Everything in my life, from leaving a war torn country as a refugee to entering a strange new land, to surviving childhood domestic violence, then organizing for social justice as a young adult, and graduating with a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley in Ethnic Studies, should have prepared me for the obstacles a woman of color would face in academia. It did not. Although I was trained as an academic, I was not trained in navigating the treacherous political terrain of the university system. Without guidance to fully understand a corrupt system, I could not have anticipated the series of events that transpired and the unimaginable toll it would take on me during tenure review, tenure denial, and the appeals process.
In the end, I found that the cost of winning my tenure fight was too high because I lost my child in the process. Under the stresses of a two-year tenure battle, days after turning in my successful tenure appeal, my body crashed and I miscarried. I had been five months pregnant. I lost my child at home. I was rushed to the hospital where I hemorrhaged nearly all my blood supply, requiring 14 units of transfusion and went into cardiac arrest. The team of doctors and nurses worked tirelessly to resuscitate me. Although protocol only called for 30 minutes of resuscitation, the lead doctor, an innovative, passionate, and brilliant South Asian woman asked her team if they were willing to keep going. The whole team yelled “Yes” in unison.
They aggressively tried to revive me telling each other that I was a mother of very young children, then three and one. The team worked on resuscitating for another 30 minutes, then another hour before finally finding a faint pulse. I was clinically dead for a total of 90 minutes before that point – I had nearly no oxygen to my brain for that duration. Still, I was not out of the woods. With most of my organs not working, I fell into a coma. I was kept alive only by machines. My Prognosis was grim; with chance of survival marginal at best. Family and friends traveled from everywhere to be by what they thought was my deathbed. Doctors predicted that even if I did survive, I would not be whole and it would take at least a year of inpatient care for me to learn to partially talk and walk again. Despite the dire predictions, my husband, Brian, who never left my side, remained vigilant and hopeful that I would recover. In the week following my death, I would come close to dying again and again. On day one my kidneys failed and I was put on dialysis. The kidney doctor predicted I would be on dialysis for the rest of my life but in the second miracle of my recovery, I regained the use of my kidneys in day two. I was not out of the woods, however, as my heart was only functioning at half capacity and the embolism that had killed me threatened my body with numerous blood clots. The doctors had little hope for my survival and less for my recovery. They repeatedly made dire predictions and tried to prepare my partner for the eventuality of my living the remainder of my life in a convalescent home. On day three I underwent emergency cardiac surgery to decrease likelihood of dying from a clot. On day four, I remained unresponsive but my chances of survival had greatly improve, with doctors predicting I would return to 60% capacity at best.
Miraculously I survived. On day five I woke up from the coma and my true road to recovery began. Although rehabilitation should have taken months or years, I was able to talk and walk after only two weeks. Hospital physicians and staff dubbed me the "hospital miracle," a "modern medical wonder." While I was in recovery, They regularly visited me with teary eyes. They said they had never seen a case like mine, I was "one in a million." They confessed they had prayed for me and had their families praying for me. My family and friends also looked at me like I was a ghost. Having seen me completely unconscious with tubes everywhere, they could not stop crying and hugging me, shocked that I was even remotely responsive. All this attention was overwhelming because I was not aware of their experiences in the living world as I was busy dying.
In fact, when I was in a coma for over a week, I knew I was dead. I knew every day that if I did not return to the living soon, it would be more difficult to even try. Although I knew I was already in the other world, I willed myself to keep fighting. My thoughts had nothing to do with tenure or anything related to work. My only thought was for my children. I imagined them as adults sitting together viewing old images of themselves as toddlers with their adoring mother looking on. I could not allow myself to die and leave my children without a mother to protect and guide them through life. I had one wish and that was to hold my children again, to once again just enjoy being in their presence. So, I fought against all odds to be back with the living, to be with them. Now every moment I spend with my children is a dream come true.
But, how could I, who considered myself a person of strength and conviction, find myself near death? Academia for women of color is toxic, laden with a myriad of discriminatory practices and barriers for advancement that it is nothing short of a miracle when we overcome it with our sanity, health, and general sense of being in tact. The years of micro- and macro- aggressive attacks leading up to the tenure and appeals process proved too much for my mind and body to bear. I understand I am not alone. Other women of color academics have similarly harrowing tales of torment and torture leading to serious ailments and even death. Often the torture goes on for years causing harm to the body and mind, reducing what were once strong, willful scholars, into physically weakened ones -– as was my case.
My transformation from a confident scholar to a naive embattled one and finally to a strategic fighter clearly was not an easy or short journey. I had to rethink my beliefs and accept some harsh truths about academia and my role in the institution. But, once I acknowledged the reality of my situation, I moved quickly to take action. My initial sense of isolation then turned into a movement of solidarity with other women of color that are ready to battle for our rights.