Minh Dang’s Story
As retold by Elizabeth Draeger
“We must let go of the life we planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” ~ Joseph Campbell
Almost everything in my life was planned. My parents, who were Vietnamese refugees, planned their escape to Indonesia, where I was born. They planned our move from Indonesia to California and then to Michigan.
I planned to graduate from the University of Michigan with a degree in biology and apply to medical school. After a mission trip to Guatemala, I changed that plan and transferred into the dental hygiene so I could teach people about proper dental care. I planned to complete my education through the Dental Hygiene program at Mott Community College which would take two semesters to complete. And finally, I had planned to have a nice comfortable life with my husband. But life has a funny habit of not sticking to our plans.
It was October of my second semester at Mott when the pain started. For the most part, it was in my joints, so I didn’t really think much of it. It wasn’t really hindering me, so I would just take some ibuprofen and move along with my day. Around Christmas, however, I started to notice that my fingers were turning white when it got really cold, and my face and ankles were starting to swell. Alarm bells were going off in my head, and I finally decided that I had to do something.
I went to my doctor, and all he did was prescribed me a higher dose of ibuprofen to take as needed. I accepted it, thinking that if I took the ibuprofen, I would be just fine. That thought didn’t last for very long. I kept going back for higher and higher doses of pain medication, and I’m positive that the nurses thought that I was addicted. On top of that, taking the medication was starting to have a negative effect on my body. I started having gastric reflux problems, and then I developed pneumonia.
I went back to the hospital, and after they prescribed some antibiotics for the pneumonia, they ran more tests. I waited anxiously for those results, and when they finally came, they were not good. They found 10 grams of protein in my urine, and the average person only should have about 0.1grams. This meant that my kidneys were not filtering out the proteins like they should have been. When they told me this, my first thoughts were somewhere along the lines of, “Why? Why me of all people?”
In response to this new development, my doctor referred me to a nephrologist, or kidney specialist, in February of 2015. I was nervous and scared as anything, but I just wanted to know what was wrong with me and what was causing all of this. When I visited the nephrologist, he told me that I was showing all the warning signs of an auto-immune disease called lupus, but he wanted to run a kidney biopsy just to be sure. They took a needle about the size of a pencil, stuck it in my kidney to get a sample, then sent that sample to a research hospital in Ann Arbor. The sample showed that I had extensive kidney damage, and that confirmed my nephrologist’s theory. Lupus and kidney disease usually go hand-in-hand in cases like mine. Basically, my body’s immune system could not tell the difference between my actual body cells and foreign invaders.
The worst part? There’s no cure. I was shocked. How on the planet Earth could I have gotten this disease? No one else in my family had it. The nephrologist told me that I was going to have to start chemotherapy immediately. I was going to have to drop out of my program at my college, and I wouldn’t be able to get back into it until winter semester of next year.
So, with nothing else to lose, I jumped into my four rounds of chemotherapy, the first coming just a week after my diagnosis in February. As with all chemo patients after treatment, I went home nauseous and sick. But something else was wrong. I ended up hugging a toilet and throwing up blood. My husband took me back to the hospital, and it was discovered that I had been given a much higher dose of the treatment than usual. I stayed there for a week, but it felt like an eternity, just sitting in my hospital bed, waiting and hoping nothing else would go wrong. It was at this lowest of moments that I realized I was extremely lucky. My parents, my brother, and my husband were all here with me. They always thought that I was the strongest girl they had ever known, but in reality, I was weak. I needed my family now more than ever.
By the time the third round came around, I thought nothing could shake me. That idea held true, until I started getting sick again. Upon further inspection via ultrasound, the doctors found a blood clot in my right leg. It was my wedding anniversary. Instead of having a nice dinner with my husband, we spent the night in a hospital. But even with all of these setbacks and struggles, I’m still here. After four rounds of chemotherapy and a lot of highs and lows, I’m healthy and back in school, right where I left off a year ago.
I’ve become a stronger person than I ever thought I could be, and I have my family to thank for that. Since there’s no cure for this disease, however, all I can do is manage my symptoms and pray that they don’t come back as often. I have been able to manage my symptoms with a combination of proper sleep, medication, yoga to relieve stress, and drinking a lot of water.
I realized that I am more than my diagnosis, and I think I’ve proven that sufficiently. Even if I could, I would not want to change anything. Although Lupus is certainly not a part of my plans for my life, it is now a part of who I am and nothing will ever change that.
This story originally appeared in Facing College: Immigrant & International Students’ Stories, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan.