ODYSSEY OF A SOUL … A POETIC MEMOIR
Olachi Joy Mezu-Ndubuisi, MD, OD
THE ODYSSEY OF MILLIE OLA
In our world today, our quest for “LOVE” unites us in our earthly “Odyssey”, regardless of race, faith or life choices. LOVE is a choice we make with our “FREE WILL “, with which we can choose to share, speak, and live the love within us. Discovering the true meaning of “LOVE” in my earthly sojourn has truly been an “Odyssey” for my soul.
I was born a twin in Imo State, South-Eastern Nigeria, and one of eleven children. Growing up a silent, introverted young girl, my mother encouraged me from age seven to write down my thoughts. I never stopped writing. My heart speaks through poetry. It has been a true solace in times of need. I started college at 15 years old and graduated with a doctor of optometry degree at the age of 21. I then migrated to the United States with my family to continue our education, inspired by our parents (both professors and passionate authors/poets) who believed that the sky was our limit. I embarked with excitement on my dream of becoming a medical doctor driven by the passion to one day make a difference in the lives of others, especially in my birth home community with dire health care needs.
I could not have anticipated the thrill of the journey ahead: completing four years of medical school, falling in love, getting married and the joys and pains that come with it, completing three years of Pediatrics residency, my husband and I buying our first home, starting a three year fellowship in neonatology and becoming pregnant with twins (girl and boy) thinking that life couldn’t be more perfect!!
THE ODYSSEY OF OLAROSE AND OBIOLA
Then, I faced the shock and trauma at 20 weeks gestation of severe pre-eclampsia and severe fetal intra-uterine growth restriction with life-threatening complications to me and my babies, and my whole world came crashing down. Placental blood supply had been compromised and my twins had stopped growing and were termed “non-viable” despite having normal development and strong heart beats. I was asked to terminate my twin pregnancy due to my life-threatening illness: evolving pleural effusion, severe anemia, impending liver and kidney failure, all from a non-functioning placenta and concerns for irreversible damage to my babies. I chose to maintain my pregnancy and remained hospitalized on strict bed rest for 6 weeks receiving great medical care, hoping for a miracle each day, with my dear family on a prayerful watch by my side. All I could think of was protecting my darling twins, OlaRose and Obiola (I already had names for them). Initially, I felt so alone in my pain and abandoned by God. Encouraged by my Dad to write out my feelings, I hesitated but eventually poured out my heart, fears, and hopes on paper. I spoke daily to my twins . . . true echoes from my womb; and I pleaded with God to preserve my body so my babies could grow bigger and stronger each day to survive the hazards of prematurity. I was in darkness and anguish, not knowing when or how this saga would end. As I wrote and bared my soul, I regained my faith, hope and strength, and began to understand that although I could not see or feel Him, God was with me sharing my pain. He had prepared me all my life for this moment in my life – my choice of pediatrics and neonatology as a profession, which helped me to have some understanding of what was happening to me and my babies, the decision to move closer to family after residency, etc. My mother found my poems and prayers one day, and asked to read them. Soon, my whole family took to reciting my poems, “Make them Whole” and “Litany of Hope and Healing” along with their prayers to God on our behalf.
Each night as I lay in the labor and delivery unit, only one heartbeat could be heard on auscultation in the left lower abdomen. An ultrasound would be urgently done fearing that OlaRose, who was the sicker baby with no amniotic fluid, reverse end-diastolic blood flow and minimal movement, was gone. To our amazement, Obiola, who was bigger and more active, could be seen on ultrasound laying on his sister, OlaRose, their hearts beating in synchrony as one. By morning, again only one heartbeat would be heard on the left abdomen, and Obiola would be seen on ultrasound back in his right corner of the womb (they had separate sacs). I realized later that he was keeping her warm by lying on top of her, as she was born hypothermic. On March 19th, 2007, OlaRose did not have a heartbeat or breathing movement on the growth ultrasound, and Obiola, to our amazement, kicked her chest with his little feet three times. I held my breath in wonder as I saw her chest rise slowly and she began to breathe again. I was informed she would surely die, but her death may not affect him since he was in a separate sac. In 6 weeks, she had not gained even 1 ounce; while, he had gained a few ounces. My heart was in agony – I would not choose between my daughter or son. I wanted them both alive! Shortly after on that same day, I did not feel either baby move and a repeat ultrasound revealed that she was motionless without a heart beat or chest movement. Obiola, who was still laying on top of her, again kicked her chest three times. This time, she did not respond to his kicks. She was presumed dead! It was 3pm. My heart tearfully called upon God’s mercy. I requested a c-section, especially since Obiola’s baseline heart rate had dropped as well. I was informed that due to my critical condition, I may not survive an emergency surgery, but all my heart could care about was having them both born alive. They were born alive, one pound babies. She weighed 460 grams and could fit in the palm of my hand; while he weighed 660 grams, about 7 ounces bigger.
