Eleanor Roosevelt, the “First Lady of the world”, once stated, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.” Fear, to me, acts as the mind-killer, preventing people from reaching out to new experiences whose influence may change their lives forever. In their lifetimes, many people never gain the opportunity to challenge themselves to face their fears and to grow as human beings as Rhio O’Connor did upon his diagnosis with mesothelioma. This rare form of cancer, developed from the protective lining that covers many of the body’s internal organs known as the mesothelium, often includes blood clots in the veins, disseminated intravascular coagulation, pleural effusion, pulmonary emboli, and jaundice. In the face of overwhelming despair and an expiration date, Rhio rose up to discover his own path to health to outlive his prognosis by more than six years. His actions, despite such terrifying circumstances, directly challenged his illness as hours spent in the library and countless discussions with health professionals provided him with the means of overcoming the impossible. On a vacation with family in the seventh grade, I faced fears of a watery grave to discover a world and a side of myself I never knew existed.
As I prepared to enter the water, I felt fear gnawing at my desire to complete the dive and to prove to the others on the boat that I was not just a little thirteen-year-old girl, but a competent diver in my own right. As my father, who was already suited up, asked me, “Are you ready, munchkin?” I felt fear nearly overwhelm me as a resounding NO trembled at my lips, begging for release. Yet I stomped down on this instinct, gave a weak nod, and prepared to enter the water. Rolling backwards into the tumultuous waves below, I felt blind and disoriented as the water seemed to swallow my body, encasing it in an interminable and impregnable black mass. I searched vainly for any hint of movement, fearing that at any moment the sharp bite of the shark tooth would pierce my vulnerable flesh. Suddenly, I felt something brush against my hand. It was at that moment that I did what no diver should ever do. I panicked.
My breathing accelerated, coming in harsh wheezing gasps that used up my precious air supply at twice the rate of normal breathing. I searched vainly for my father or any of the other divers as I quickly spun around, preparing to defend myself from the danger I felt sure remained hidden in the inky blackness.
Suddenly, I began to see light. The glowing plankton that the dive master described earlier began to light up all around, casting an eerily beautiful green glow to the whole scene. It felt like being inside a star field, with millions of tiny, moving stars floating all around. In this new light, I finally saw what had so startled me. A sea turtle, in the darkness, nudged into my wildly flailing hand, probably more frightened of my Darth Vader appearance than I was of the possible shark attack. Before the dive finished, I caught a ride on that same turtle and for once experienced the joy of becoming one with such an ancient and graceful creature. I also saw strange fish, dazzling coral, a ghostly shipwreck, and yes, a few sharks.
The experience of overcoming my fear and uncertainty has stayed with me throughout my life, encouraging me to challenge myself and to live life to its fullest. If faced with the same challenges that Rhio faced with his cancer, I hope that I remember what it felt like to conquer my fear of death and use my reason and logic to shed light on a dark situation. My diving experience taught me never to take life for granted, and that completely new worlds and experiences wait just around the corner if one is willing to take the chance. I share Rhio’s belief that research and learning hold the keys to not only survival, but also to experiencing all that life has to offer. As a pre-medical student at Duke University, I would draw upon my lessons and the knowledge of my professors and the health care professionals at Duke for their advice and expertise.
Knowing that treatment of malignant mesothelioma using conventional therapies in combination with radiation and or chemotherapy on stage I or II Mesothelioma have proved an average 74.6 percent success rate in extending a patient’s life span by five years or more, I believe I would attempt to research further into other developing methods in cancer care research. Although trials involving interferon alpha have proved encouraging with 20% of patients experiencing a greater than 50% reduction in tumor mass combined with minimal side effects, I consider these statistics too inconclusive to rely upon. My most likely choice would be in regards to the January 2009 FDA approval of conventional therapies, such as surgery, in combination with radiation and or chemotherapy on stage I or II Mesothelioma, after research conducted by a nationwide study by Duke University concluded an almost 50 point increase in remission rates. Above all else, no matter my decision, I would choose the option that allowed me the most time possible to enjoy with my family and friends. My memory of my first night dive serves as a stepping-stone to many other wonderful memories and gives me the strength to face my fears, no matter the circumstances. I look forward to overcoming my trepidation and uncertainty, to open my eyes and see a world of resplendent starlight, as my experiences at Duke and beyond evolve into my next “night dive”.