Date Published: March 28, 2019
An anxious woman’s worst fear comes true. A young man grasps for a ladder out of poverty and depression. In this episode, two resilience stories are told live by neuroscience PhD students Ana Efthymiou and Joe Simon of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
These stories were performed at the “Studying the Brain” storytelling event hosted by the School of Medicine’s Friedman Brain Institute at El Barrio’s Artspace on March 11, 2019.
You're listening to Road to Resilience. I'm Jon Earle. It takes a lot of guts to tell a story in front of an audience. Your hands are sweating, your heart is racing. You look out into the crowd and you see a hundred pairs of eyes staring back at you.
Today on the show we're featuring two resilience stories, performed live at a recent event hosted by the Friedman Brain Institute at Mount Sinai. You'll hear how the storytellers face their fears, build supportive communities and relied on role models to overcome major life challenges. The stories are inspiring. There's a lot of love and humor here, but they're also real, touching on disease, depression, and domestic violence. So if that hits close to home, please be careful. Our first storyteller is Ana Efthymiou, she's a PhD student in neuroscience at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai where she studies Alzheimer's disease. Here's Ana.
Ana Efthymiou: 00:55
I am an anxious person. I'm so anxious that I don't like telling people about my anxiety because I'm worried I will somehow make them anxious like it's contagious or something. Have you ever had multiple people in your life tell you, "There's just no point in worrying about this right now." What does that mean? I've never understood that. Are you saying that there needs to be a point or are you saying that there's a better time? Or is rational thought somehow supposed to play into this and I just don't get it?
Four-ish years ago I started my graduate studies here at Mount Sinai and starting in a grad program, even with prior research experience, which I had, is really hard. I was excited, but I also felt really misplaced. I had gone from a lab where I was an expert and I was a mentor to a place where I felt like I didn't know anything at all and I was learning new things in the lab and new things in the classroom and ultimately this new experience really forced me to adapt and to grow, but it also made my anxiety manifest itself in some pretty weird ways. For example, I kept on having these on and off intrusive thoughts about the fact that I was going to die imminently. So any stomach pain was obviously my appendix bursting no matter what side it was on, I still don't know. Any chest pain was obviously a heart attack. Even hiccups would cause panic. Like I was going to be that person, hiccups were going to get me. And for a lot of that first year, I spent a lot of my day walking around just knowing that the worst was about to happen. Of course, I realized that this was a really emotionally taxing and just generally super unhelpful way of dealing with my stress.
And so while I looked for a therapist, I also created this list of things a healthy person does. And I made it my goal that year to try and check off the things on the list to prove to myself that everything was fine and I was healthy. So by the middle of that year, I was sticking to a great exercise routine, I was sleeping pretty well, I was even flossing every day. I became that person. One of the things that was on my list of things to do was to conduct a monthly self-breast exam. And I'm not even sure how it got on the list honestly, because the American Cancer Society doesn't even recommend them anymore. They say there's no clear physical benefit of doing your own screens for breast cancer and instead all they recommend is something called breast self-awareness, whatever that means. But you know, I was undeterred right? I was a healthy person. I was going to do my breast exam. And so there I was performing an unsanctioned breast exam. It felt very rebellious and very healthy and I found this lump that I was so surprised, like I wasn't actually expecting to find anything. And even after a few months it just wouldn't go away.
So armed with my breast self-awareness and some self-consciousness and a lot of anxiety, I tried telling my health care provider and I say tried because I had to speak with five doctors before anyone laid a hand on me. Yeah. I knew a little bit about cancer up until that point. I mean hypochondriac tendencies aside, I was really scared. But most of what I knew, I knew in a scientific sense, right? In an academic sense, I knew what cancer was. It's uncontrolled cell division. I knew that it's caused by accumulated mutations. I knew that you have to be really careful with certain chemicals in the lab because they can cause it and that a lot of the cell lines we use are actually cancer cell lines in our research. It's really important. But I obviously had personal thoughts about it too. I mean, I knew that my grandmother had passed away from it. I knew that I didn't want to have it. So I went to the doctor and I was told I worry too much and sent home again and again and again. And so I started thinking, you know, maybe they're right. I mean, I was young, I don't have a strong family history of breast cancer and I was so anxious. I wasn't sure how much weight I should put to these intrusive thoughts and how much was, you know, real. But at the end of the day when I got home from the lab and all the distractions were gone, all I could think about was the lump and all I could taste was just the sour feeling in my mouth, just telling me it's cancer.