As OlaRose got better each day and I recovered remarkably post-partum, Obiola got worse and on the seventh day, he died. My heart broke as I wept, holding my dying son in my arms for the first time as he took his last breath. I begged God for his life and the Holy Spirit to breathe for him. How would the story be complete without Obiola? I cried. I thought through my tears how I had never even seen his eyes open (he had been intubated and sedated on the ventilator, on multiple intravenous infusions since birth). In a moment, his heart stopped beating and the heart rate and pulse-ox monitor readings decreased to zero and the tracings flat-lined. No emotions could qualify my pain as I felt my heart break into a thousand pieces. My husband, parents, sister, and neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) staff looked on tearfully and helplessly. “My God, please…” I whispered softly. Suddenly, the silent, dead monitors above came back to life. His heart began to beat again and his respiratory rate read normal. I looked down to see that he had opened his beautiful eyes… he looked at me. I stared into his eyes mesmerized with love. My finger was resting in his little palm, and I felt him squeeze my finger so gently but firmly, and my heart stopped! Then he closed his eyes again and the spirit left him. Through my pain, I felt such joy and peace, and felt so loved by God. God had answered my prayers – OlaRose and Obiola were born alive; but Obiola was not mine to keep. Obiola’s work was done – he had come to bring his sister safely into the world; and now, he would live forever in our hearts. The anguish of my pregnancy ordeal, losing my son, Obiola, and the bittersweet loving journey of caring for my premature, surviving miracle baby, OlaRose, brought forth such poignant emotions and poetry from me, trying to understand, heal, and continue to love. I share these now in“Odyssey of a Soul”. OlaRose was given no hope for survival and a 99% chance of severe neuro-developmental disability, if she survived. The smallest baby in the NICU at one pound, OlaRose received excellent care in the NICU, surviving against all odds and exceeded everyone’s expectations. Today at 9 years old and in fourth grade, my piano playing angel continues to blossom and amaze me daily with her beautiful and loving heart, a joy to all around her and a constant reminder for me of God’s tender love. Obiola has been a true guardian angel for his twin sister, OlaRose, and a powerful intercessor for me and my family. God continues to bless us with countless graces through the intercessory prayers of his pure soul.
THE ODYSSEY OF DIVINE MERCY
As I tried to find my balance in this earthly “journey of love” with the ups and downs of the waves of life, I faced my greatest fear – “running out of time to love”. On August 4th, 2009, while on a shopping trip to New York with my parents and elder sister, Nina, I suddenly had the “worst headache of my life”. My instincts feared the worst because in medicine, the “worst headache of your life” was typically a sub-arachnoid hemorrhage. My sister, a pharmacist, suggested we check my blood pressure at a pharmacy; and we halted our drive back to Maryland to search for one off the New Jersey turnpike. My blood pressure was alarmingly high when checked, but the pharmacist insisted they were closing, vehemently refusing to help us call an ambulance. We watched helplessly as they closed the door behind us. Surrounded by darkness, in the middle of nowhere and unsure how to proceed, my sister called 911 from her cell phone. Soon, an ambulance arrived and I was rushed to the emergency room (ER) of the nearest community hospital. The CT scan of the brain was negative and the ER doctor insisted on discharging me despite my persistent headache. My younger sister Ure, a cardiologist, called on the phone requesting that a lumbar puncture (LP) be performed as recent brain bleeding may not show up right away on a CT scan, but might be detected early in an LP. The clear LP, done without trauma, had about 200 microscopic red cells in it; but the ER physician walked away refusing to transfer me to another facility for neurosurgery evaluation, saying that there was nothing wrong with me. However, there was a still small voice constantly repeating in my mind, “you’re bleeding in your head”.
