By Fred Dickey San Diego Union-Tribune July 3, 2017
"Disabled” is how others see her. However, Kie Fujii looks in the mirror of her mind and defies the “dis” in the image that stares back.
Kie was 9 years old when she opened her eyes in that strange bed. The room was cold and quiet with glaring lights. It was scary. Tubes and wires were like tentacles. But her parents were hovering over the bed, so everything was OK.
She didn’t know why she was there instead of at home. She last remembered falling asleep in the backseat. She knew nothing of the accident on the hail-slick Georgia highway.
“Everyone was smiling and trying hard to have a positive face. But I could tell they were sad inside,” says Kie (pronounced as “key-ya”).
When did you realize you couldn’t move?
“It was a gradual thing. I thought it was something temporary. I just remember asking my mom when I would be able to run again.”
(Even at that age, Kie was a dedicated runner, sometimes getting up at dawn and running 10 laps before school. She had been invited to a national Junior Olympics event. Kie was returning home from a Georgia age-group state championship track meet when all that ended.)
Today, Kie sits at her family’s dining room table in a light wheelchair. Her computer and cellphone are within her limited reach. She is fortunate to have greater hand usage than expected for a quadriplegic. Her ever-dutiful mother sits in an adjoining chair; she is a kind person with that deferential Japanese courtesy.
The family lives modestly in Carlsbad. Her father is gone during the week as an accountant in Los Angeles. Her mother is a part-time teacher. They are a solid family of middle-class means.
Kie’s voice is even and velvety. Her words are well-considered before uttered. Her personality is like a placid brook. Her determination, though, is a rushing stream that washes past boulders. If told a certain goal was beyond her reach, she would smile courteously and then ignore the advice.
She says, “I think at the time of the accident, my parents didn’t know what ‘spinal cord injury’ meant. My mom just said, ‘You’ll be able to run again, probably within a month.’ That kind of made me happy.”
Of course, the happiness didn’t last. Her running dreams ended with the prognosis.
That day came when the neurosurgeon entered the room to answer the family’s questions — and stunned them by saying Kie would have a 5 percent or less chance of walking again. She had to learn a big word for a third-grader: quadriplegic.
We’re accustomed to reading about the successes of paralyzed men and women who refuse to submit to their disability and struggle for a full life. We happily salute their achievements.
What we don’t see is the grit, the grind, the tedium of endless rehabilitation, the pain and dismay of their challenge that far surpasses us of able bodies.
Because a body is paralyzed doesn’t mean its muscles don’t feel the burn and pain; actually, much more than yours do as you follow your scampering dog up a steep hill or notch up the treadmill speed.
We all have steep hills to struggle up, for certain, but we have legs for the climb.
For 15 years, Kie has pushed to widen her narrow window of expectations by endless hours of rehab, because who knows what sweat and scientific advances can do?
In her mind, Kie has made that doctor’s 5 percent grow like credit card interest. Hope is not arithmetic.
Kie has worked on the whole person. She finished La Costa Canyon High School wearing academic laurels, and two years ago graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in integrative biology with an emphasis in human biology and health science.
At that demanding university, she spent Friday evenings doing experiments with her wheelchair pushed up to a lab bench while the sociology majors were down on Telegraph Avenue doing their own experiments.
When it came time to put on the mortarboard and walk the aisle, she actually did. She fulfilled a vow by walking up to get her degree. She was assisted by two helpers, but when she looked down, those were her legs touching the ground.
A moral victory, yes, but not a miracle.
Berkeley was two years ago. Now, it’s time to take the next step — still figuratively.
Kie has decided to become a physician. Given her education in integrative biology at a demanding university, why should that surprise us?
Well, for the obvious reason: dealing with that ugly old prefix “dis.”
She has spent months wrestling with questions: Does she want it badly enough to tackle the daunting obstacles? What will be the burden on her family, especially her mother, who is her means of transportation?
Kie is as methodical as an hourglass.
“I’ve been passionate about (medicine) for a really long time, but I needed to make sure I wanted it bad enough.”
She even shadowed medical students and doctors through their work days to confirm in her own mind she could do the work. What she learned anchored her resolve.
“It reassured me this is something I’m physically capable of doing. My heart is in it. If I go step by step, this is doable. I can be a doctor.”
Kie, it’s been said the human body is both as tough as iron and as fragile as paper.
“Yeah, I can tell you that’s true. The human body, a disabled body, can work in ways that are unimaginable.”
Today, she will begin classes in the UC San Diego after-college premedical program. It’s a year spent preparing students for the rigors and discipline of medical school.
“This is my choice. I just want to show them that I’m fully capable. I don’t want them to have any doubts about me.”
Kie says several medical specialties are quite compatible with her physical capability, including radiology, neurology and an emerging field called telemedicine, in which consultations are done by video or Skype.
“I know I can relate to patients on a personal level, knowing what it’s like to be lying on a hospital bed with multiple tubes attached to your body and not knowing if you’re going to get better. I’ve done that.”
Kie is at peace with her condition but has not surrendered to it. There’s nothing on Google or medical websites about stem cell research that she hasn’t studied.
Kie, when you’re looking for cures, there’s a lot of fool’s gold out there.
“Yeah, I know. However, there’s a lot of stem cell research going on. There’s promising research out there.”
In medicine, things can happen quickly. Do you have any hope of restoring your body?
“Oh, definitely. I work with my trainers on a weekly basis to build muscle mass, walk on the treadmill and get on a stationary bike like a regular gym. I have a standing-frame at home, so I stand every night for a little over an hour to maintain that muscle mass and to help with blood circulation.”
Kie in Japanese means “hope,” and in her, it blooms. She says, “If you maintain your health and keep that muscle mass, then you’ll get more benefits out of it once you receive the stem cell.
“At the time of my injury, I was told that I have almost no sensation. Now, I’m able to experience more feeling when I’m in pain, and when my legs are too cold or too hot. I’ve been able to feel all the way down to my toes. If someone pushes the bottom of my feet, then I can feel that. That’s pretty new.”
Kie has an issue of more immediate concern starting this week with her first classes. Because UC San Diego is so spread out, she’ll need her power chair. But it’s too big to fit in the aging family car and too heavy to put on a bumper carrier.
That means her mother will have to take her to class every day and sit through each class, then push her portable wheelchair to the next class in another building. That will necessitate her mother drastically curtailing or giving up her teaching career.
Public transportation offers a service called para-transit, but because it serves multiple patrons, going to and from college could take perhaps six hours each day, including maybe waiting in the rain.
Kie needs a wheelchair-accessible van, but she might as well wish for a magic carpet.
She will rely on financial aid and maybe student loans for her medical education. However, there are no family resources to spare for the vehicle. Public agencies that help her in other ways all consider the van to be a luxury item.
Kie, do you sometimes go back and forth in your hopes, like an emotional roller coaster?
She nods cautiously. “Yeah. Sometimes I have really good days, and sometimes pretty bad days. But I don’t see myself as a disabled person. I do the things I need or want to do. I see myself just as an ordinary 24-year-old wanting to be a physician.”
Do you dream of running again?
“I’ve had dreams where I’m in a wheelchair, and then I’m holding onto the fence of the track field, and then I start walking, and then I’m running again.”
The dedicated runner doesn’t do it just for fun. That would not take her around the block.
The runner does it for the hurt, the burning muscles, the begging lungs. The runner does it to finish what was started with her friend the pain, the victor over her lesser self.
Run, Kie, run.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at [email protected]