A few months later I finally got someone to listen to me and I finally went in for a sonogram and I remember being the youngest person in the waiting room, which was filled with all these chairs and orchids, which are my favorite flower. And I went to the back room and I changed into this really soft blue robe. And then the ultrasound technician took me to the back room to perform the exam and then she tried and failed to find the lump. And so part of my brain took this as a really great sign. It was like, oh right look, you did it. You tried, you came, it's fine. They didn't find anything. This was just anxiety. Don't even worry about it. Let's go home. But my anxiety brain rebelled and it was like, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. We did not worry this much and talk to all these people, make such a big fuss and come all this way for there to be nothing there. And you know there's something there. You felt it, you found it. This is something. And so I actually ended up taking the ultrasound technicians hand with her consent obviously and had her feel what I felt and it took a little while, but now that she knew what she was looking for, she was able to find it and it was concerning enough that the doctor recommended a biopsy.
A few days later, which turned out to be one week into my third lab rotation, eight months since I started in the grad program at Sinai and 13 years since I had decided that I was going to get my PhD, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Turns out that while I was performing my research really carefully growing my cells and adding certain factors to their food to turn them into something else, my body was doing the exact same thing really successfully. And while I had spent of that year trying to keep from feeding my own anxiety, my hormones were feeding multiple small tumors. When I got that call and the official diagnosis, I was of course shocked and really upset. But there was this really small part of me like really, really small part of me that felt validated. I was right. I mean, it's not the sort of thing that you ever want to be right about, but in a way it was still kind of like a win, like a mini win.
Unfortunately that win couldn't balance out the fact that I became completely misplaced again, I felt like I was just getting used to being a student at Mount Sinai and all of a sudden from one phone call, I was now a patient at Mount Sinai. When I was walking down the tunnels, instead of turning right to go to my lab to do my research, I turned left into radiology associates, which I had seen so many times and just had completely ignored. Instead of taking the elevators to the fifth floor and going to class, I rode them up even further to the pathology department to drop off my own biopsy sample since I was familiar with the building. And you would think that this new role would be a really ripe place for my anxiety to thrive, but strangely and unexpectedly, instead, all I felt was this, unexpected underlying sense of purpose. There were tests to take and results to consider and then based on those results we were going to decide what to do next. It was all very straightforward, very clear, and my anxiety, which had been my constant companion up until that point, literally bringing me up to that point, wasn't playing a role anymore. It wasn't influencing my thoughts or my actions. It was really weird. I finally felt like I understood what people meant when they were like, oh, there's no point in worrying about it right now. Like, oh, I get it. That's for this point in time. That was cool.
I remember getting a call again from my radiologist who had diagnosed me later on that evening. He had called again to see how I was doing, which was really, really nice. And I remember in this conversation he was trying to reassure me and told me that because I was so young, I would soon completely forget that this whole experience ever happened. And he was right and wrong. I remember a lot of things. I mean it took three days for me to go from confirmed lump to counting backwards from 10 on the operating table for my first of eventually four surgeries. And I thought I'd remember every single detail, but it is a bit of a blur. I mean I remember clips and wires and biopsies. I remember really kind nurses and massage therapists. I remember being in nuclear medicine before my surgery and not believing the nurse when she said that the injection was going to pinch. And then I screamed and she got scared. And then both of us immediately burst into nervous laughter because we weren't entirely sure what had happened. But it was a really nice shared experience to have together. I scared everyone in the waiting room by the way. I felt really bad after.
I remember telling my breast surgeon that she had magic fingers and somehow speaking in perfect Greek to my family, both as I was coming off the anesthesia of course, but other details are harder to remember. And of course I never forget that I had cancer. I remember every three months when I leave the lab and walk one block west to go see my oncologist for a checkup. I remember every six months when I have to pay $500 to keep my eggs on ice because my meds are putting me through menopause and I might need them later. I remember after a long day of pipetting for 10,000 years, because my chest gets sore from all of that pipetting and they moved my pectoral muscle for my eventual mastectomy and reconstruction so you can really feel it.
I learned a lot in my first year of grad school. I am so grateful for all of it. I learned new theories in the classroom and new techniques in the lab and I learned a lot about myself. I learned that surprisingly I can be very calm for an extended period of time and that I can be very brave. And that while I still spar with my anxiety brain over things like whether we really need to be feeling like this right now. It also helped me in a very, very important time to advocate for myself and we have a much better relationship now. It's like my brain is telling me, well, the worst happened and here we still are. Thank you.