Abandoned in the ER with no-one to help us in the middle of the night, my family and I turned to God for help, saying the “Divine Mercy” prayer. I suddenly found myself automatically dialing a number I remembered from my overnight call two days earlier, as the pediatrician in the neonatal intensive care unit, when I had needed to transfer a baby born with perinatal asphyxia to Johns Hopkins University Hospital, Maryland for whole body cooling. It was the Hopkins transport line, and I desperately identified myself as a physician trying to transfer a patient – “myself”. I asked for a neurosurgeon and after listening to me, I heard this gentle voice saying over the phone, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you” – words of comfort, words of hope. God sent an angel in human form in Dr. Judy Huang, a Hopkins neurosurgeon, who without knowing me or delaying to confirm the unusual cell phone call, recognized the emergency and sent a helicopter immediately from Hopkins to the small community medical center in New Jersey to get me. On arriving at Hopkins, she had pre-ordered a STAT cerebral angiogram, and I was met at the procedure room by my family and our family priest, Father Maurice Akwa, who gave me the blessed host to comfort me before my angiogram. The angiogram confirmed a massive intra-cranial hemorrhage from a ruptured middle cerebral artery aneurysm. According to Dr. Huang, I had been bleeding in my head for about three days. “Why are you still alive? You have massive bleeding in your head,” she said as she quickly examined me, back in the neuro ICU, to confirm that I had no other neurologic sequelae. “Someone must be watching over you,” she said. I replied in quiet shock, “God is watching over me.” But, there was no time to waste. I needed immediate life-saving emergency open brain surgery (craniotomy with surgical clipping). I risked losing consciousness any second before the surgery – I only had a few minutes to say goodbye to my family, standing around in quiet tears and shock, and make my peace with God. I was in shock, petrified, and confused. The few unrelated people that I had heard of having ruptured brain aneurysms had died instantly, the aneurysm only being discovered during autopsies. I realized then that this could truly be my last day on earth – and I felt so unprepared and panicked. My whole life flashed in front of me; and I began to recall premonitions of that fateful day. As I faced my fear of the unknown, I had to make a decision to abandon “fear” for “trust in the source of LOVE – GOD”.
Odyssey of a soul … A Poetic memoir, comes out of a promise made to God after repeating the “Divine Mercy” prayer with my family at 3pm on August 4th, 2009. I faced my mortality…with little or no hope for survival due to massive subarachnoid hemorrhage from a sudden ruptured brain aneurysm. I promised to dedicate my life and work to Him, and praise Him with every breath I take if I survived the over 8 hr emergency brain surgery with high risk of life-threatening consequences, not a vegetable as expected, but intact with no neurological deficits. I had more than a 50% chance of not surviving the surgery, and if I did survive, there was a high risk I could be blind (the aneurysm was along my optic nerve), have a stroke, lose use of my hands, never walk again, have memory loss, or remain in a vegetative state on a ventilator. In short, life as I knew it would be over. My heart broke as I kissed my then 2 year old daughter, OlaRose, and family goodbye before the surgery. My daughter, OlaRose, is such a beautiful gift (my surviving one pound miracle twin baby) and the thought of never seeing her grow up or speak was excruciating agony. How could this be happening to me, I thought, just two years after I had lost my son, Obiola (OlaRose’s twin) to the complications of prematurity? My soul was tormented. I called on my son resting in God’s arms, asking him to beg God for his mother’s life, for the sake of OlaRose.
Realizing then that I had no control over anything, all I could do was to completely trust in God’s mercy and willingly abandon myself to His will. Once that decision was made, my life was never the same again! I felt so loved by God and a quiet, calming peace overcame me and dwelt within me. I asked for a priest and I was told there was no time for that; but a nurse ran into the ICU room that very minute saying that a hospital chaplain/priest just stepped off the elevator. I got to set my soul at peace with God. In addition, I received a second blessing by Father Maurice who dropped by right before I was wheeled to surgery. I suddenly realized that God was with me all along my ordeal that day. He knew everything that I would face, and had planned ahead for every single little detail, to care for me. He didn’t let me die unprepared in my sleep three days earlier or during the shopping trip or the previous night’s ordeal. He had guided me and my every encounter (good or bad) to bring me to this very moment. Why would I not trust Him now? I went into the surgery that day filled with love and joy, and so thankful for God’s tender love and mercy for me, knowing that if I died that day it would indeed be the happiest of deaths. I had no more fear or worry. I looked up and was surrounded by an intense bright light ahead of me, amidst the cheers and kisses from my loved ones, as I was wheeled to the operating room (OR). All I could whisper over and over was “Jesus, I love you! Thank you, Jesus!” I woke up from the 8 hour surgery to the same bright light. I felt so loved… so loved by God; a feeling as if warm arms had been wrapped all around me. I was suddenly hit, like a bolt of lightning, with the intense meaning of LOVE. God loved me so much, He gave His only son to die for me… ME! He took flesh, bore suffering for my sins, and sacrificed His only child for my sake (having gone through the anguish of losing Obiola, I could almost understand the magnitude of this God’s love for sinful mankind). I knew immediately that I was alive and healed. God did save me neurologically intact, not for anything I could do for Him, but because HE is LOVE and MERCY.
