! She’ll be trapped in that box in the ground!” I shouted.

“Don’t worry about that,” he said, sensing my apprehension. “There are always security guards walking around cemeteries. They’ll hear her. They’ll get her out”.

Now, as crazy as that sounds, keep in mind Jeff was 10, so he knew pretty much everything. He had the best ideas… like setting an alarm at midnight during sleepovers so we could raid the kitchen and pig out on junk food, or using discreet hand signals to coordinate trips to the bathroom during boring parts of Shabbat services. We’d meet up and explore the labyrinth of musty halls in the synagogue basement.

So, maybe he was right. Maybe my mom could come back. And besides, this possibility was the only thing that made the giant knot in my stomach go away. So, I believed it. I held onto it.

For the next year, I imagined my mom walking through the door. Her clothes were dirty, her hair was a mess, she seemed frazzled, but as soon as she saw me, she ran over and scooped me up in her arms. “I’ve missed you, my sweet girl”, she said. Sometimes I just sat there staring at the door and waiting. There had been countless days of school since she left me that I needed to tell her about.

About a year after my mom’s death, Jeff was over playing, and the doorbell rang. I rushed over to answer it. Sigh, just a package. “I thought it might have been my mom”, I explained. “Do you still think she might come back? Remember, you said that sometimes people come back?”

“What? Oh, Lora… I… shouldn’t have said that. Aunt Bernie’s not going to come back. I mean, someone told me a story once, but that…it wasn’t real.”

“But you said it could happen. It still could happen… right?”

“I was wrong. I’m sorry”

I ran into the bathroom and slammed the door. I started crying, like, really bawling. It was the first time I had cried about my mom since I lost her. It was the first time I realized that she was really gone. The tears kept coming and just wouldn’t stop. I was 8 years old and finally understood.

Today is my 37th birthday. I’ve been wondering about this day for nearly 3 decades. What would my life be like at 37? Would I have my own children? Would I still think about my mom every day?

As it turns out, I have two precious boys that are my whole world, and I do, indeed, still think about my mom every day. My oldest son just started preschool last fall. When he comes home, I ask him what he did, just like my mom used to do, and he eagerly responds. I listen intently, and my heart is full because I know somewhere out there, my own momma is listening too.

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This is me sharing “37 Years is not Enough” at this year’s Listen to Your Mother Pittsburgh on May 12

On My Mom’s 67th Birthday

Today would have been my mom’s 67th birthday. I spend an unhealthy amount of time wondering what would be if she was still alive. Sometimes, I wonder in what ways my life would be different.

Would I still have been a veterinarian?

She worked so diligently to set up regular play dates for me. Grandma Ida insisted that I needed to be social. After she died, the play dates went away. They had to. My dad’s single father lifestyle didn’t allow for things like that. I wanted friends so badly, but I was so shy. I had my brother, my cousins, and a couple neighbor friends, but I mostly felt alone. So, I talked to my cat. All the time. Pumpkin was my BFF and therapist. I’d tell her all about my day and feelings while scratching her neck and stoking her back. She’d purr loudly and writhe around in ecstasy, fur flying all over the place, as my nose got progressively clogged, my eyes itched and watered. My allergies flared, but still I endured the discomfort to hang with my Pumpkin, affectionately known as “Kitty”. I told her I was going to be a vet when I grow up. Maybe if I had more people friends, I would have chosen a different profession.

Speaking of professions, would I have even pursued college or a career at all?

One of my biggest struggles since having my own children is managing a work and home life balance. I love my work and have always followed my passions; first with pursuing a career in veterinary medicine and then specializing in pathology. Of course, she would have supported my passions, but maybe she would have also given me guidance about a passion that I had no idea was inside of me: motherhood. I didn’t know how much I wanted to be a mother until I became one, and my career path was already set. I had no idea that these little people would become my everything, my world. But I’ll bet you knew, my sweet mama. I’ll bet you would have told me. Perhaps I would have changed my priorities earlier in preparation for this part of my life.

Would I have married my husband?

Chances are I would not have. There is no doubt that my mom would have loved Chris. He is a sweet and caring husband, a great father, so intelligent and hardworking. But it’s naïve to think that the stars would have aligned for us to meet given how different my life would have been. I suspect I would have a husband and children, but not the ones that I have in this universe.

Sometimes, I do wonder how my life would be different if my mom was still here, but honestly, I don’t like to think of my life without my career, Chris, or my boys. These experiences and people in the life I’ve lived without my mom make me the person that I am. So, instead, I prefer to imagine my life the same way it is right now, just with her in it. I picture her having a close relationship with Chris and me. I envision the joy in her eyes when she walks into our house and her grandsons run over to give her a hug. I see her pulling them onto her lap to read them The Very Hungry Caterpillar for the 3rd time in a row. I hear her voice on the other end of the phone comforting me when I’m upset. I feel her long thin fingers wrapped around mine as we walk along the North Shore trail hand-in-hand. This may not be how it truly would be, but you, my momma, are the one thing I miss in life the most.

Happy 67th birthday, Mommy. I love you now, always, and forever.

Mom

Lucky Friday the 13th: Getting an Autism Diagnosis for my Son

“It looks like the next available date for an evaluation would be…. Friday, November 13th at 8am”.

“Friday the 13th? Really? What’s the next one after that?” I inquired. I was always a little superstitious, and everyone knows that Friday the 13th is unlucky.