Now I just want to take a moment to point out some of the techniques that Ana used to stay resilient. She faced her fears, all that anxiety, she stayed positive despite a really tough diagnosis, and she made her physical well-being a priority. Ana also told me that her support network helped her keep going. Having people who were actually listening made things a lot easier. And I'm glad to report that today Ana is on the road to a full recovery.
The second and final story, we're going to hear is by Joe Simon. Joe's also a PhD student in neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine here at Mount Sinai. He studies the neural underpinnings of choice behavior. Sounds challenging enough, but it's nothing compared to the hurdles he faced on the road to Mount Sinai. Here's Joe.
Joe Simon: 15:33
The sunset over Los Angeles is amazing, but tonight I sit on my roof and I cry. I reflect on what brought me to this moment. And I think back to when I was 14 years old. I was on my way home from school, I went to the house, I see two uniform police officers who had just arrested my mom and her boyfriend. They're getting ready to question me, my mom says, "That is my son. He's 14. He's a good boy." As a result of my mom's arrest, me and my four siblings were separated. My two youngest sisters were sent to live in Oklahoma with their paternal family. My other sister was sent to go live with my grandmother, and me and my brother were sent to live with our aunts.
Now see in my aunt's house there was me, my brother, her four kids, her, her husband, and three other kids from another relative. So you can say we're kinda like the Brady Bunch, but you know, not as nice. On this night, me and my aunt got into an argument. And as a result I decided I would run away. So packed my bags and held the door. My aunt sees me leaving and she decides to take a candlestick holder and have a batting practice with my head. My grandparents find me at the school and they can see in my eyes that I was not going back. So they asked my great-grandfather if I can stay with him and he agreed.
Living with my great-grandfather was a blessing and I stayed with him for the remainder of my time in high school. And upon graduation he told me I have a choice. I could work or I can go to school. No, I wasn't really trying to work right all then. And so I decided to go to school. Besides sports, chemistry was my favorite subject. So even though I wasn't good at it, I decided to take up chemistry. During the day, I would learn about chemistry and at night, my great-grandfather would tell me about his life growing up in the segregated south about the life of my grandparents when they were teenagers and about the life of my mom and my aunts before they were my mom and my aunts. About how as young girls, they were full of hope, full of promise. Over the next few years I would stay with my grandfather. And at the end of this time I was eligible to apply to the University of California system. So I apply to all of these colleges. And my great-grandfather jokingly asked me, you know, if you get into one of these places why don't you go to Davis so I can come visit you. I was like, "All right, Granddad. Whatever."
So a week after I submit my applications, my great grandfather is diagnosed with liver cancer. He dies a month later. When he dies, my bubble burst. In April of that year, I get accepted to UC Davis, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara, and UCLA. I didn't get accepted to Berkeley. I'm kind of tight about that one, but that's--you know, it is what it is. It is what it is. There was nothing left for me in Sacramento. So decided what any rational person would do. I decided to go to Los Angeles. Because I thought in Los Angeles I would find peace. I would find a new start.
When I get down there, nothing changes. My mom who is still in and out of jail is calling me, asking me for money and I just feel a great isolation. So over a year and a half, this is why I deal with, and it doesn't stop there. I am called into my academic advisor's office and he informs me that I am on academic probation and he tells me two things. One, I might want to change my major to African American studies. I got an "A" in African American studies. So you know, if I wanted to graduate from UCLA, that might be a better choice for me. And you know, since I'm going through all this depression stuff, therapy might be good. Well, you know, on the idea of changing my major to African American studies, I was not doing that. I came here as a neuroscience major. I'm going to graduate as a neuroscience major. But therapy, that was something I had to think about because many of my community do not value therapy. But I decided to take it.
Over the next year and a half, that is what do. I meet at least once a month with my therapist and she helped me tremendously. The same time going into my senior year, I decided to take a class on the origins of language taught by Dr. Stephanie White. And for the first time I actually enjoyed neuroscience. I actually enjoyed thinking critically. It wasn't like my life science classes where all you're doing is pipetting for 10,000 years. No offense to anybody who pipettes here it's very valuable. I mean, not to me, but do your thing. But this is a very enjoyable class now and I love it. So Dr. White sees my enthusiasm for her course and later into my senior year, she has an opening and asked me if I wanted to be a part of her lab.
Dr. White studies vocal learning in songbirds. A zebra finch to be exact. Zebra finch are a species of songbirds where the males learn to sing and use it as a way to attract a mate. I loved being in that lab. 7:00 AM every day I'm doing behavior. Sitting, chilling with birds. Amazing. And graduation comes.