I am a living witness of God’s LOVEand mercy. He not only saved me without any neurological deficits, He has been so good to me and has loved me beyond compare. I was to find out later (after my surgery) that Dr. Huang had just returned from a trip and due to a schedule change happened to be on call that night, and her specific neurosurgical expertise happened to be ‘aneurysms’. How precise is our God! Despite projected weeks of hospital stay and rehab, I was shocked to be discharged after 9 days, even though I felt weak and drained of all energy and was wheel chair bound. Dr. Huang said, “Even I do not have a reason to keep you here. Go home, you are healed.” As I recovered from my brain aneurysm surgery, I felt helpless like a child starting life over again. I was incapacitated, weak, unable to walk , bathe or feed myself, and my personal life was suddenly in turmoil. It felt like I had lost everything: my health, my career, my marriage, my family, my dignity, life as I knew it. All I could do was cling to Him who knows tomorrow, who gives the best to those who let Him make the choice. I realized that our divine gift of freewill is ours alone to control as human beings. Even God will not force you to love Him; it is a choice He lets us make. Love is a choice. Evil, pain, and suffering in the world are a result of man’s abuse of his “free will”. As long as there is breath of life in us, God will always give us a chance to make the choice to “love” in spite of our injustices. In the depths of my pain and loss, I chose to give God my “free will”. I offered up my suffering, uniting it with Christ’s suffering on the cross – the ultimate sacrifice of love. God became so real to me. He showed me His love; and day by day, I grew more in love with Him. With LOVE came PEACE and JOY, even in suffering.
THE ODYSSEY OF TRUST AND LOVE
Obstacles in my life have become stepping stones to greater heights. My sweet mother nursed me back to health and with the tender, loving support of my close-knit family, I started life over, regained my strength, moved out of state to complete my neonatology post-graduate fellowship training (halted with the birth of my premature twins and the curve balls of life) and got the opportunity to continue to do the work I loved: caring for premature infants and conducting research into ways to improve their outcomes. God has blessed me beyond my imagination. He completes what is lacking in me. If a prayer is not answered, it means He has something even better planned for me. I am still faced daily with life’s unending struggles and my frequent frustrations at my imperfections. However, I’ve come to learn through my journey that I need not be perfect to love. I need only to seek to love; and to love perfectly is to get up with each fall, and LOVE EVEN MORE.
To God be all the glory and honor! Please, thank Him for me. I held on to “Odyssey of a Soul” for years feeling that others may not understand this love. These poems have given me courage and hope through life’s troubling waters in my journey of self-knowledge and healing. I wrote them for myself, but soon felt a deep, strong urge to share. They’ve reminded me of what matters most – God’s love. Our lives are indeed not our own… we all are called to LOVE. We are all in a journey of love, our own “Odyssey”. We all seek love and truth in different things, places and people. However, nothing on earth can satisfy that deep, restless longing in our souls, for truth and true perfection of love can only be found in God. I would not be… except for the Mercy of God. I have not much to offer Him, but my heart, my dreams, my joys, my pains, my imperfections, and my fears: these lyrics emanating from the depths of my soul through life’s odyssey.
I am sharing “Odyssey of a Soul” to let anyone who thinks that there is no hope in their loss: loss of a loved one, loss of a career, loss of your dignity, loss of a dream, or loss of health – know that there is HOPE. Trust in God’s Divine Mercy. There are no mistakes in your life; and no suffering is in vain. Through your suffering, you are sanctified, purified like gold in a furnace. Humiliations and suffering are opportunities to acquire virtue and grace, when you persevere patiently through them. Accept these gifts. God brings good out of every pain. You are not alone. When you suffer, He is closest to you, even though you cannot see Him. Give Him your pain and He will make all things NEW!
I had retreated into writing secretly in personal journals of my life experiences after my first book of poems, Image of a Soul (Black Academy Press), was published in 1996 at the age of 19. As these life experiences became tumultuous, I remained more silent, thinking I was protecting the ones I loved; instead, I filled pages of my journals with my suffering heart. This silence became stifling. You have ONE LIFE TO LIVE AND ONE LOVE TO GIVE; and TO LIVE IS TO LOVE! So, after 20 years, I am silent no more… I am coming out of the shadows. I have found my voice… My heart speaks again, and it speaks of LOVE.
100% of all book proceeds benefit ObiolaRose Twin Angels Foundation, www.obiolarosefoundation.org, a subsidiary of Mezu International Foundation (MIF), www.mezufoundation.org, to support the development of neonatal care for premature infants and emergency medical services in underserved areas, especially rural communities in Nigeria.