“Nothing until December.”

I sighed. “OK, then. Friday the 13th it is.”

It was May 5th, 2015. I had 6 whole months to forget about this ominous evaluation. In the meantime, I would just continue to assume that my speech-delayed and “spirited” (aka- insanely difficult) 2 and 1/2 year old was just hitting milestones at his own pace. This is what everyone including our own pediatrician had been telling us all along. Until this last 30 month check-up when the doctor started asking us very pointed questions.

“Is he affectionate with you?”

“Yes, absolutely.”

“Does he respond to his name?”

“Not really. Well, sometimes. He gets fixated on what he’s into a lot of the time.”

“Does he make eye contact with you?”

Chris and I looked at each other.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “I never really paid attention to that. Not all the time.”

“Miles,” I called in an attempt to have him look over at me. No response. He continued to blissfully play with a sippy cup he had snatched out of the diaper bag.

“I don’t want to scare you,” the pediatrician went on to say, “and often any mention of ‘the A word’ to parents tends to do that, but I think you might want to consider having Miles evaluated for autism spectrum disorder”.

Chris and I looked at each other again. We didn’t say a word.

“The wait time for an evaluation is long,” he continued, “so you might want to call to make an appointment sooner rather than later.”

We had driven to the appointment separately and didn’t have a chance to talk about this until later that evening. We were both pretty shocked by the suggestion.

“I think we misled him when we said he didn’t made eye contact,” Chris explained. “He totally makes eye contact. I’ve been paying attention to it today.”

“And he’s SO affectionate,” I added. “Kids with autism aren’t supposed to be affectionate, are they?”

Still, we were nervous. Miles was clearly different from other kids his age. He wasn’t talking yet aside from a few words, and was frustrated by his inability to communicate with us. Mealtimes were a nightmare. He was a great eater when he first started with solid foods, but had been ever so gradually dropping item from his diet. There were frequent meltdowns at mealtime. They were incited not only from foods he didn’t want, but also foods he did want that weren’t prepared the right way. The wrong spoon or bowl could easily lead to 20 minutes long freak out. I felt like I was walking on eggshells in the kitchen with him.

We decided it made sense to make the appointment. We didn’t think Miles had autism, but it couldn’t hurt to rule it out, could it?

Miles started private speech therapy soon after we made the appointment. He began to make progress with his speech. “I… want… water,” he would slowly repeat after us.

“Great job!” We’d praise.

See, it was all about his speech delay. Miles did NOT have autism. I would keep the evaluation scheduled knowing full well that the psychologist would confirm what I already knew. He was fine.

But still, I spent all of my time after the boys were asleep researching symptoms of autism. Obsessing, really. It was so confusing. Miles did display many symptoms listed as signs of autism, but not all of them. And what 2-year-old didn’t have difficulty adapting to a change in schedule or have a narrow interest in topics? Aren’t all little boys fixated by Thomas and his friends?

As Friday, November 13th approached, I began to have a gut feeling that we’d be be receiving news we didn’t want to hear. Sure enough, after observing our happy beautiful oldest son for about a half hour, the psychologist confidently confirmed that he did exhibit symptoms consistent with mild to moderate autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

I tried my darnedest to fight back the tears as the psychologist inundated us with packets of papers with instructions on the next steps. It was overwhelming. It was terrifying. We had officially entered the unknown.

“I heard of kids being diagnosed with autism when they are young, but by the time they are in school they drop the diagnosis. Do you think this could happen for Miles?” Chris asked.

“I feel very confident about his diagnosis, but if you want to get him re-tested in the future, there’s certainly no harm in that.”

Everyone was silent on the car ride home until I finally broke down into tears. What did this mean for my baby boy and his future? How would this affect our family?

I had a flashback to a conversation that I had with my boss when I was about 6 months pregnant with Miles. The topic of autism and vaccination came up. My boss said that one of his greatest fears when he decided to have kids was having a child with autism. “And it’s so common these days,” he said shaking his head. “Thankfully, my kids were OK.” Now, here I was on Friday the 13th receiving news that my boss’s greatest fear had become a reality for me. My son had autism.

I looked back at my beautiful baby boy quietly staring out the window. His ever-rosy cheeks matched his perfect pink lips, and he pushed away a blond curl the fell in front of his eyes. This child has been the light of my life from the very moment he was plopped down on my belly in the delivery room. We instantly connected. I immediately knew I would do anything to protect him always and forever. No diagnosis could ever change that. Nothing could ever change that.

Miles newborn
Sweet Miles at 5 days old. Love at first sight.

Looking back on it 1 and 1/2 years later, getting a diagnosis has been the best possible thing for our family. It has allowed us to receive a multitude of state-funded services we could have never otherwise have afforded. Miles is now equipped with a team of therapists and parents that are more aware of the challenges he faces on a daily basis. Putting a name to his struggles has actually been a blessing. Watching him learn and grow has filled our hearts with joy. I can honestly say without a doubt that if I could take away my son’s autism, I wouldn’t do it. It makes him who he is, and my God do I love who he is. He is the most loving and hilarious little creature the world has ever known. His smile lights up the room, and his sweetness permeates my soul. Friday, November 13th, 2015 was certainly a difficult day for our family, but it was anything but unlucky.

Miles at 3
The endearing Miles at 3-years-old, a couple month after receiving his ASD diagnosis