Monday, March 11, 2002
By Renee Stovsky
Of The Post-Dispatch
Madonna Holmes, 81, says she was "terribly frightened" when she found herself at St. Mary's Health Center in Richmond Heights recently after suffering a stroke that left her with "a walking problem."
"I hadn't been in a hospital since I had my children - and they're 59, 56 and 50," says Holmes, of St. Louis.
But that was before Holmes was transferred to SSM Rehab, on the sixth floor of the hospital, and put under the care of Dr. Thy Nguyen Huskey, medical director of general rehabilitation.
"I told her I wanted to keep living independently, and she motivated me to work hard to achieve my goal," says Holmes.
Unlike most physiatrists, Huskey doesn't depend solely on a caring attitude to help inspire her patients to overcome potentially debilitating problems. She also leads by example.
That's because Huskey, 31, a victim of multiple sclerosis, makes her rounds by wheelchair.
"I was really surprised when I first met Dr. Huskey; obviously, she's had problems of her own," says Holmes. "She hasn't let that hold her back, though. She has such a positive attitude. Seeing her gave me the feeling that 'I can do it, too.'"
Serving as a role model wasn't exactly what Huskey had in mind when she applied to Northwestern University's fast-track, seven-year medical-school program in Chicago at age 18. "I was in a hurry," she recalls. "I thought if I worked hard enough, I could do anything I wanted in life."
That attitude was nurtured by her parents, political refugees who immigrated to the United States from South Vietnam days before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975. Her father, former minister of labor there, became a small-business man in the Washington, D.C., area and at one time or another owned everything from a gas station to a dry cleaners. Her mother worked as a high-school science teacher. At night, the couple made dough at a Pizza Hut to help make ends meet while rearing four children.
Academic excellence was expected of Huskey and her siblings, two of whom are physicians and one a business entrepreneur, now back in Vietnam. Huskey graduated from her Virginia high school as a presidential scholar. At Northwestern, she finished her undergraduate requirements in two years.
Strange symptomsShe was poised to begin medical school the following year when her pace began to slow. She was hampered by physical symptoms: severe shoulder pain, numbness in the hand and facial muscles that would lock up and cause her to drool on dates with her boyfriend, Tim Huskey of St. Louis.
She saw an orthopedist, then a neurologist. Neither proved helpful in alleviating her problems. Convinced that she was exhausted from a heavy course load, she went home for the summer to relax. That's when she collapsed and was diagnosed with probable multiple sclerosis.
"At first I was relieved to know that I wasn't crazy; I felt vindicated," she recalls. "Then I was devastated. I was a 20-year-old, type A personality who thought I had total control over my life. I knew I was going to be a doctor, dance at my wedding and live until I was 82. And then I was told I had an incurable disease whose course could not be predicted."
Multiple sclerosis, or MS, strikes women twice as often as men, usually in their late 20s or 30s. It is an auto-immune disease of the central nervous system and results in the destruction of myelin, the protective coating around the body's nerves, and ultimately affects balance, arm strength, vision and the ability to walk. Though researchers are exploring genetic predispositions to the disease, it is rare - almost unheard of - among Asians.
Thy Huskey immediately began questioning the choices she had made in life. She asked for a year's leave of absence at Northwestern, stopped writing to her boyfriend - "I wanted to dump him before he dumped me," she says - and decided to study abroad at the University of Sussex in England. She spent mornings there taking tai chi and afternoons studying philosophy. She also traveled extensively throughout Europe and boasts about the distinction of "falling in almost every major city on the continent," including taking a tumble down the grand staircase at the Louvre in Paris.
After much soul searching, however, she ended the year with a cane that she used "purely as an accessory" and an attitude that "there is a lesson to be learned from this experience, some meaning in why bad things happen to good people."
New determinationThy Huskey began medical school with renewed vigor and determination the following year. Though she managed to complete her studies in the usual four years' time, her disease made her experience anything but usual.
Three to four time a year she suffered exacerbations, MS attacks that required hospitalizations and high doses of intravenous steroids to regain strength. Yet her struggles to maintain the functional level she needed to stay in school also led her to the decision to pursue a specialty in physical medicine and rehabilitation.
"One day I was in an elevator, wearing my white coat and carrying my cane, when a little girl and her mother stepped inside. The girl looked at me and asked, 'Are you going to be a doctor someday?' I told her I hoped so. Then she said, 'But doctors don't wear canes,'" Thy Huskey recalls. "I took a deep breath and responded, 'Well, maybe I'll be the first one.'"
That, she says, was when she decided that she needed to do something to make people suffering from either chronic illnesses such as MS or traumas such as paralysis from stroke or spinal-cord injuries believe that they can continue to live life, although living differently.
After graduating in 1996, Thy Huskey became engaged to be married. While her fiance pursued a law career in Kansas City, she began an internship and residency in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Kansas University Medical Center. And though another exacerbation left her dependent on a walker for short ambulations and a scooter for longer distances, she managed to dance at her 1997 wedding, with her husband's help.
Last September, the couple moved to St. Louis, where Thy Huskey joined SSM Rehab and her husband began working at Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale. Now confined to a motorized wheelchair, she lives in a ranch house in Chesterfield. The house is equipped with a stairglide to the basement, and she drives a car with hand controls. Other than that, she relies on her husband's "unbelievable help and support" and her sense of humor to get around her disability day-by-day.
"I don't do buttons anymore and I'm not as fond of soup; hand tremors make it too hard to eat," she says. "Fatigue is a factor, but when you work from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., seeing 17 to 20 patients or so a day, who wouldn't be tired? I compensate by not cooking or cleaning."
Of course, the Huskeys face issues that other young couples do not. "We would love to adopt a child, but I don't know if I will have the strength to care for it," she says. "And how many people in their early 30s are busy saving for long-term care?"
Though Thy Huskey finds few advantages to life with MS, other than the ability, she jokes, to be seated first on an airplane, there is one incredible payoff: "I have the privilege to roll into my patients' rooms at a time when they are usually emotionally devastated and completely vulnerable, look them in the eye and let them know that while their lives may not be easy, they're still worth living," she says.
And her patients, she adds, inspire her as much as she may inspire them.
"When I was studying in England, one of my favorite philosophers was Martin Buber; he said that the presence of God is felt in the interaction between two people," says Thy Huskey. "When I interact with my patients, I hope that I can change their lives, but I know that they teach me things, too."
Reporter Renee Stovsky: Phone: 314-863-6205
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