The Starry Night has always been my favorite painting. To be fair, I don’t know a lot about art or how to interpret paintings. I look at abstract, Jackson Pollock-esque paintings and have a hard time distinguishing between great art and a preschooler’s project of the day. I do, however, see meaning in The Starry Night. The houses and the village representing life as we know it, trumped in size compared to the expansive sky with its swirling clouds and stars. A visual representation of how life as we know it is just a mere element of a much bigger picture – how there are forces at work much larger than ourselves.
I’ve mentioned my dad in previous posts – including how he’s more knowledgeable than my Stanford nutritionist! He has always encouraged me to take on challenges, and is the one to blame for my inner debater. What some of you may not know, however, is that my dad has profound hearing loss. The decline has been gradual over the past ~30 years, and now his hearing is ~95% gone. I remember the volume of the TV and car radio getting louder and louder in the first decade of his hearing decline. As his hearing loss progressed from mild to moderate in that second decade, we all began to project our voices for day to day conversation. We became a very loud family, and not just at our lengthy dinner table discussions. This past decade has been the toughest. As dad’s hearing loss descended into “severe,” it impacted his life on many levels. I cannot imagine how frustrating it must be for a man who loves a good discussion to struggle with partaking in a group conversation, to smile and nod when everyone’s laughing to appear like he’s understanding. When Diya was born and my dad would carry her around singing Hickory Dickory Dock, I remember thinking how nice it must be for him to be able to talk to someone without expectation of being heard in return.
We sought several medical opinions over the years. Early on, dad’s hearing loss was diagnosed as being caused by EVAS (enlarged vestibular aqueduct syndrome) in conjunction with a head injury he endured in a car accident in the 80’s. We were told time after time that there is nothing that can be done, no surgery that could be conducted. He received multiple opinions that confirmed this view. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, Ash’s employer connected us to Private Health Management (PHM), a medical concierge service focused on providing patients with customized and uncompromised healthcare. PHM assisted me greatly after my diagnosis to help identify the right oncological and surgical experts, and understand the tradeoffs of various treatment plans. It was once chemo treatments were underway and PHM had less on their plate that I thought to ask them for help on identifying the top hearing specialists in the nation as well. I knew it was a bit “out of scope” from my cancer case, but figured it never hurts to ask. They were amazing and responded with their top two recommendations, the first being in Florida and the second in LA.
We decided to proceed with a remote consult with Dr. S in Florida and embarked on getting updated CT scans and hearing tests for my dad. We continued researching EVAS in the meantime and kept finding articles indicating that nothing could be done for adults. When the radiologist’s report came back, however, it indicated nothing particularly unusual about my dad’s aqueducts. Something seemed off, and I hoped Dr. S’s interpretation of the CT images could provide some clarity. The consult went better than any of us could have hoped for. Dr. S is very confident that my dad does not actually have EVAS, but instead hearing loss due to otosclerosis, a condition addressable by surgery – in other words, he believes my dad has been misdiagnosed for the past 3 decades. The surgery historically performed to treat otosclerosis is called a stapedectomy, but Dr. S believes we should proceed with a stapedotomy, as it has a much lower complication rate. He believes that with a stapedotomy, my dad will once again be able to hear, at least somewhat, with no aid, and at nearly normal levels with the help of a regular hearing aid!!
There are many ways to react to such news. The first and foremost is contained excitement – we don’t want to jinx anything, but for the first time, feel like we are being provided with hope that we can take action on. The second is frustration. Understandably, my dad can’t help but wonder “what if?” What if he had gotten the correct diagnosis and surgery 20+ years ago – how different might his life be? I told him that 20+ years ago, he would have gotten a stapedectomy, the surgery with a high risk of complications. Who knows what complications he would be living with today? I told him perhaps he was meant to wait until now, until we had access to someone proficient with the less risky surgical option.
This past Thanksgiving, my family gathered together at my house for the festivities. My sister prepared and brought over all the delicious courses for my family’s traditional Thanksgiving meal. Historically, we always went around the table before dinner saying what we are most thankful for from the past year. Recently, however, my secret champion(s) left “Get Well” balloons at my doorstep along with a little box of blank cards. I was advised to jot down what I am thankful for on those cards. So, only slightly deviating from tradition, I instead passed a card to each family member and encouraged them to write down what they are thankful for. “Parul surviving cancer” being off-limits. After dinner, we laughed and cried as each of us shared the contents of our card(s) with the group. While she couldn’t write it, Diya shared that she’s thankful for purple, green, yellow, and blue balls (I chalked it up to being thankful for all the colors in the world, but I’m pretty sure she’s referring to her ball pit). Each and every adult at the table, however, included thanks for the potential that lies ahead for my dad – a 2015 with possible restored hearing.
I obviously have a lot to be thankful for this year: a healthy, happy, beautiful new daughter; an outpouring of love and support from family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers; access to excellent medical care and the insurance to support it; and a great new job at a start-up run by smart, compassionate women (to name a few). I am also thankful, however, for the reinforced belief that everything happens for a reason. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at such a young age, it was difficult to reconcile my foundational view with this turn of events. Over the past few months, however, the experience has not only helped me make positive changes in my life and appreciate every day that much more, but I believe that a solution to my dad’s hearing loss may be the ultimate purpose behind my diagnosis and treatment. Had I not been diagnosed with breast cancer, we may never have been presented with the opportunity to restore my dad’s hearing. As overwhelming as our daily struggles might be, there are greater forces at work in our lives. A belief of mine that was once only embodied in The Starry Night is now integral to my breast cancer story as well.