For three years, I lived in Los Angeles. For three years, I dealt with depression. For three years, I dealt with anger. For three years, I dealt with isolation. And for three years, nobody came to visit me here. But here on my graduation, everybody wants to be there. You know, I got my grandparents coming, I got my aunt with the batting practice coming, I got her kid, got my brother, got my best friend. Hell, I even got my dad who came out there, you know, after 12 years I ain't seen this guy, but here he is on my graduation. Like whoa, this is crazy. It was crazy because actually it was on Father's Day, so that's even even funnier. But there was a notable absence. My mother. So they hugged me, tell me they're proud of me and they go off back to Sacramento and I go back to my room, buy myself a bottle of vodka. Oh, my God, I'm going to have myself a night. And I go sit on my roof and I watch the sunset. I look down, I look down, I think how easy, I think how peaceful, but there's one thing that stops me. It's the same thing that always stops me. The thing that has me here right now. My great-grandmother. My great-grandmother raised me from basically birth to when she died when I was eight years old. And I would like to think that a piece of her stays within me, just like a piece of my great-grandfather stays within me. Yeah, I would like to think she walked me back from that ledge. Well, a combination of her and my roommate asking me to come back inside. So I go back inside, I am drunk, I sleep it off.
Next morning, go to Dr. White. I thanked her for helping me discover my true passion of neuroscience. And Dr. White says, "Joe, I have a research position open. Do you want to take it?" Hell yeah I want to take it! Man. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. A thousand times "yes." And for the next year, that's what I would do, I worked as a lab tech in her office studying songbirds. And one day when I was studying and doing electrophysiology. For people who don't know, you stick electrodes in birds brains and you study the activities, you can go Google it. Anyways, I see a brochure for the University of Chicago's PREP Program. So PREP is a post-bachelor program aimed at students from disadvantaged backgrounds. And I do a little searching on Google and I find out there are PREP programs all across the country. And I apply to every single one of them.
I get interviews and acceptance from three - University of Michigan, University of Missouri and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Now, you probably won't believe this, but I get an email from the PREP director at the University of Michigan, and she tells me I should go to Mount Sinai. Okay, I can do that. Well, that in a combination of talking to Mark Baxter about DREADDs, you know, for an hour, it's amazing for people who don't know what DREADDs are they're designer receptors exclusively activated by designer drugs. It's a mouthful. Again, Google. So I come to Mount Sinai as a prep scholar and I joined the lab of Dr. Paula Croxson, I study, you know, monkeys which for me it was like, wow, this is whole new world from birds. But in her lab I have a lot of firsts. My first time presenting my own work, my first time out of the country. I got to go to Geneva. That was wild! Europe, if you haven't been there before, Europe is wild man. I learned a lot during that time and I've learned that I really love neuroscience. I really love what I do.
So I decided to apply the PhD program and luckily for me, they decided to keep me. Now the question was, what am I going to do for my PhD? And I thought about it. You see songbirds, the males sing, you know, anybody can sing, right? But there's also another component, there are the females who listened to the songs and they choose their mate. There's a social component to this and this is basically what my life is, a big social experiment. Different choices, different interactions with people, mental health, everything. So I decided that for my PhD, that's why I'm going to do. In some capacity, I'm going to study social cognition, I'm going to study mental health and I want to study me. Through this entire process, I've had great mentors, I've had great friends and without them I do not know how I would've been here. Neuroscience saved my life and I love it for that. Thank you.
That was Joe Simon. There's so much to learn about resilience from Joe's story. You know, first of all, he had the bravery to go to therapy and face his fears and then he found friends and mentors and built this wonderful supportive community that helped him thrive and that's not to mention his passion for neuroscience.
Thank you, Ana and Joe, for trusting us with your stories, and thank you to all the storytellers who told your stories live. Seriously. You all rocked it. We're going to put a link in the show notes to their stories. They're funny. They're poignant. They're just amazing.
A massive thank you to Casey Lardner who organized the event and to Veronica Szarejko who helped make it happen. Thanks also to Kim Sanchez from El Barrio's Art Space where the event took place. You really saved me with those XLR cables. Thanks as always to Katie Ullman and Nicci Hudson, who do so much work behind the scenes to make this podcast happen.
Road to Resilience is a production of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. If you enjoyed this podcast, subscribe to us and rate us or tell a friend about the show. It helps a lot. We'd also love to hear from you. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Jon Earle. We'll see you next month with more stories from the Road to Resilience.